Once upon a time in America, the Heavyweight Boxing Championship of the World was routinely referred to as "the most important title in sports." The man who wore that strap was the biggest sports star of the day and a recognizable celebrity everywhere in the world.
Oh, and most of the time, he was an American.
Those of us who are old enough to remember it miss it. Younger fans who have mostly only read about it dream about seeing days like that come again.
So anytime a promising heavyweight talent emerges in the States, the true boxing fans are generally in the loop early on. Combing through boxrec.com and YouTube to handicap heavyweight prospects for the next big thing is a popular past-time for boxing nerds.
And over the past couple of years, a pretty strong consensus has emerged over which rising star has the best shot at redeeming the American heavyweight scene. Since turning pro in 2008, former Michigan State linebacker Seth Mitchell has pretty much jack-hammered everybody in his path.
Mitchell's late arrival to the sweet science after competing at a high level in football has already been the most successful such transition since Ken Norton. And while Mitchell still has a long way to go to catch up to Norton, he has been consistently dominant so far even while steadily moving up in competition.
This Saturday, November 17, Seth Mitchell will take his undefeated 25(19)-0-1 record into the ring at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City to meet former cruiserweight world title challenger Johnathon Banks. It is a prime-time slot on a major HBO Card, the co-main event for Adrien Broner's highly anticipated debut against lightweight debut against WBC champion Antonio Demarco.
Last week, I interviewed Seth Mitchell by phone as he entered the final stretch of his training camp for Banks.
"I'm all ready to go," he told me. "I've got to be careful not to over-train now. I've been ready since last week."
"I'm always about 75 percent," Mitchell elaborated. "In the last six years, the longest layoff I've taken is three weeks. So when it's time to start training for a fight, we just start to scale up the rounds of sparring."
I was interested to hear Mitchell's insights about what it was like to transition from college football to professional boxing:
It's really hard at first, because of how different they really are...in boxing, you have to learn to be much more relaxed. That's been the biggest thing for me, learning to relax and learning to fight on the inside. At first, whenever anybody got close to me, I'd just throw punches.
But now I'm starting to relax and see things. I catch punches, roll with punches, look to counter and box.
Mitchell contrasted the type of attitude he needed to cultivate as a Big Ten linebacker:
I was always a real bruiser. I used to love when I'd line up and know that the iso was coming at me. But you've got to get real tight and get ready to put a hit on somebody...for boxing, you've got to be limber, relaxed.
Mitchell's promising football career was cut short due to injuries. Eventually, he had eight knee surgeries before walking away from the gridiron.
Mitchell went on to finish his degree before ever even taking up boxing. Although the odds would have appeared to be against him, he was confident in his chances from the start. "I never thought about the other football players who tried to cross over and failed."
"I always believed I'd bee in the position I'm in now. The only thing that has ever surprised me was how quick I was signed to Golden Boy."
Indeed, Oscar De La Hoya's high powered Golden Boy Promotions was on board with Mitchell early, signing him after only his second professional fight.
Since that time, Mitchell's career has been handled well. He has not been rushed, but he has been challenged, at least to the degree that it's been possible to do so. Two fights ago, he faced former world champion Timur Imbragimov and stopped him in two rounds.
His last time out, he faced fellow contender Chazz Witherspoon, who had lost only to top five talents Tony Thompson and Chris Arreola. Mitchell stopped Witherspoon in three, blowing him out more quickly and decisively than either Thompson or Arreola.
Johnathon Banks won't come into the ring on Saturday looking to be anybody's pushover. But if Mitchell handles his business the way most expect him to, fans are going to be hungry to see him take another step up in competition his next time out.
Mitchell's own assessment is that "I'm about three to four fights away from fighting for a championship. But at this point, I'd fight anybody in the top 10 to 15."
Mitchell is aware of the kind of expectations that attach themselves to being a potential next big thing at heavyweight, but he maintains his focus where it belongs. "Right now I've just got tunnel vision for the 17th."
Still, he's not oblivious to the buzz that is starting to follow his career.
"I thank the fans for following me. I'm excited."
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