By Mitch Abramson
Johnathon Banks walks into a bar. No, this isn’t the start of a lame joke involving the once-beaten heavyweight, but an effort to put into context one of the more entertaining and talented, not to mention surprising boxers today. Banks discussed his Showtime televised rematch with Seth Mitchell on June 22 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn and gave a preview of what a division ruled by Banks - if he ever wins a heavyweight title - might look like if given the chance.
For one, it would be imbued with a strong American presence for the first time in years. Second, it would be fun in the way that Chris Arreola made the division fun once upon a time before Vitali Klitschko forced him to reevaluate his career. That also happened to Banks, after his dispiriting knockout loss to Tomasz Adamek in 2009. Banks (29-1-1, 19 knockouts) took a hard look in the mirror, remaking his career at heavyweight to the point where he’s now discussed in more flattering terms than even Adamek. When Banks stopped Mitchell in two rounds last November, he put the division on notice, even if he had been toiling overseas, fighting on Klitschko undercards off American networks and anyone’s radar.
But Hall of Fame trainer Emanuel Steward always had a plan for the former amateur star that has now started to blossom. It even involved him being a trainer one day, and Steward’s sudden death in October pushed Banks, 30, into that role as he guided Wladimir to a successful Sept. 10 title defense against Mariusz Wach.
What a story-line: Banks pulled double-duty for that fight, training Wladimir while also preparing for his own coming-out-party against Mitchell on HBO, which brings us to the joke about a fighter walking into a bar to meet with a few members of the media. The joke was on us because nobody even glanced up at the nattily dressed man who walked in the door that day, looking more like a graduate student than a boxer. Appropriately dressed for the occasion, Banks was on hand to try and generate a little buzz for his rematch with Mitchell. While he did his best to gin up the rematch, even Banks sounded like it might be a tough sell to an audience who doubts the second time around will be any different.
“I expect a different date,” he begun. “I expect a different Seth Mitchell. But I expect the same results.”
To say that Banks doesn’t take Mitchell seriously is to misrepresent his approach to the bout. But it’s clear the 6-3 heavyweight isn’t agonizing over how to face Mitchell again.
“I honestly haven’t been thinking about game plan and what he can do or what he can’t do,” Banks said. “But mostly I’m just thinking about what I can do.”
His lack of excitement for the bout was evident.
“Once again, I’m looking forward to getting this thing over with,” Banks said a few minutes later.
But fear not because Banks can talk more than just Seth Mitchell, and he touched on a number of topics during a nearly two-hour round-table interview, from the downfall of Mike Tyson (he would have been better off not trying to knock out everyone, Banks says), to the current state of the heavyweight division (lots of new faces), to Rocky movies, to hanging out and doing security work for the rapper Eminem (while he was a college student), to possibly facing a Klitschko brother (since they hold all the belts)- basically giving a glimpse of what an afternoon hanging out with Banks might look like. And he did it all while neglecting a salad that sat untouched in front of him to accommodate reporters who happily asked questions with food in their mouths.
But first about facing Mitchell again:
Banks said if he was training Mitchell, he would tell the fighter to bum-rush him in the hopes of landing something big- as if that was really his only chance of winning.
“I think last time he was so confident and just knew that he was going to win, that he just figured it will take two or three rounds [and] I’m going to knock him out,” Banks said.
“I believe that’s what he thought. So if I was his trainer, the first thing I would tell him is not to be so overconfident. And that’s about it. The hardest part for me to answer that question is because there wasn’t a lot that Seth Mitchell did wrong [in the first fight]. He didn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s saying he did. I guess it makes him feel good to say that but he really didn’t.”
Banks, who is from Detroit, was open to fighting pretty much anyone of import after his win with Mitchell. The fact that Mitchell decided to exercise the rematch clause in his contract was fine with him, Banks says, even if he didn’t exactly view the rematch as an especially appetizing option. Banks said he was surprised that Mitchell would want to fight him again so soon.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” Banks said. “Did I want to fight him again? No. Now that I’m here, in this position [I look at it like]…I’m here, and now I have to stay [on this level] a little while longer. Then I can move on from here.”
