Few world champions retire while still holding their titles, most need to be pushed from their thrones. There’s the lure of that next big payday, the unwillingness to relinquish the glory and the spotlight associated with being the champion, as well as peer and promotional pressures. “Just one more” they say, “one more and then I’ll stop,” but that’s easier said than done. The fact that Brian Mitchell, former WBA and IBF junior lightweight world champion, was able to walk away while at the top of his game speaks measures of what made him great.
With 12 successful defenses of the WBA crown and then winning the IBF title against another legendary fighter in Tony Lopez, Mitchell could easily have hung on for just one more, but he knew that it was time to stop and it was the fact that he knew himself and his body so well that made him such a successful champion in the first place.
Honored at a gala dinner at the Emperor’s Palace in Kempton Park on Tuesday night as South Africa’s fighter of the century, Brian Mitchell was perhaps a little overwhelmed by the thousand people in attendance, who had paid in the region of 70 US dollars each to attend the function. “The fact that 16 years after his retirement Mitchell still receives this sort of support is a tribute in itself to what he meant for boxing in this country.” said Rodney Berman, who promoted Mitchell for most of his career.
Mitchell did make a comeback three years after his retirement, won two more fights and then called it quits for good. “When I was fighting I always said that when I retire it’ll be for good,” said Mitchell. “I didn’t want to end up one of those boxers who keeps coming back and everybody wishes he’ll stay retired. I was lured back, however, and part of me wanted it all back, it’s hard to let it go. Even though I won my fights, I could feel that it was over. It was harder to train, to motivate myself and when I climbed into the ring I saw my timing wasn’t quite what it was and I knew I wasn’t as good as I was before. It wasn’t easy but another big payday wasn’t worth destroying a legacy I had worked so hard to achieve.”
It was tough for Mitchell to walk away and he missed the spotlight tremendously and understandably so. But he had the strength of his conviction and this time did not return to the ring. I first met Brian in person in 1990, while shooting a television interview with him in his home in the suburb of Bedfordview, shortly after his first fight against Jackie Beard in which he was cut up pretty badly. He was a world champion at the height of his career and was an outspoken Christian and a very confident champion.
Over the last 16 years I’ve seen the various faces and phases of his life. Seen his internal struggles, his professional highs and lows, and while many purely sing lyrical to his achievements, one should also remember he is human and in honesty he has never really tried to hide that fact. He had great success early in his life, established himself as a living legend and then had to come down to being a mortal amongst men.
What stood out for me on what was a most enjoyable evening was not the fact that the person being honored truly deserved it – which he most certainly did – but hopefully similar recognition at the International Boxing Hall of Fame is not too far away. What stood out for me was that there were flashes of the old Brian Mitchell visible in this older version. That contagious excitement and confidence I had seen in him all those years before, which had been missing since he hung up his gloves, was back. The contentment and being comfortable in who he was could be seen again.
Mitchell, by his own acknowledgement, was not the most naturally talented boxer. He never had an outstanding punch and his style looked deceivingly beatable. However, in 14 world title fights he never lost. What he had was an incredible conviction to win and a discipline to always be at his best physically and mentally when entering a ring. He honed the skills he had and pushed himself beyond any perceived limitations and always gave of his best. He was a role model in this regard. It’s not merely about what gifts you are given, but it’s all about how you use what you do have. His fights were always busy and entertaining affairs and it’s difficult to imagine anybody ever beating him.
The fact that Mitchell gave himself wholeheartedly to his fistic career did come with a heavy price. When he hung up his gloves there was a void and I believe a feeling that perhaps he would no longer be acknowledged or remembered for what he had done. He was the nation’s lone flag bearer, the man who singlehandedly kept boxing alive in the late 1980’s. He was a patriotic symbol which inspired boxers of all races and was respected as a champion because he had beaten all local opposition before embarking on his world tour of defenses.
Perhaps now that he has received this tribute Mitchell will sleep easier knowing that his legacy will not be swept under a rug and forgotten. People still remember and love the memories Brian Mitchell gave them and, yes, we could certainly do with another like him. “Thank you to all of you for supporting me throughout my career and tonight,” said Mitchell. “I was never allowed the privilege of defending my title in front of my home crowd, in front of you. That’s the biggest regret of my career. Climbing in the ring tonight it felt as though I was about to do just that. It’s moments like this that make me feel like making a comeback.”
A former sponsor of Mitchell shared the following anecdote. “We were at a function being attended by then state president F.W. De Klerk. I asked Mitchell if we could walk over to him and if he would introduce me to the president. He replied, 'Don’t worry. Just now he’ll walk over here and say hello to us.'”
South Africa has produced many fine fighters in its proud boxing history, many who will never receive the global acknowledgement for their skills and abilities, many who never got the opportunity to show their wares on the world stage, but irrespective of what might-have-been, Brian Mitchell did step up when given the opportunity to do so and grabbed it with both hands and never let go.
He was a world champion in every respect of the word and while stones can always be thrown, nobody can ever take that away from him. He is an undefeated world champion and by all accounts one of the world’s all-time greats in the division.
While a youngster he was nicknamed “Champ” by former bantamweight world champion Arnold Taylor. That moniker stuck in his mind and manifested itself in his reality. Determination combined with a dream, took Mitchell to greatness.