“I need to meet the man in order to beat the man” – Sharmba Mitchell

The year was 2001. Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley were both undefeated and atop pound for pound lists in the eyes of fans and writers across the globe. Gary Shaw was still with Main Events, and Sharmba Mitchell was one of the many champions in the bottomless pit that is Don King’s stable of fighters. Bernard Hopkins signed with Don King in hopes that after years of paying his dues, his long awaited superfight would finally come his way. Ronald “Winky” Wright would once again have no such luck, as Trinidad moved up to middleweight, vacating the very title for which Wright was mandatory challenger in the process. Showtime was still hosting fights on any given Saturday throughout the year.

In the nearly four years since Mr. Mitchell and reigning consensus Light Welterweight champion Kostya Tszyu last squared off, a lot has obviously changed in boxing.

Bernard Hopkins and Ronald “Winky” Wright finally received and dominated their respective breakthrough fights after well over a decade of paying their dues. Gary Shaw split with Main Events to form his own promotional company (Gary Shaw Promotions, LLC ©2002), and arguably surpass the rest of the industry in that regard. Felix Trinidad lost, fought a tuneup, retired and eventually returned, while Shane needs a win to keep his career afloat.

Despite the many changes in the sport throughout the past forty-five months since Tszyu-Mitchell I, two things have not changed; Tszyu is still champ, and Mitchell is still waiting for his shot at redemption.

“Man, I’ve been waiting so long for this rematch, I’ve almost forgotten that we had already fought once,” Mr. Mitchell joked with TheSweetScience.com last week. “People keep asking me if I’m excited, but I just want to know that it’s on in Phoenix.”

For the moment, all systems are go. Though if you remain cynical in believing this fight may never happen, you certainly are not alone. After all the November 6 date for which this rematch is scheduled to take place (live on Showtime from the Glendale Arena in Glendale,AZ, 9PM ET/PT) is the third working date for this very fight, as two separate Tszyu injuries pushed the fight back from September 27, 2003 to February 7 to next Saturday evening. Or so Mitchell hopes.

“I seem to recall the fight being just about this close to happening (a week away) before it once again fell apart. It’s been a rough year waiting for this thing to finally happen. Like I said, I just want to know that it’s on. At this point, I’ll need to see him in the other corner to be guaranteed of such.”

The last time Mitchell saw Tszyu in another corner, an injury was once again a major conversation piece regarding this fight. Last time, it was Sharmba who was forced to deal with the pain, as torn ligaments in Mitchell’s knee prior to the fight had many wondering if in fact the unification bout (Tszyu was WBC champion at the time, Mitchell the WBA) would actually take place.

“Little Big Man” set out to prove that he was “Big Brave Man”, as he assured then-promoter Don King that the show would go on. And on it went, for seven rounds before Mitchell was forced to quit on his stool, as the pain became too much to overcome. Some suggest that it was in fact Tszyu’s punching power that was the deciding factor, but Mitchell – who was even on one card and down by three and four points on the other two at the time of the stoppage – simply dismisses such claims as the typical cynicism with which his career has always been met.

“Anyone else who watches it can clearly see that I was struggling far less with Tszyu than I was with putting conviction behind my punches. I had him hurt a couple of times, but I just couldn’t put any pressure on my leg. I did the best I could with what I had, but the pain in my knee eventually became too much for me to deal with. Shoot, if people don’t believe me, then I need to know where the hell why I paid so much money in doctor’s bills after that fight. Or why I was out of the ring for a year after that fight. It wasn’t because of any damage from his punches, that’s for damn sure.”

What’s also for sure is the fact that since Sharmba has returned to the ring (UD10 over Bernard Harris in March 2002), no world class fighter has been more active. Since the Tszyu loss, the last blemish that he has suffered in his professional career (55-3, 30KO), Sharmba has fought and won eight times. Five have come since Tszyu’s last fight, a sixth round stoppage over Jesse James Leija in his adopted homeland of Austrailia. Four of the five have been sanctioned by the IBF, which to date is the only alphabet title that Kostya (30-1, 24KO) still possesses. The fact that other fighters asked to be removed from the IBF rankings rather than face Mitchell – or Tszyu, for that matter – only further underlines the determination of Team Mitchell to seek redemption.

“The moment that Sharmba shook my hand and began fighting under the GSP banner, our goal has been getting Kostya back in the ring,” says Gary Shaw, who has promoted Mitchell since his November 2002 fight with Vince Phillips. “For a while, it appeared as if it would never happen, but we never gave up hope. It’s been a long wait, a long long wait, but come next week, we finally get our shot.”

