by David P. Greisman
There is little margin for error in a sport that expects perfection from unfinished products.
This is why pro boxers are brought along so slowly. No matter what they accomplish as amateurs, that experience is not akin to playing college ball and then posting up on Kobe Bryant or barnstorming through the minor leagues and then going yard in your first Major League game. Fighters don’t take off their headgear and then immediately step in against a world champion. They learn. They develop. They improve.
They do this while hoping to remain undefeated. One loss shouldn’t mean everything, but sometimes that zero at the end of their record is the difference between getting exposure and being exposed.
Seth Mitchell was learning on the job, just like so many American heavyweights do these days. The United States is a country where the amateur system is on the decline, and where athletic big men have for years preferred basketball and football instead of The Sweet Science.
He was a former college football player who donned the gloves after he hung up the pads. He turned pro at 25 and has been brought on deliberately and strategically. For a while this was done away from the spotlight, but then it was time to be promoted as a prospect, to challenge him into becoming a contender, to step up with the world watching and wondering.
He blew through his first test, Timur Ibragimov, a former fringe contender who was past his prime but who represented a higher level of experience and class than anyone Mitchell had met before. It was Mitchell’s HBO debut, an undercard spot on “World Championship Boxing.” He knocked Ibragimov out in two.
His second test answered one major question but left one significant doubt. Chazz Witherspoon had Mitchell hurt and reeling in the first round, but Mitchell had steadied himself, battled back and scored a third-round technical knockout. He had shown that he could overcome trouble. The problem was that he had gotten in trouble in the first place.
He was far from the first prospect to have frightening moments earlier in his career than preferred. This is why pro boxers are brought along so slowly. They learn. They develop. They improve.
But sometimes there are weaknesses that cannot be masked, only compensated for. The heavyweight division epitomizes the maxim that one punch can change a fight. That was especially the case with Mitchell, who has power in both hands but whose legs betray him when he’s hit right.
In his third HBO fight, this one coming last November, veteran Johnathon Banks dodged a wild shot from Mitchell, whose aggression left him vulnerable. Banks countered, hurt Mitchell and knocked him down. Mitchell never recovered. Banks floored him two more times and won via second-round technical knockout.
Nearly every fighter has a certain shortcoming or a fatal flaw. Many can overcome this with a combination of strategy, timing, guts and heart.
* * *
Seth Mitchell’s zero was gone. The pressure didn’t just remain. It was amplified.
Another loss and he’d be seen as exposed, as just another prospect who didn’t have what it takes to succeed. He could’ve taken a longer path back, taken his time and worked on improving himself against opponents who had neither Banks’ speed nor his skills. Yet networks and promoters tend to have short attention spans. They will move on to the next storyline, the next budding star.
Mitchell asked for an immediate rematch with Banks and got it. They were to have fought in February, but Banks suffered an injury in training camp. Instead, they fought on Showtime in June, seven months after they first met. Again, Banks hurt Mitchell early. This time, though, Mitchell survived. This time, he saw the final bell. This time, he won.
A fighter can win in the way he loses, and he can also lose in the way he wins. The rematch with Banks had little action, with neither boxer throwing many punches. Those watching wondered whether this new version, this more patient, more strategic Seth Mitchell was a sign of things to come, whether he had sacrificed so much of what made him enjoyable in order to allow him to be successful.
That’s not the case, Mitchell said in an interview conducted two and a half weeks later.
“This was a must-win fight for me,” he said. “If I won pretty or if I won ugly. I just wanted to win the fight. I probably could’ve took more chances, but that also would’ve given Johnathon a lot more chances, being that he is an excellent counter-puncher. That’s what he does. He’s waiting for you to overcommit. It surprised me that he didn’t have a second game plan, because obviously I was going to stick to my plan, to just try to be patient and win the fight with my jab.
“If I caught him with a good shot and got him hurt, then obviously I would’ve jumped on him. When I knocked him down in the second round, I know it was more of an off-balance shot. I caught him with a little uppercut, but I didn’t think that he was hurt, so that’s why I didn’t go after him. I’ve given fans 27 exciting fights. This fight wasn’t exciting, but I don’t think that’s going to hinder me for my supporters or anything. That was just the type of fight I had to have fought to get the victory.”
