The word “Spartan” spans the back of the waistband on the black velvet shorts that sag from the chiseled man’s slim, muscular waist. “Mitchell” is printed on the front of the waistband and a No. 48 is on the side in Michigan State green.
No, these aren’t Michigan State’s new football uniforms. Instead, they are the boxing trunks of 30-year-old Seth “Mayhem” Mitchell, and each carefully chosen detail is like a chapter in the story of a fearless linebacker, a dedicated family man, a second chance and how one man’s unfortunate injury could become the twist of fate that brings the heavyweight championship of the world back to the United States.
‘Sardines for Dinner’
Under the cover of darkness, the young Seth Mitchell grabbed a garden hose from his backyard and hustled over to his neighbor’s faucet. He hastily fastened the hose to the nozzle, regretting that he had to steal something that even his poorest neighbors took for granted. But what choice did he have? The unpaid bills kept piling up, and just as his family finally scrounged together enough cash to get the lights turned back on, the water company came knocking at the door to shut off the valve.
Such was life for a young Seth Mitchell. The man they would later call “Mayhem” for what he dished out in the ring grew up surrounded by the mayhem of drugs, poverty and abuse. One month his family would be without lights. The next: no water. “Biggie Smalls wrote a song with the lyrics ‘eating sardines for dinner,’” Mitchell said. “I lived that.”
The young boy could deal with the struggle. In fact, it became his source of strength. Cooking on a kerosene stove, stealing water and shivering through winter nights without electricity molded Mitchell into a humbled individual and taught him to appreciate the little he did have. But he could never learn to accept was the abuse his mother suffered at the hand of his father.
“Asking me to look back at my childhood and the things that hurt the most or were the most frightening, it would hands down be the abuse that my mom would take,” Mitchell said. “Without question.”
Mitchell makes the analogy of children that grow up surrounded by alcohol. Some kids see their parents with empty bottles and drunken nights and grow up to become alcoholics themselves.
“Or you run away and stay as far away from alcohol as possible,” Mitchell said.
He chose the second path. His Twitter account, @SethMayhem48, defines the man as a “Christian, Family Man” first and foremost before “Professional boxer, Michigan State Spartan, Gwynn Park Yellow Jacket, #48.” He would never lay a finger on his wife Danielle; never make his two children — 6-year-old Aurielle and 15-month-old Austin — suffer the way he did as a child.
The visiting team’s offense meticulously moved the ball down Gwynn Park High School’s home turf on a Friday night late in the season. They picked up first downs and momentum 10 yards at a time, as the game clock crept slowly toward the final horn.
“We’re going to score on y’all,” the players taunted.
Never mind the fact that the outcome of the game was decided long ago, with Gwynn Park holding a commanding lead — this possession was about pride. Gwynn Park had gone nearly the entire season without allowing a touchdown on its home field, and it wasn’t about to start tonight, even if it took a goal-line stand.
“They weren’t even worried about winning the game,” Mitchell said. “Because they knew that wasn’t going to happen. A big thing for them was just to score on us.”
After his mother separated his father and moved the family to Brandywine to live with as many as 10 other relatives in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house, Mitchell found a new home on the football field. Standing taller than 6-feet and wearing size-16 shoes, Mitchell earned a starting job as offensive guard and defensive end his freshman year.
Mitchell grew stronger and thicker and moved to inside linebacker his junior season, which meant he would have to pick a linebacker number. He chose 48. Mitchell acknowledges that it didn’t have a whole lot of significance; at least it didn’t at first. But as Mitchell developed into a powerful linebacker and the heart of a ferocious defense, opposing teams made sure they knew where 48 was on the football field.
He racked up more than 200 tackles, six interceptions and 24 sacks in his two seasons at middle linebacker and earned nearly every honor in the book: PrepStar and SuperPrep All-American, Maryland Defensive Player of the Year, All-Met Player of the Year. The list goes on and on. For his accomplishments, Gwynn Park made No. 48 the first jersey ever retired in school history.
“It’s a number that I did well with and got retired,” Mitchell said. “That’s why I carried it on to Michigan State and I carry it with me in the ring.”
A Spartan is born
It was big. It was powerful. It could conquer any hill or pull any load no matter the conditions outside. Michigan State linebacker coach Mike Cox told Mitchell about his brand new ride one afternoon while watching film, and perhaps it was only fitting that Mitchell, a man who embodied some of the same attributes, would also want a Hummer.
Cox told Mitchell not to worry. You’ll get your Hummer when you get to the NFL. “I’ve got a long way to go,” Mitchell said. But Cox reassured him: “I coached a lot of linebackers and you got what it takes. You’ve just got to get your knee right.”
If only it were that simple.
A self-described “bruiser” who loved to stop the run, Mitchell had his choice of about 30 Division I schools — most of the ACC, all of the Big Ten, Notre Dame. But No. 48 found a home in the physical Big Ten, a conference he defines as “a smashmouth league.”
Coach Bobby Williams called Mitchell into his office just a few weeks into the Spartans’ 2001 training camp to ask if he wanted to redshirt or play his freshman year. Of course, Mitchell wanted to play. “Williams said: ‘Good. Because you are starting at middle linebacker,” Mitchell remembers.
Just a few months into his college career, Mitchell bullied his way to the top of the depth chart, ahead of a fifth-year senior. Then, just as it seemed Mitchell was on the track to college success, another player rolled up on Mitchell’s massive legs in practice. As quickly as Mitchell jumped into the starting lineup, he was out of it with an MCL tear.
In five seasons at Michigan State, he limped through just 17 games on cortisone shots and painkillers. Watching the old, grainy game film today, Mitchell sees himself walking with a gimp by halftime. But coaches told him he was better at 75 percent than most of the team was at 100 percent, and they had a point. Even though he was healthy enough for just four games his redshirt sophomore season and was limited to less than 30 plays in each of those games, Mitchell led the team in tackles in conference play.
Unfortunately, the linebacker’s wounded wheel never fully recovered and prevented him from realizing his full potential. Seven knee surgeries later, Mitchell got fed up with the shots and the pills and the pain and gave up football once and for all.
“Everyone gets nicks and bruises. Sore this and sore that. It was just my left knee, I couldn’t shake,” Mitchell said. “If it wasn’t for that, I definitely feel that I would be in the NFL.”
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.”
“If I achieve what I want to achieve in boxing, which is be to financially secure, have my health and be heavyweight champion of the world, then I want people to be able to say this guy is the same person as champion as he was when he was 1-0,” Mitchell said.
That shouldn’t a problem, just so long as Mitchell keeps putting on those black velvet trunks and remembers the stories behind the symbols.
Said Mitchell: “When I get new shorts made, you’re going to always see the Spartan and you’re going to always see the 48 somewhere.”