One would think that the inconclusive ending to the first fight would be cause enough for a rematch. Instead, Tszyu went on to dismiss Mitchell as “a loudmouth who doesn’t deserve a rematch” while seeking the challengers necessary to retain his titles outside the ring. Enter Shaw and a handshake, and the immediate result is three fights within a six-month span.

The first fight, as mentioned before, was against Phillips, the only man in the professional ranks to have beaten Tszyu. Shaw lobbied for the fight to be an IBF eliminator. However, Phillips was unranked by the organization, thus making the fight a ten round affair. Despite having to wait at least one more fight in order to ensure an eventual rematch with Tszyu, the Phillips fight – in which Mitchell handily won despite the final verdict being a majority decision – another relationship was formed shortly thereafter.

“Along with Gary, Showtime has been huge in helping my cause,” says a most grateful Mitchell. “Just like all I have with Gary is a handshake and our word, such is the same with Showtime. No contract, just their verbal backing, and my word that I’d give them the very best I had each time out. I count on people to honor their word, but I never expected Showtime to be THIS supportive.”

So supportive, that they brought him back two months later on the eve of Super Bowl XXXVII, and again a little more than three months after that. The two fights were both IBF elimination bouts, the latter (UD12 Ben Tackie, May 2003) making Mitchell the mandatory challenger for Tszyu. Only consecutive injuries would force Tszyu to the sidelines twice, while Mitchell was forced to wait. Which he initially did, as he and his team believed that the delay would only last shortly into 2004. When Tszyu pulled up lame the second time, Team Mitchell decided to move forward without him.

“Certain fighters are the type where if they’re not active, they’re not effective,” explains Shaw. “Sharmba is the type where he needs to stay active. My initial goal was to get him the Tszyu rematch. When injuries temporarily prevented that from happening, my next goal was to keep Sharmba busy – and happy.”

The opposite was true prior to life with Gary.

“People keep saying how Don King does all these great things for fighters, but I certainly never experienced any of it,” says Mitchell, reflecting on the years where he was buried on King cards. “Don had me fighting like once every six or seven months. So, when I went to Gary, I told him that I need to stay busy.

Ask and ye shall receive.

Even after securing a guaranteed shot at Tszyu, Sharmba refused to sit on a lead. Rather than wait for the rematch without so much as a tune-up, Shaw managed to line up three fights for Mitchell before the summer had ended, including a bout for the interim IBF title. Oddly enough, the replacement for Tszyu was none other than Kostya’s sparring partner, Lovemore N’Dou. Mitchell managed to grind out a unanimous decision, though he was none to happy with the twelve rounds that led to the verdict.

“I was disappointed with myself that night. I was so pumped for Tszyu, and then wound up fighting down to the level of my competition. I won, no doubt, but I knew that I was – am – a lot better than that. So I told Gary that I needed to get right back in the ring and show I’m right.”

Gary delivered, landing his fighter a co-feature slot against #1 contender Michael Stewart on a Ricky Hatton card in Manchester, England, to be aired by Showtime. Hatton was to fight Kelson Pinto for the vacant WBO title that night, but the bout mysteriously fell apart two days prior to fight night. Hatton’s promoter requested that Ricky fight Stewart, and that Sharmba receive the same payday for a lesser opponent. Sharmba’s response was simple – “I’m fighting Stewart, or I’m fighting Ricky.”

Sharmba fought Stewart – and dropped him three times en route to a lopsided points win. The fight turned out to be an audition for a future Hatton fight; apparently Sharmba failed the audition by doing so well, as Frank Warren never bothered calling back. It’s a move he may now live to regret, should Sharmba wind up victorious in the Tszyu rematch; Hatton is now the mandatory challenger, and guaranteed a shot at the winner. Mitchell plans on winning, and hasn’t forgotten about what went down earlier in the year.

“It doesn’t mean a thing to me,” Mitchell says of Hatton, who continued in his string of feasting on Mitchell’s leftovers when he stopped Stewart in five rounds earlier in the month to “earn” the mandatory ranking. “Ricky had his shot at me earlier in the year, and he and Warren passed. It’s bad enough I had to wait for Tszyu for three years; I don’t plan on waiting for anyone else any longer.”

After forty-five months, it’s fair to say that Mitchell has waited long enough.