He had watched the first Banks fight 20 or 30 times in the weeks immediately after his loss. He’s been less masochistic with the rematch win, viewing the tape four or five times since, happy with his performance but aware still of what improvements need to be made.
“Giving more angles,” Mitchell said. “I know a couple of times when I had him on the ropes, even though I was winning the battle on the ropes, I still stayed too stationary. More head movement. I definitely think I kept my hands up a lot more, but a lot of times, when I threw my jab, I didn’t bring my hands back up. Just the little technical things that I have to work on to get better, which I’m continuing to work on right now.”
He doesn’t agree with those who conclude that he won solely because Banks threw too little. Nor does he care for the reports that Banks had hurt both of his hands in the first and second rounds, injuries that would have come prior to the shots that rocked Mitchell. “If you watched the fight, he was throwing both hands hard, when he did let his hands go.”
He believes Banks didn’t let his hands go because of his style, because of Mitchell’s strategy, and also because he was aware of what Mitchell could do to him.
“I can punch with both hands. It doesn’t have to look extremely hard for it to be hard. He knew that from watching tape and looking at my record. I’m a true puncher, not like somebody who has a good knockout ratio but can’t really punch,” Mitchell said. “But I think the main thing that I did was not come to him as much. He was waiting, and he was getting frustrated. He wanted me to engage him.”
* * *
This was step one in the rebooting of Seth Mitchell 2.0. This is a sport that rewards perfection, but requires adjustment. Fix the flaws. Compensate for weaknesses. Get your fighter as close to a finished product as possible, until he’s ready to face a world champion.
You can miss 45 of every 100 shots in basketball and still be in the top 10 of field goal percentage. You can strike out, ground out or fly out two out of every three at-bats in baseball and still be one of the best hitters in the league.
There’s little margin for error once you begin to face better opposition in boxing.
“We worked on what to do if I did get hurt, not to stand there and slug with him and fight, but to keep your hands up, see what he’s doing, and, when he gets close enough, try to tie him up,” Mitchell said. “Not to tie him up at the waist like I did last time, which allowed him to back up and continue to punch.
“In the third round, I knew that I was hurt. I’ve watched fights where I’ve seen people be out on their feet. I don’t think that I was. I was thinking, ‘OK, I’m hurt. Don’t try to fight with him.’ These are the processes that go through my head. ‘If he gets close, grab him.’ I never saw double Johnathon Banks or anything. My vision was clear. Obviously I was buzzed, I was dazed, but I’ve seen fighters sometimes get hit and their arms just go straight to their side. I was never like that. My legs were just gone.”
He got his legs back, then got himself back on track. It’s not as if the loss to Banks never happened. It did, and perhaps it was for the best, the proverbial kick in the ass — or in this case, an ass-kicking — that made him better for it.
Mitchell remains optimistic that he can challenge for the heavyweight title, that he can face Vitali or Wladimir Klitschko by mid-2014.
“I don’t think it’ll be long,” he said. “Obviously I have to win my fights, but I believe that I have the athletic ability. I’m not a one-trick pony. I don’t just to have to brawl or bang. Depending on the type of fighter in that fight, I can adjust. And I have power in both hands.
“I know that fighting the Klitschkos, all that stuff is going to have to come together. They’re great champions. I’ve said numerous times, they may not be the most fan-friendly fighters, but you’re a fool if you don’t respect what they’ve been doing and what they’ve done over the past 8 to 10 years.”
There will be little margin for error. Anything more than that can be the difference between being finished developing into a complete fighter — and being done as a viable competitor in the sport.
The 10 Count
1. It will be interesting to compare the rebuilding of Seth Mitchell with that of David Price.
Both are heavyweight prospects whose first pro losses came in the form of shocking second-round technical knockouts; Price’s came in February against Tony Thompson.
Both sought immediate rematches. But while Mitchell beat Johnathon Banks, Price failed again earlier this month. Though he was able to put Thompson down on the canvas in the second round, Thompson rose, battled back and ended the fight in the fifth round with a barrage of punches.
Price had much more of an amateur pedigree than Mitchell; he won a bronze medal in the 2008 Olympics. The problems with him come from stamina issues. For one, he was blowing through so many of his opponents — of his 15 wins (13 by knockout), 6 had gone one round, 3 had gone two rounds, 2 had gone three rounds, 2 had gone four rounds, 1 had gone six rounds and 1 had gone seven.