Banks believes that Mitchell simply had no other options in his career, other than to fight him again.
“I guess he looks at it like, ‘What else is he going to do?’” Banks said. “Once I heard they were exercising the rematch, that’s what I took. If that’s what they want to put in front of me- then that’s what I’ll take.”
Banks likes the idea that the so-called powers-that-be are still investing in Mitchell with the premise that he could be a heavyweight champion one day. If others want to build up Mitchell, then he'll happily cut him down, Banks said.
“I kind of like the fact that they’re building him up to be the future star, the future of the heavyweight division and stuff like that,” Banks said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. It makes a better fight for me, knowing I’m fighting a future star, the future of the division. So today, Seth Mitchell is still a future star, still the future of the division. And I look forward to fighting him, just like I did before” and in the process ruining “some people’s dreams about the heavyweight division.”
Banks did acknowledge that Mitchell (25-1-1, 19 knockouts) poses some risks, from his size to his power to his athletic ability, -based on his background as a former college football player at Michigan State.
“I have to watch out for his speed,” Banks said of Mitchell. “He’s not a slow guy. Everyone knows you have to watch for his power. I’m always cautious of any heavyweight. Any heavyweight can end the fight at any round. I don’t want to build this guy up to be bigger than he is, and I also don’t want to make it so that he’s smaller than what he is. I’m going to take him for what he is. He’s going to be even meaner this time, maybe punch even harder because he’s looking for revenge.”
K2 Promotions managing director Tom Loeffler, who promotes Banks, mentioned Arreola, Deontay Wilder and a rematch with Adamek - the only loss on Bank’s record- as other possible opponents for Banks, should he get past Mitchell. But the elephant in the room was the idea that Banks would ever face Wladimir or Vitali Klitschko, who hold all of the heavyweight titles while Banks is ranked in the Top 10 of all the sanctioning bodies. But Banks dashed water on that premise, saying he couldn’t see any scenario that would have him fighting Wladimir or Vitali. Banks views a fight with Wladimir the same way that Vitali views a fight with Wladimir: as an impractical matter because of their close relationship.
“As I’m sitting here, no [I can’t see that fight happening against a Klitschko],” Banks said. “In my opinion it’s not an everyday thing [to have the type of relationship we have]. Fighters have short life spans to do what they want to do in their career. And once they get near the top, if you have an opportunity to go with what you’ve been dreaming for, either you go for it now or you go for it later. But in my opinion, some things are bigger than sports. And I think in life when you come across- it’s always like the saying- you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends- because whomever is your family you have to stick with them. And there’s really nothing that you can replace with that value. So no matter if there is a belt, no matter if there is a lot of talk, it’s going to be hard to go in a certain direction [and face Wladimir or Vitali].”
Banks did offer up that he and Wladimir once talked about what would happen if they ever fought. Around three or four years ago, following a workout, Wladimir and Banks sat down and according to Banks, Wladimir said: “Dude, do you realize that if you keep fighting and winning in the heavyweight division, what if we were to fight one day?”
Banks said he just laughed of the scenario. Then, Wladimir brought up the fight between former sparring partners Larry Holmes and Mahummad Ali as comparing their situations and proof that fighters in the same camp do face each other. But it was just a hypothetical discussion that had no basis in reality, Banks says.
“So he did address it because no one envisioned the position that we would be in at this stage,” Banks said. “In my wildest dreams, I would predict that Vitali would go into politics. And that would leave the WBC title vacated, and that would allow me to fight for that [belt]. Me and Tom [Loeffler] talk about this over and over again about me fighting for the WBC title against Chris Arreola or someone of that caliber and I think that would be a good situation.”