Mitchell regains respect with Murray victory
Ben Shave @cahiers_dusport
Redemption is a word that has become lamentably over-utilised in the reportage of all sports, and boxing is no exception.
Yet given the gladiatorial requirements of the discipline memorably described by Ricky Hatton as ‘not a tickling contest’, the temptation to resort to redemption is ever-present.
Few sportsmen are as accustomed to the absorption and distribution of suffering, and the stark choices afforded to those inside the squared circle undoubtedly match up well with the word defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: ‘the act of saving someone from error and evil.’
Kevin Mitchell knows all about error, though evil might be stretching matters somewhat.
A recent victory over John Murray has secured his place as Britain and Europe’s finest lightweight – not to mention fifth spot in the respected Ring rankings – but it could be reasonably argued that his most impressive accomplishments have come outside the ring, although of course the two arenas of combat are inextricably linked.
It was ever thus with the Dagenham native, who moved to 31-1 after stopping Murray in the eighth round of an engrossing, give-and-take July contest in Liverpool. Despite possessing above-average boxing skills and enough power to give opponents pause, Mitchell has often found himself unable to resist the lure of a tear-up, a weakness that led to a flirtation with disaster back in March 2008, when Carl Johanneson came perilously close to derailing Mitchell’s British title challenge.
Johanneson, a worthy but limited fighter, was eventually dispatched in the ninth, and although Mitchell undoubtedly swelled his level of support amongst the more bloodthirsty ranks of the boxing public with his gutsy triumph, doubts persisted over his ability to rise beyond the domestic ranks.
Yet in December 2009, when he outpointed Breidis Prescott (the Colombian who made his name with a 54-second knockout of Amir Khan in September 2008), Mitchell demonstrated his long-term potential. Avoiding the regular invitations to brawl, he kept his distance, utilised a laser-like jab and simply outclassed Prescott over 12 impressive rounds.
That, combined with a routine TKO victory against an overmatched Ignacio Mendoza, set Mitchell up with an interim title fight against the Australian Michael Katsidis, an all-action pressure fighter who has built a career on dismissing any thought of taking a backward step.
Katsidis gained something of a name on British shores with his brief but savage meeting with Graham Earl in February 2007, and although there were concerns over Mitchell’s defensive discipline heading into last May’s event at Upton Park, the prevailing view was that the home fighter would be able to keep his head and outbox a dangerous but ultimately one-dimensional opponent.
Unfortunately for Mitchell, that dimension proved to be more dangerous than anticipated. After a tentative first round, Mitchell established himself in the second, with his movement and combination punching enough to quell the menacing Katsidis. But a clubbing left stopped Mitchell in his tracks in the third, and referee Dave Parris called a halt to the ensuing punishment with 1min 3sec remaining.
Looking back on the contest now, it is clear that Mitchell’s mind was anywhere but the Upton Park centre circle. Indeed, it soon emerged that his preparation for the contest had been less than ideal.
The aforementioned urges to court trouble had, prior to last May, largely been kept in check by the seasoned tutelage of Jimmy Tibbs, the celebrated trainer who guided the likes of Nigel Benn and Frank Bruno to world championship glory. Tibbs’ Peacock Gym provided a level of consistency to a personal life that had always contained an element of chaos, but in the run-up to the Katsidis bout, chaos won out.
Mitchell’s lack of focus in training – caused by ongoing personal problems – and his subsequent performance elicited a less than sympathetic response from promoter Frank Warren, who had steered him to within 12 rounds of a world title shot. Warren questioned Mitchell’s commitment to the sport, and in the weeks and months following his first professional defeat; Mitchell did little to allay those concerns.
Embarking on what he described to the journalist Steve Bunce recently as “a crazy bender”, Mitchell spread his six-figure purse around East London’s finest watering houses, displaying a profound lack of regard for both his personal and professional future.
The bottom arrived in a manner as crushing as it was inevitable. Following an intervention of sorts, Mitchell snuck out of his mother’s house, and – as he tells it – bought a few rounds, took his cab fare out of his last £1,000, and gave the remainder to a homeless person outside the Cross Keys pub in Dagenham.
All but broke, and with an intimidatingly lengthy road back to the ring ahead of him, Mitchell nevertheless returned to the gym shortly before the New Year. He was boosted by the measure of stability that had been restored to his personal life, and the renewed backing of Warren, who (unsurprisingly, given Mitchell’s enduring support amongst boxing fans, and despite the lurid headlines that followed his arrest on drugs charges in mid-April) permitted him entry to the last-chance saloon.