The first loss to Thompson instilled self-doubt in his ability to take the punch. That made him even tenser, which took away even more of his energy. Thompson also deserves credit for taking the fight to Price, which allowed him to take Price out.
2. Price is 6-foot-8. That alone could help him out. That’s taller than Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko.
Lewis’ first loss was a second-round stoppage against Oliver McCall. His second loss was a fifth-round knockout against Hasim Rahman. Wladimir Klitschko’s second loss was a second-round stoppage against Corrie Sanders. His third loss was a fifth-round stoppage against Lamon Brewster.
Klitschko in particular had to deal with questions about his chin and stamina. Of course, he and Lewis ultimately proved their greatness. Price has a long way to go just to show that he’s anything other than a prospect.
3. If you didn’t see Edwin Rodriguez’s win this past weekend over Denis Grachev — and many probably didn’t, given that it was only broadcast in the United States on some network called beIN Sport — then you missed the coming-out party for Rodriguez, who put on his best performance yet by stopping Grachev in less than a round.
Some caught Rodriguez-Grachev on illicit streams, and it’s also available if you know where to look online. You need not invest too much time: just a few minutes to see Rodriguez completely overwhelm Grachev, knocking him down twice and then continuing to batter him until the referee finally stepped in.
CompuBox credited Rodriguez with landing 70 of 115 punches in less than three minutes, a staggering 61 percent connect rate. If you only consider power shots, Rodriguez was 59 of 77, a 77 percent connect rate, meaning he landed three out of every four power punches he threw.
There are punching bags that get hit less regularly than that.
Grachev was 6 of 35. As one BoxingScene commenter wrote, “Surprised to learn Grachev landed 6 shots. It felt like he barely threw any at all.”
4. The bout was the finale of the “Monte Carlo Million Dollar Super 4,” which began with Edwin Rodriguez defeating Ezequiel Osvaldo Maderna in a super-middleweight match and with Grachev topping Zsolt Erdei in a fight at light heavyweight.
Rodriguez-Grachev had a catch-weight of 171.5 pounds. Rodriguez’s career has seen him fight at weights ranging from 162 pounds to 173.5, with most of his appearances being at or around super middleweight.
You should expect him to remain in the 168-pound division for the time being. But don’t expect him to go for champion Andre Ward just yet.
“Andre Ward is the gold standard,” wrote Rodriguez’s promoter, Lou DiBella, on Twitter shortly after the bout. “If I were to throw in a terrific young guy like Edwin, still on the learning curve, it would be foolish now.”
There are other options at super middleweight, many of them in Europe. Rodriguez has proven willing to travel. He’s in line for an eliminator bout that would get him a mandatory shot at Carl Froch. I don’t think Rodriguez will get a fight with Carl Froch just yet, however, not while Froch is seeking big money bouts. That might mean Froch, who has two sanctioning body belts, drops the IBF rather than face his mandatory.
If Rodriguez doesn’t want to wait, there’s also someone like World Boxing Organization beltholder Robert Stieglitz, who also fought and won this past weekend.
Then again, all of this could change if HBO decides to feature Rodriguez again. He appeared on the network twice before, outpointing Donovan George in March 2012 on “World Championship Boxing” and stopping Jason Escalera in September 2012 on “Boxing After Dark.”
5. Even the best referees have missed calls. What’s telling is the nature of the missed call, and also the frequency at which his errors occur.
What’s really troubling, though, is when one referee is dangerously incompetent twice in the span of two months.
Stanley Christodolou is a longtime boxing referee and judge who was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004 and named the World Boxing Association’s “official of the decade” in 2008.
He’s also the referee who allowed Denis Lebedev to have his face rearranged by Guillermo Jones back in May. Lebedev spent about a week in the hospital.
And he’s the referee who allowed Denis Grachev, clearly not able to defend himself, clearly being battered from pillar to post, to keep taking punches from Edwin Rodriguez far longer than necessary.
(He’s also the judge who had Canelo Alvarez winning 10 of 12 rounds against Austin Trout.)
This isn’t about Christodolou having something against guys named Denis. This is an official who is failing to protect fighters from life-altering punishment.
