The TV flickered in Mitchell’s apartment in East Lansing, Mich., and helped to take the linebacker’s mind away from his achy left knee and thoughts of what might have been. He had just graduated from Michigan State, becoming the first member of his family to graduate college, and spent the afternoon as he did most days, circulating resumes in search of a job in criminal justice. He flipped the channels and settled on “The Contender,” a reality show on ESPN about boxers looking for their big break.
One of those boxers looked familiar. Was that Tom Zbikowski? The same Tom Zbikowski that played safety for Notre Dame? The same Tom Zbikowski that Mitchell played against each and every season?
A light bulb went off. If a safety could do it, why couldn’t a bigger, stronger, and (arguably) tougher linebacker?
“I never thought about boxing at all,” Mitchell said. “It wasn’t until I saw someone that resembled me in the form of a football player. He’s a collegiate athlete just like me. And I played against him every year.”
He decided that day to move to Maryland to surround himself with the best trainer and manager he could find. He left behind Danielle, who was eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child, working full time and in the middle of law school, but he never for a second forgot about them. Each week, he sent $200 and every five or six weeks he flew back to Michigan.
“She’s a strong woman, and she stuck behind me,” Mitchell said. “Not one time did she say, ‘No I don’t want to you to do this. What are you thinking about? Why are you leaving me? She supported me 100 percent. It made my transition from Michigan here a lot easier. It allowed me to just focus on boxing.”
Mayhem in the Ring
The “Who Would Win in a Fight” joke is one that has been told and retold countless times in middle school cafeterias and bar rooms across the country. Simple and with endless variations, someone proposes a hypothetical fight between, say, Mike Tyson and a grizzly bear or zombies and Bigfoot or ninjas and Abraham Lincoln. Two separate websites have popped up, dedicated to scoring these dream matchups. There is even a show on Spike TV called “Deadliest Warrior” based on the joke.
The prospect of a Division I linebacker taking on a professional boxer almost sounds like one of those hypothetical fights. Just imagine Ray Lewis, James Harrison or London Fletcher lacing up the gloves.
Sharif Salim, Mitchell’s manager and a football star himself as the captain of a Coolidge High team that won the high-school city title, prefers the old-school references. “If I ever thought that there would be a real good heavyweight fighter, I would definitely figure it would be a Dick Butkus type,” he said. “The position, especially the way they play it at Michigan State, is smash-mouth. He is definitely a smash-mouth boxer.”
The attributes that made Mitchell a successful linebacker — speed, lateral quickness, aggression — helped to make his transition to boxing more seamless. Salim said Mitchell’s learning curve is as steep as any fighter with whom he’s ever been associated. After just 10 amateur fights, Mitchell was 9-1 with nine knockouts. He turned pro and after just his second fight was signed to Oscar De Le Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, arguably one of the top promotional firms in the world.
Today, his record stands at 25-0-1 with 19 knockouts. Most recently, Mitchell knocked out Chaz Witherspoon to earn the vacant NABO heavyweight title. He will defend his title Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J., against Jonathan Banks (28-1-1, 18 KOs), a man that begs to differ with Salim’s assessment that a football player could become the next heavyweight champion.
“I’m looking to steal the show on Nov. 17,” Banks said. “I’ll prove what a true boxer at the highest level can do against a football player. The winner of our fight should be next in line for a title shot. I plan on making sure that winner is me.”
Should the “football player” win, Mitchell will have about two more fights before he takes a shot at the heavyweight championship of the world. In doing so, Mitchell can become the first American to hold the belt since Shannon Briggs in 2006, a drought that can at least partially be attributed to the fact that the best athletes are incentivized to pursue basketball or football. The ironic thing is that Mitchell’s injury may have been the twist of fate needed to bring the title back to the States.
On a scale of 1-10, the pain in Mitchell’s left knee was a 10 when he played football, a game that forces athletes to sprint at top speed, stop on a dime, crash into 300-pound linemen, and fend off cut blocks. “None of that exists in boxing,” Mitchell said. The pain from boxing is nothing compared to football, maybe a two. “This is a blessing. That’s all I can say, because I couldn’t play football if I wanted to.”