Dan Rafael: Timur Ibragimov


American heavyweight contenders? They seems like a thing of the past these days, with the division ruled by champions Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko and a whole cast of Europeans populating the division.

The few American contenders that do exist -- Tony Thompson, Cristobal Arreola and Eddie Chambers -- have already shown they can't hack it at the top, as all three have been knocked out by a Klitschko in one-sided fights.

The cast of American contenders is, frankly, pathetic. There aren't even more than a few legitimate prospects. Maybe, for example, 2008 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist Deontay Wilder will emerge as a contender, but he is raw and remains a project.

That brings us to the guy who I have viewed as the best American heavyweight prospect for the past couple of years, Seth Mitchell (23-0-1, 17 KOs) of Brandywine, Md.

I have no idea how far he will go, but he at least looks the part. The 29-year-old Mitchell, who has scored eight consecutive knockouts against modest opposition, is a chiseled 6-foot-2, 240 pounds. He is a tremendous athlete and has displayed good power. He has also improved by leaps and bounds since I first saw him a few years ago.

But he came late to boxing -- in his 20s when he started -- after suffering a knee injury as a standout Michigan State linebacker, which snuffed out his NFL dreams. He had very limited amateur experience (9-1, 9 KOs).

Fighting professionally since 2008, he has come a long way in a short time. Now he is about to enter the big time. He makes his HBO debut against Uzbekistan's Timur Ibragimov (30-3-1, 16 KOs) -- an experienced 36-year-old and 1996 Olympian, but a guy who has never been much more than a second-tier contender -- on Saturday night (HBO, 9:45 ET) at Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

The bout is on the undercard of junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan of England defending his two belts against Washington's Lamont Peterson.

Despite Ibragimov's limitations, he rank as Mitchell's most notable opponent to date. It will be up to Mitchell -- who will be backed by a hometown crowd -- to turn in an impressive showing on boxing's biggest stage to give us all a reason to think he can be the next legitimate American contender.

His team certainly isn't shy about banging that drum.

"I have no doubt that this is Seth Mitchell's time to shine and I can't wait to see him take on Ibragimov and continue his rise as the next great American heavyweight," said Golden Boy's Richard Schaefer, Mitchell's promoter.

"We need an American champion, and certainly I hope it will be that Seth Mitchell is that person that can bring it about," said manager Sharif Salim.

Mitchell has been hearing statements like those for the past couple of years. He seems comfortable with the expectations.

"With everybody saying that I'm the next 'great American' [heavyweight hope], it's a great accolade, but I don't let that blow my head up or think too much of myself," Mitchell said. "I believe in myself and I believe I have the tools and the capability of becoming heavyweight champion of the world. I just continue to just try to work hard and try to be the best that I can so I can provide for my family."

With so few up-and-coming American heavyweights on the radar, Mitchell understands he's in a bit of a fishbowl. He seems to embrace it.

"I think I'm handling it well. I want to be in this position. When the stakes are high, if you're in a position where the stakes are high, you're going in the right direction," Mitchell said. "This is the position that I want to be in. Everything that I'm doing now is a part of the business, is part of promoting the fight. You have to do that to draw attention to the fight. At the same time, you have to maintain focus.

"That's not hard for me to do. I want to be in this position. I want to be on HBO again. So I know that I have to go out there and, most importantly, I have to win. But at the same time, I have a responsibility to look good while winning. It's entertainment, at the same time. So I'm very focused. I'm more so excited about my opponent that I'm fighting. He definitely has my juices flowing because I know he's a good fighter. He can fight. He's going to come to fight."

Ibragimov has never been stopped, but he has lost his three most notable fights: decisions to Calvin Brock (who was one of the last significant American prospects, on HBO in 2006) and Thompson (2007), and a split decision in his last fight, with Jean-Marc Mormeck in December. Ibragimov's most notable wins are decisions against Timo Hoffman in 2007 and long-faded former champ Oliver McCall last year.

Winning is what counts for Mitchell. Looking good is important. But the biggest thing to turn heads would be to score a knockout against a guy with a tested chin.

Mitchell knows it.

"It's a high priority on my list. At the same time, I don't go out there looking for knockouts," Mitchell said. "I just stick with my game plan and the knockouts come. I feel that I have a lot of speed, I have a lot of power, and if I go out there and put that speed and power on my opponent, it'll be hard for them to last the distance. I don't go out there too aggressive and reckless, but it's an entertainment business.

"I said it before: I probably wouldn't be fighting on this card if I was 23-0 with six or seven knockouts. People want to be excited, and I definitely go out there and I'm trying to give them an entertaining fight. With me, win, lose or draw, I'm going to fight. I don't want my knockout reign to end [Saturday]. So, I'll be going out there looking for the knockout, but not being overly aggressive. The main thing is I want to get the 'W,' and I want to look good doing it."

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