My late friend Bert Sugar would frequently opine, when asked about the dire state of the contemporary American heavyweight boxing scene, that "the best heavyweight in America today is Ray Lewis." He was not commenting specifically on the pugilistic abilities of the Baltimore Ravens linebacker, of course, but making a point: that with his combination of size, athleticism and focused aggression, Lewis might have been, in an era not too far removed from our own, attracted more to the prospect of being heavyweight champion of the world than a career in the National Football League.
It is a thesis that, to the latest contender to be fitted for the mantle of America's next great heavyweight hope, makes sense.
"I'm not really a historian, but I know back in the day -- 30, 40, 50 years ago -- there were not a lot of opportunities for especially African-Americans to compete at sports such as basketball and football," said Seth "Mayhem" Mitchell, who will put his 24-0-1 record on the line Saturday against Chazz Witherspoon on HBO from Atlantic City, N.J. "Now you have baseball, you have football, you have basketball, and what people fail to realize is that it's hard to make a living in this sport of boxing. Whether you're making a lot of money or a little money, you're still getting hit in the face, you're still sparring all these rounds. People might see you on TV and think you're making a lot of money, but that's really not the case. So it's hard to make it in boxing, and I think with these other sports and being able to earn a great living in all these other sports, I certainly think that's hindering the sport of boxing."
Had circumstances been different, Mitchell might well have been one of those making a living on the gridiron. A star linebacker at Michigan State -- he once recorded 17 tackles in a game against Ohio State -- his footballing prospects were ended by injury. He stayed at college to conclude his studies and graduated with a criminal justice degree; in 2006, after watching Tommy Zbikowski, who was then a Notre Dame safety, win his pro boxing debut at Madison Square Garden, Mitchell elected to try his hand at the sweet science. A brief amateur career -- 10 fights, nine wins -- ensued, and in 2008, four months before his 26th birthday, Mitchell turned professional.
Middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, who famously didn't lace up a pair of gloves until he was 20, has shown that it is theoretically possible for a naturally gifted athlete to succeed in the ring even after a late start. Mitchell, however, is one of the very few members of the former-football-player-turned-boxer fraternity to have become regarded as anything more than a curiosity.
"You know, to be honest, it's funny, because when I decided to box, I never put myself in that category," he said. "There are plenty of football players who try to cross over into boxing and haven't been successful. I just believed in myself, and believed that with hard work and belief and faith that I could achieve greatness in this sport. And so far, so good."
Whether Mitchell's path ultimately will end in greatness remains to be seen. There will be plenty of people along the way, beginning with Witherspoon on Saturday, looking to upset that apple cart, and the college graduate would himself likely concede that his boxing grade is at this stage incomplete. At the same time, a well-spoken, hard-hitting American heavyweight is just what a lot of boxing fans in this country are looking for, and Mitchell is well aware that an increasing number of those fans are looking at him to fill that role.
"I'm glad that people are choosing me to bring back the American heavyweight division," Mitchell said. "I'd be lying to you if I said it didn't feel good. But I know I just have to work hard to continue to get better, and that's what I'm trying to do."