His Hall of Fame profile says his career started 50 years ago, and that his first world title fight as a referee came 40 years ago. He’s either 67 years old (according to the Hall of Fame) or 69 years old (according to Wikipedia). His age doesn’t matter. It’s his performance that should have WBA and athletic commission officials sitting down and reviewing his recent work before allowing him to referee again. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a high-profile title fight or a preliminary bout.
6. This week in hyperbolic press releases, brought to you by promotional company Main Events:
“World’s Best Cruiserweight to Face the Division’s Best Kept Secret”
The news release was about the Aug. 3 bout between Eddie Chambers and Thabiso Mchunu, which is being broadcast on an NBC Sports Network undercard. Chambers isn’t the world’s best cruiserweight. In fact, this will be his first bout in that division. The undersized heavyweight last fought in June 2012 at 202 pounds, losing a controversial decision against Eddie Chambers.
I don’t know if Mchunu is the division’s best-kept secret. My only familiarity with him has been through his taunting of Chambers on Twitter. But if the 13-1 (10 KOs) fighter from South Africa really is the division’s best-kept secret, the only way he’ll prove that is if Chambers isn’t really the world’s best cruiserweight.
7. Exaggeration is par for the course in this sport. It’s funny, because there is nothing more honest than two men or women stepping into the ring to see who is better. But outside of that ring is where all the spin takes place.
8. Here, for example, is what the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tulsa, Okla., said on its website for its upcoming card this coming Friday featuring the return of Dyah Ali Davis.
Davis, the site says, “continues his relentless pursuit of a World Title shot by destroying his opponents in Ali-like fashion in an 8 round Super Middleweight Main Event attraction.”
This is not a knock on Davis, but rather just an observation on the sales job being put out there to what might be otherwise unknowing customers. Davis — the son of 1976 Olympic boxing gold medalist Howard Davis Jr. — is a 21-3-1 fighter with 9 knockouts and a layoff that dates back to his June 2012 stoppage loss to Sakio Bika.
Is the spin really all that offensive, though? The casino customers just want an enjoyable evening between their gambling, drinking and partying. Any boxing fans who show up there just want a night at the fights. And we in the boxing media who saw that release about Chambers vs. Mchunu know better than to believe the hype. Our knowledgeable readers also know the truth.
That doesn’t mean boxing websites should run with it.
9. Boxers Behaving Badly: Former heavyweight titleholder Herbie Hide had a warrant issued for his arrest last week after he did not appear at a court hearing, according to BBC News.
Hide is accused of conspiring to supply cocaine, according to the article. He allegedly arranged for undercover reporters from tabloid newspaper The Sun to get the drug.
Another defendant in the case has pleaded guilty to three of four drug charges.
Hide’s attorney said he’d been told that the boxer was in a clinic in Nigeria, where he was being treated for Malaria. But no doctor’s note had been sent to the court at the time of his hearing, according to BBC News.
The 41-year-old has confronted various troubles in recent years. He was convicted of assault in June 2011 and was fined. He failed to pay those fines until late 2012 and nearly was arrested again because of that. Hide claimed he didn’t have money because he was no longer fighting and wasn’t certain who paid the fine for him.
He also took more than three years to pay thousands of dollars in fines for driving offenses that dated to 2005, not settling the case until 2008. In 2011 he was found not guilty of raping a woman, with prosecutors deciding that they didn’t have enough evidence to go forward with a trial. And last year a man was fatally stabbed in Hide’s home. Hide was not at home at the time, police said, and another man was arrested in the case.
Hide’s record as a fighter was 49-4 with 43 knockouts. He held a heavyweight world title twice during the ‘90s and had continued to box at or around cruiserweight over the past several years. His last bout was in April 2010.
10. The winner of this September’s fight between Canelo Alvarez and Floyd Mayweather will receive a World Boxing Council belt made of 24k gold and Ferrari leather, according to the sanctioning body’s website.
I don’t know what’s more maddening:
The fact that this bauble is being given to two wealthy fighters who clearly don’t need it…
…or the fact that, if the WBC is to exact its usual 3 percent sanctioning fee on Alvarez-Mayweather, it will make off with more than a million dollars.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter @fightingwords2 or send questions/comments via email at [email protected]