By Jake Donovan
Rare is the case in boxing when the phrase “a gentleman and a scholar” is meant as anything other than a figurative compliment to a humble fighter.
The term aptly fits on both sides of the April 28 HBO-televised co-feature between Seth Mitchell and Chazz Witherspoon in Atlantic City.
“This might be a first for boxing – two African-American heavyweight college-educated graduates facing each other in the ring,” pointed out Mitchell during a Tuesday conference call to help promote their heavyweight crossroads bout.
If the heavyweight boxing scene isn’t getting better (which is certainly debatable), its participants are certainly a heck of a lot smarter these days. At the top are the Klitschko brothers, both of whom – in addition to serving as dominant reigning titlists – have doctorate degrees.
Mitchell (24-0-1, 18KO) is currently hailed by many as the next great American heavyweight, or at least its best hope. There’s plenty to like about the Maryland native, in and out of the ring. His all-action style has kept him on TV, now fighting on HBO for his second straight fight.
Outside the ring, Mitchell is as classy and grounded as they come. The former standout linebacker graduated from Michigan State with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a keen sense of where he’s been and what he can do to give back to the community.
“Coming up, I had a lot of mentors who kept me out of trouble,” Mitchell stated in discussing where he’d be had he pursued his chosen field rather than turning to boxing at a late age. “They kept me on the right track to get my degree in criminal justice, so I would have probably tried to navigate toward some type of mentoring and helping young kids and youth somewhere.
"Because I didn't have a father growing up, I had a lot of mentors who really kept me on the right path. So in order to give back that way, I probably would have tried to navigate in that direction.”
Witherspoon (30-2, 22KO) is currently attempt to navigate towards title contention. As was the case with Mitchell, the Philly-born heavyweight took to boxing late after excelling in other sports. Witherspoon turned pro prior to graduating from St. Joseph’s with a degree in pharmaceuticals.
The decision to turn pro was in part to pay homage to his second cousin, former two-time heavyweight titlist Tim Witherspoon. Still, this generation’s Witherspoon had plenty of options but instead chooses to stick with the sweet science.
“I believe I’d have been the guy you see in the doctor’s office with the briefcase,” Witherspoon speculates of what could’ve been. “I’d be getting the doctor the right prescription for whatever medicines I would represent. I’d be a salesman basically.”
Right now, Witherspoon is trying to sell fans on the notion that he still has plenty to offer the sport. Devastating losses to Chris Arreola and Tony Thompson knocked the 30-year old first from contention and then from consideration altogether.
Mitchell is wary of this as such a fall from grace indirectly influences his own boxing style – win and look good doing so. It’s worked to overwhelming results so far, with high praise coming from each performance but never to where Mitchell’s feet stop touching the ground.
“All of the positive goes in and stays in for a little bit and then it exits out,” Mitchell insists. “You can have a quick fall in boxing. Like Chazz said, you lose once or twice and you fall off the radar.”
If there’s a drawback to Mitchell’s dominance to date, it’s the mystery surrounding his ability to handle adversity. The unbeaten heavyweight has scored nine straight knockouts heading into the April 28 showdown, all while barely losing a round along the way.
It stands to reason that Witherspoon is the best fighter that Mitchell will face to date. But don’t expect the one-time rising heavyweight to take that as a sign that the current flavor of the month is incapable of swimming in the deep part of the ocean.
“I don’t get into the fact that he hasn’t been tested,” Witherspoon says. “Everybody that got into the ring with him came up short. Obviously there’s something there. I’m the underdog in this fight. He’s expected to win this fight.
“One way I look at it is that there is no pressure for me. I like that. Usually I’m in fights where I’m expected to win.”
Mitchell is the clear favorite, but it’s the type of bout where the likeability factor among both fighters makes it tough to root either way. Witherspoon himself acknowledges this of his opponent.
“Everything I’m learning about Seth he seems like someone I’d be cool with,” Witherspoon happily admits. “He seems like a stand guy.”
The feeling is mutual as far as Mitchell is concerned, seeing their upcoming showdown as something of a friendly rivalry that figures to bring out the best in each other.
“I respect Chazz,” Mitchell reveals. “He said his heart doesn’t pump no Kool Aid. It’s the same with me. If you slice me open, you’ll find no female dog in me. This is the stage I want to be on and continue to stay on. 4/28 it’s going down.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]