Tending the bar was John Murray, the unbeaten Mancunian who had fought his way to the European title (and the upper echelons of most sanctioning body rankings) with a relentless, high-volume style of boxing that had ground down, chewed up and spat out the vast majority of his 31 opponents.
Mitchell was ringside for Murray’s sluggish points win over the unfancied Spaniard Karim El Ouazghari in April, but although Murray was below par on that occasion, few backed Mitchell heading into the meeting with the man he describes as “a good friend”.
Ring rust, lingering doubts about his state of mind and the undoubted quality of Murray, who many felt was overdue a crack at the big time, all ensured that Mitchell was a solid underdog, a feeling that only gained more credence when the fight was pushed back a week, ostensibly due to illness on the part of the Londoner, but with a number of rumours circulating about his inability to make the 135 lbs limit.
Given the circumstances, Mitchell’s eventual victory in Liverpool was little short of miraculous. Although he took his share of the opening six rounds, there were a number of moments in which he sailed exceptionally close to the wind, although admittedly such risks are part of the territory with Murray, who barrelled forward, firing off short left hooks and shuddering overhand rights with his customary commitment and ill intent.
Mitchell caught the eye with his dextrous movement, combinations and smooth counterpunching, but the sense that Murray was wearing his man down grew inexorably. Ducking and weaving are all very well in the opening stages, but in a fight most assumed would go late, such a strategy relied heavily on Mitchell’s energy reserves (not to mention his mental alertness) remaining intact.
Yet the frenzied pace and suffocating heat inside the Echo Arena were taking their toll on Murray as well, and all the more so given his hammer-and-tongs style. By the time the bell tolled for the seventh his right eye showed unmistakeable signs of wear and tear, specifically a swelling that rapidly became a serious impediment to his vision.
All fighters depend on a hyper-awareness of their surroundings, and the slightest reduction in said awareness can have fatal consequences, particularly for those who have chosen to eschew all but the most rudimentary defensive aspects of the sweet science.
Murray’s grinding style brought him to the dance, but as his face displayed in the most vivid of fashions, it was not without risk. Suddenly, Mitchell’s counterpunches (including a succession of pinpoint uppercuts) found their mark with thudding regularity, and Murray was fortunate to survive the round.
The end came with 1min 14sec remaining in the eighth. Murray, who was nothing if not committed throughout, attempted to up the pace at the opening bell, but Mitchell kept his cool, stepping smoothly aside before delivering a heartbreaking left hook that sent Murray to the canvas for the first time in his professional career.
He got up with his face a bloody mask, but the cobwebs were there for all to see, and Mitchell closed the show with a blur of uppercuts and hooks.
Post-fight, Mitchell was quick to praise the contribution of Jimmy and Mark Tibbs, correctly asserting that they had provided him with the plan to overcome his toughest test to date.
Yet there was throughout the contest an air of poise (albeit mingled with his customary vulnerability) to the London fighter that was indicative not just of a thorough training camp, but a man who had finally found a measure of psychological equilibrium.
Mitchell’s way ahead is not yet clear. A rematch with Murray appears likely at some point, but those closest to him will surely be advising a more lucrative path, at least initially. This consideration may yet collide with an ill-concealed desire to avenge his sole loss.
A return with Katsidis would be an easy sell from Warren’s point of view, and given the Australian’s post-Mitchell career, he may not present the risk that he did in 2010.
A brave but comprehensive stoppage at the hands of the great Juán Manuel Márquez, followed by a wide decision defeat to Robert Guerrero (in which it looked as if his willingness to trade had finally caught up with him) leave the contemporary version of Katsidis an eminently winnable prospect for Mitchell, provided he remains on the straight and narrow.
Rios will not be around for long if his recent contests with Miguel Acosta and Urbano Antillón (the latter of which was a direct descendent of the 1985 classic between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns) are anything to go by; but at the moment, his bludgeoning power coupled with a physical strength which resembles that of a middleweight, are all wrong for Mitchell; as indeed they are for all but the elite of boxing’s lower-to-middle weight classes.
Yet with Márquez, Guerrero and Mexican title-holder Humberto Soto all set to depart 135 lbs for the more lucrative waters of the 140lbs and 147lbs divisions, Mitchell could soon find himself in the upper echelons of the lightweight landscape.
Given Warren’s long-established tradition of matching his fighters conservatively whenever possible, avoiding Rios would likely not prove an impossible task, particularly given Top Rank owner Bob Arum’s desire to move his charge up in weight by 2012. Whisper it, but Kevin Mitchell’s road to redemption isn’t over yet.
If you enjoyed this, then check out Sean Held’s recent boxing piece “The Floyd Void”