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Notebook: Mitchell tries to make difficult transition from football to boxing

29
Jul

LAS VEGAS — The fate of football players-turned-boxers is more or less a joke in boxing. The likes of Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Mark Gastineau won the majority of their fights because of their bulk but were no better than bar-room brawlers.

Seth Mitchell might be different.

Only a few years ago, Mitchell was playing linebacker at Michigan State after an All-American high school career. A knee injury cut his career short, though. He played only two years at MSU and stayed an extra year to earn his degree in criminal justice.

It was during that year that he saw on television Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski, an amateur boxer, in his only professional boxing match. Mitchell played against Zbikowski, now with the Baltimore Ravens, in college.

“ESPN showed Zbikowski fighting at Madison Square Garden,” said Mitchell, who fights Derek Bryant in a 10-round heavyweight bout on the Juan Manuel Marquez-Juan Diaz card Saturday. “I played against Tom. That piqued my interest. I decided to give boxing a try and the rest is history.

“I can honestly say if it wasn’t for seeing Tom Zbikowski, I wouldn’t be boxing today.”

Mitchell, 28, returned to his hometown of Brandywine, Md., found a trainer in his area (Andre Sutton) and set about fighting. Today, 2¾ years into his professional career, he’s 17-0-1 (with 11 knockouts) and determined to become heavyweight champion.

Will the late start hinder his progress as it did with his football-playing predecessors?

“Yeah, I got into boxing at 25,” he said, “but I don’t have a lot of mileage on me. I’m an athlete and a quick learner, a student of the game. Whatever I put my mind to I focus on hard. ÔǪ When I played football, I studied films for more hours than I had to. In boxing, I put in more miles than I have to. I knew everything would come to fruition once I got the hang of it.

“I still have a lot of learning to do but I feel I’m ahead of the learning curve. I truly believe the future is bright for me.”

Sutton, his trainer, was dubious when someone recommended him to Mitchell but is sold on his prot├®g├® now.

“Actually, looking at the past football players in boxing, I didn’t think too much of it,” said Sutton, referring to the idea of working with a former football player. “I saw he was serious after about two weeks, saw he had ability, and here we are. Is he different from the others? Way different. He has the work ethic, the ability to pick up the boxing game fast. He watches tapes and learns.

“And I think God just gave him the ability to adapt pretty much to any sport.”

It hasn’t been easy.

In team sports, Mitchell said, you share an experience with many teammates. In boxing, when you step through the ropes, you’re all alone with someone whose goal is to hurt you.

It’s a lonely feeling.

“I’ve been involved in team sports my whole life,” he said. “You have team camaraderie. I know you prepare (to fight) with a trainer. He doesn’t go out on the battlefield with you, though. You’re all alone.”

Of course, if you’re successful, that means you claim all the rewards. That also is something Mitchell thinks about.

“I’ve envisioned since I was 12 years old that I would do something involved in sports to provide for my family,” he said. “I was thinking about my mom because I had a rough childhood growing up. My main focus now is my (pregnant) wife and son-to-be.

“I see it happening. I can feel it. I can touch it.”

Faded champion? Joel Casamayor, one of the better fighters of his era, somehow became 39 (possibly older) and almost an afterthought on a deep card Saturday night.

Casamayor (37-4-1, 22 KOs) is the underdog against rising star Robert Guerrero in a 10-round junior welterweight bout and in a must-win situation if he wants to become a legitimate title contender again.

The 1992 Olympic champion from Cuba has fought only once in almost two years after Marquez in 2008 became the first to knock him out.

Most observers feel he has declined. He’ll hear none of that, though.

“I’ve never been an underdog in my mind,” he said. “If that’s what people think, that I’m the underdog, that’s their opinion. I don’t feel like an underdog. ÔǪ I feel rested. I trained very hard. I’m ready to go. Look at Bernard Hopkins. He’s 45 and keeps fighting. Shane Mosley fought the best fighter in the world [Floyd Mayweather Jr.] at 38. Nate Campbell fought Victor Ortiz at 38.

“Old men are in style now. Basically, I’m not looking at this as a do-or-die situation. I came here to fight and win. I feel great, thank God.”

Casamayor provided a short list of fighters he’d like to fight: Marquez (if he wins on Saturday), Marcos Maidana, Timothy Bradley and Devon Alexander.

“I want a huge fight,” he said. “I’ll fight whoever at 140. And If I can get a big fight at 135, I’m willing to go down there.”

Game player: Dmitry Pirog (16-0, 13 KOs) made an unusual transition to boxing when he was a child.

The 30-year-old Russian, who fights Daniel Jacobs for a vacant middleweight title on Saturday, said he was becoming a very good chess player when he decided at 8 years old that he needed some physical activity.

“I went to a local (recreation area) where they had a lot of sports,” he said through an interpreter. “I was going to play soccer but then I walked into a boxing gym and stuck with it the rest of my life.”

Pirog, who said he “had some achievements in chess,” was asked tongue-in-cheek whether he’s better at chess of boxing.

“Now, boxing,” he said with a big smile.

Quick adjustment: Pirog has never competed professionally outside of Europe, having fought all but one of his fights in Russia, but he said he was perfectly comfortable before an open workout last week in a Hollywood, Calif., gym.

In fact, he said he has always wanted to fight in the U.S.

“I like the fans in America more,” he said. “They like the guy who is fighting better; they’ll be a fan of anybody. They understand boxing better. In Europe, they like the home fighter much more. Here, they just enjoy boxing and will cheer for anybody.

“I hope to fight here more often.”

American touch: One thing you might notice about Pirog is that he doesn’t have the mechanical style of most Europeans, which can be attributed at least in part to co-trainer Victor Petrochenko.

Petrochenko, an amateur fighter in the old Soviet system, watched the best American fighters on TV in the 1960s and ’70s and fell in love with the style of fighting.

“It was very aggressive, very powerful,” Petrochenko said through the interpreter. “When I started boxing, I implemented that myself. Now my fighters fight in that style. ÔǪ My main fascination with the American system is that it’s not static. I don’t like a static system. I want creativity, space to create.

“Americans fight more for show, more-pleasant to watch. The European school doesn’t have that. It’s more static.”

Petrochenko doesn’t dismiss the more-disciplined European style, though. He actually teaches an American-European hybrid style.

“I teach aggression ÔǪ but controlled aggression,” he said.

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