The way I like to imagine it is that somewhere in Boxing Valhalla, the great Hall of Fame trainer was just settling into his new digs, reunited with so many of his fellow ring-war veterans from years gone by. From some place like that beyond our own mortal coil, I like to think Emanuel Steward was watching his former star pupil and hand-picked lieutenant, Johnathon Banks, climb into the ring a heavy underdog against the heavyweight division's next big thing, the undefeated Seth Mitchell.
Last night, November 17, in Atlantic City, Johnathon Banks brought a sudden halt to the Mitchell Express. The former world title challenger at cruiserweight gave a classic example of why this is sport is called "The Sweet Science" and not "Smash Fists" or "Tough Guys Punching."
After studying his larger, more athletic opponent during a cautious first round, Banks struck confidently and decisively just under halfway through the second. Following a Mitchell body shot that sounded punishing, Banks stayed cool in the pocket and caught the over-aggressive Mitchell coming forward.
Once Banks had Mitchell in the deep waters, the difference in experience level and boxing knowledge became almost uncomfortably self-evident. In desperate straights, Mitchell went back to his instincts, firing aggressive, heavy punches that left him even more vulnerable and off balance when they inevitably missed.
Banks dropped Mitchell three times in rapid succession before the referee waved the bout off with 34 seconds left in the round.
Banks should be viewed as a terrific story for the sport. He walked into the legendary Kronk Gym as a 15-year-old and eventually became a star pupil and trusted assistant to Emanuel Steward, one of the sport's greatest thinkers and trainers.
When Steward tragically passed earlier this month, Banks was named as a replacement as chief second for world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. Just one week ago in Europe, Banks worked the champ's corner for his unanimous decision victory over Mariusz Wach.
With his victory over Mitchell last night, Banks becomes a No. 1 contender for one of his own fighter's many heavyweight belts. In his post-fight interview, Banks smiled wryly and admitted he did indeed know what kind of game plan to use to beat Wladimir Klitschko, a man he spent eight years sparring with, prior to taking over his training duties.
Mitchell was the juggernaut so many boxing writers and fans had been jumping on board with. But even prior to last night, his most enthusiastic followers would still have conceded that he was still nowhere near ready to fight a Klitschko.
After his destruction at the hands of Banks, saying that Mitchell is nowhere near ready for the Klitschkos revealed itself as an understatement.
At the same time, Mitchell should not be dismissed from the equation at heavyweight. He will continue to be an explosive, athletic puncher who can close distance quickly. Provided he responds well to the knockout, he will continue to be an offensively dangerous heavyweight.
Mitchell regained his composure quickly in defeat, which suggests that even as he was being pummeled, he was not altogether separated from his consciousness. He said the sort of things you would expect him to say, that he would "go back to the drawing board," that he would learn from his loss and come back strong.
I had the chance to interview Mitchell by telephone last week, and the conversation does inform my response to his setback last night.
"I've got tunnel vision," he told me at the time. "I know that in this sport, a couple of losses, even one loss, can really set you back and erase a lot of what you have spent years building."
Now, Mitchell will find himself in the position he spoke of, having to climb up out of the hole and back into the conversation. My own guess is, if Mitchell comes away from last night still determined to have a professional boxing career, then he will continue to be a factor in the division.
Watching Mitchell swing away in desperate counter attack mode last night, I also couldn't help remembering something else he had told me.
"I'm getting a lot better at being relaxed," he had said, talking about how boxing required a combatant to remain relaxed and alert to his opponent, while football rewarded overpowering aggression at the point of attack.
The kind of player I was, I'd line up and go all out into every hit...when I first started boxing, whenever anybody got into range on me, I'd just throw punches. But now I'm relaxing and seeing stuff so I can fight smart inside.
Anybody who has trained any level of boxing will attest that just because you know you should do something doesn't mean you are going to do it when you are getting punched in the face. When Mitchell got caught flush and was rocked by Banks last night, he did some things that he will shake his head at when he watches himself doing it on film.
Banks, ever the trainer, was the first one to offer a post-fight critique of where Mitchell went wrong.
"He didn't grab hold of me the way he should," Banks commented in his interview. "He grabbed my waist, not my arms."
Expect Mitchell to regroup and make at least one more run. He already has a couple of impressive wins on his record. Expect him to take the same mental approach a top-rated NCAA football team would take when regrouping from an early-season loss.
It he stays in the sport, expect him to do everything under his control to clean up the mistakes that led to him getting lit up last night.
"You don't play at boxing," was another thing he told me last week. "If I didn't think I could support my family at this, I would get a different career."
Mitchell is a smart athlete, a guy who hung around and earned his degree even after his gridiron days were behind him. He has options beyond getting punched in the face, so if he sticks around, it will be because he remains confident that he can shore up the holes in his game and strike it big.
Meanwhile, it's time for American boxing fans to get behind Johnathon Banks. When you consider who has gotten a shot at the world heavyweight belts during the past year or two, it's hard to see any reason why Banks shouldn't get a shot now.
I'd sure give Johnathon Banks a better shot than I was giving Jean-Marc Mormeck back when the French cruiser was getting his chance.
Banks' sole career loss was against Tomasz Adamek, a fighter largely viewed as a top five heavyweight today. Banks is a thinking fighter, so we can be confident that he has gotten better since then.
I'll be honest, I have a hard time believing a 6'3", 220-pound former cruiserweight is going to walk down either of the Klitschkos. But Banks has thrust himself into the conversation, and just as matter of patriotically supporting domestic imports, I'm willing to buy him as a challenger for the belt.
I cannot think of another time when a champion has faced the prospect of fighting his own trainer. The Klitschko brothers long ago revealed that they would never consider fighting each other due to a vow they had made to their mother.
Johnathon Banks has no blood bond with Ukraine brothers, but a prize fighter very much goes to war with his trainer, and bonds under the stress of combat can have a hold that approaches blood. So maybe Banks and Wladimir Klitschko ultimately aren't going to want to fight each other.
Even fighting Vitali represents some degree of dilemma for Banks. He has been a regular sparring partner of Wladimir's for eight years, and Wladi is usually involved in his older brother's camps.
Beyond the Kltischko brothers, there is Alexander Povetkin. The WBA "regular" world champion has managed to capture a semblance of the world title, although most fans and writers openly ignore his claim.
Nevertheless, he is No. 3 on most heavyweight rankings. I would be enthusiastic about watching a fight between Povetkin and Banks.
If boxing is the sweet science, the element of unpredictability that rules over it can only be looked at as the magic. The great story lines that propel the sport forward are almost always best served by the sudden, unexpected events.
The boxing world got such an event on Saturday night. as Johnathon Banks inserted himself into the plot lines with an explanation point.
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