Boxing is not an easy sport to pick up later in life. Many of the sport's top fighters began when they were kids and fought all the way through long amateur careers before turning pro. That is the typical path, but heavyweight contender Seth Mitchell is a different story. The 30-year-old only picked up the sport six years ago, after knee injuries ended a promising football career.
A criminal justice major, he happened to catch a boxing match on television one night, one involving football player Tom Zbikowski. That's when his career plans changed and he decided to give boxing a try. It may seem like a natural transition: football, like boxing, is a contact sport, but Mitchell says nothing, including time spent on the gridiron, prepares you for the ring.
"It's probably exaggerated. You can be a lion on that football field and a pussycat in the ring," said Mitchell, who played at Michigan State. "The physicality is different. Taking a hit and taking punch is different. I don't know if it's mental or what, but there are plenty of people I don't think can make the transition. I've been fortunate. I believe athletics is my gift."
Mitchell, 25-0-1, will be on HBO for the third time this Saturday, taking on Johnathon Banks, who stands at 28-1-1 with 18 knockouts.
Success has come quickly for Mitchell, and in a time where the talent in the heavyweight division is considered down, he is one of the rising names in the sport, all thanks to a quick learning curve.
"I think I've gotten a lot better, but I had success from the very beginning," the Virginia Beach, Va. native said. "I was 9-1 with nine knockouts in amateurs. It was tough, and frustrating when I'd get gassed out early. I had to learn how to relax, see things coming and roll punches, that was the hardest part of my transition, but I've only lost one fight in 36 fights."
And he has lost none so far as a pro. He has rarely been challenged, knocking out 19 of his 25 professional opponents. In his previous outing against Chazz Witherspoon, Mitchell had a vulnerable moment when Witherspoon rocked him with power shots in the first round. Mitchell gathered himself, and stopped Witherspoon in the third round in what proved to be a key learning experience for him.
"It gives me confidence. I'm not saying I want that to happen, because I watched it on TV, and I was like, man, he's catching me with hellacious shots," Mitchell said.
"For me to stand up to that definitely gave me confidence. It's not a, you hit me, I hit you thing. I'm not a fighter that wants to be in a brawl. If it comes down to that, I'm built for it, but that's not my fighting style. I'm more confident now because I could respond and how I didn't get flustered, and was able to stay composed; all the necessary things to make it out of the round. I didn't hold him. I did not run, but I did the smart thing and showed growth, showed determination and showed how I can come back."
With much on the horizon, he is determined not to stumble before he reaches the top. There is also a balancing act at work here, namely, making sure that the lack of credible opponents for the Klitschko brothers, the kingpins of the heavyweight division, doesn't force Mitchell into that fight before he is ready. Banks, ironically enough, just served as trainer for Wladimir Klitschko in his last fight.
"It's all big-time motivation," Mitchell said. "I want to be where the stakes are high. I believe in myself and I believe in my tools to become heavyweight champion. I have to take the right steps. I want to do it the right way. When I have my opportunity to fight for the title, I want to be in the best position and I want to fight the best. If the Klitschkos are there, that's who I want to fight. Including this fight, I think I'm three to four fights away from fighting for the title, and I just have to continue to have tunnel vision and work hard."
Tunnel vision means not looking past Banks, a smart, experienced opponent.
"I think I have to be smart when I'm in there with him," Mitchell said. "He knows his way around the ring, he likes to set traps, has a good right counter, a deceiving hook, likes to counter punch, and being that I'm an aggressive fighter, that can allow him to set some traps. It's something I definitely have to be leery of and try to be smart."