Takoma Park 140-pounder Sharmba Mitchell has been longing for a rematch with Kostya Tszyu for more than three years. But when he finally gets it Saturday night in Phoenix, there will be more at stake than revenge. And more than the International Boxing Federation light welterweight title.
In a professional career of more than 16 years, Mitchell, 34, has compiled a sterling 55-3 record, won several title belts and earned the respect of boxing insiders as a brilliantly skilled tactical fighter.
But mainstream recognition, even in his home town, and the benefits of boxing superstardom -- like anchoring a pay-per-view card -- have eluded him.
That could change in 12 rounds or less on Saturday against the Russian-born Tszyu (30-1), considered by the boxing world to be the undisputed 140-pound champ, in a fight Mitchell did not hesitate to label "career-defining."
"This fight puts me in a category with some of the great, great fighters," Mitchell said. "This fight here is what I need and what I want, and it will take me to bigger and better things."
Atop that list is status as one of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters. He also would be in line for potentially lucrative bouts with top 140-pounders such as Floyd Mayweather Jr., Miguel Cotto and Arturo Gatti.
"It's not only for the king of the hill at 140 pounds," promoter Gary Shaw said. "It is more than just the belts that are at stake. It re-opens a lot of doors for Sharmba to a lot of other fights. . . . So it transcends the sport in that it really opens up a weight division for Sharmba Mitchell to dominate with big fights that the fans are interested in."
Mitchell's chance comes at Glendale Arena in Phoenix, of all places, far from the epicenter of the boxing universe and not the first, second or even third choice of Mitchell and his handlers -- "We think it makes no sense for a white Russian living in Australia and a black athlete from D.C. to be fighting in Phoenix," Mitchell's longtime adviser, Jeff Fried, said.
But toiling in relative anonymity is nothing new, according to Mitchell. He just has a hard time explaining why that's the case.
"You have somebody from home that's doing it and doing it well," Mitchell said. "I'm not a troublemaker. I don't get in trouble with drugs, drunk driving, junk like that. Why not respect what I do in my game?"
The answer may lie in the sagging popularity of boxing. The heavyweight division, which usually attracts most fans, is bereft of talent. Except for several Hispanic fighters, few boxers have passionate legions of fans.
Boxers hailing from the East Coast especially have trouble. A recent example is middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, a Philadelphian who had to knock out Latino stars Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad before anyone but hardcore fight fans took notice.
Fried, however, believes all Mitchell lacks on his resume is a transcendent victory over a compelling opponent. He referred to Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali, among others, and said they would not have become as famous as they did had it not been for their foils -- Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and Marvin Hagler for Leonard, Joe Frazier and George Foreman for Ali.
Even in Mitchell's division, where he and Tszyu are considered the top fighters, Gatti is the most recognizable, mostly because of his epic battles with Micky Ward.
"I certainly wish that Sharmba would get the credit that he deserves for being a great fighter and more importantly a great human being," Fried said. "But I'm also realistic that most of that marketability and status come about after a great fight. And while Sharmba is a great fighter and has participated in great fights, he really hasn't fought the marquee fighters. . . . The fact is he has not participated in very many major boxing events."
Mitchell waited nearly 13 years for a fight in that category -- his first bout with Tszyu for the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council light welterweight belts -- but it was derailed almost before it started. In the days before their Feb. 3, 2001, fight in Las Vegas, Mitchell tore ligaments in his left knee. Despite swelling and numbness in the knee, Mitchell decided to go ahead with the fight.
The first seven rounds were close, but Mitchell was unable to answer the bell for the eighth round because of his knee.
"I don't think I'd change [the decision to fight], because it proved I was a warrior," Mitchell said.
Still, it was a loss. And while Tszyu went on to unify the 140-pound title nine months later with a second-round knockout of Zab Judah, Mitchell had surgery and was inactive for more than a year.
Once his knee had been repaired, Mitchell reconstructed his career. He has won eight straight bouts, including three in the last eight months, and he claimed the IBF "interim" title made available because of Tszyu's inactivity (two injuries have kept Tszyu out of the ring for 21 months and postponed the Mitchell rematch twice).
Unless or until Mitchell avenges the loss to Tszyu, however, he will be champion in name only. And he likely will continue to be appreciated only by hardcore boxing fans and overlooked at home.
"It ticks me off, yes it does, but what can you say?" Mitchell said. "The only thing I can do is keep doing what I do and being the best at what I do. I only can change my life. As long as my kids and my family and my business family know I'm great at what I do, it doesn't make a difference whether anyone else knows."