Takoma Park 140-pounder Sharmba Mitchell has won eight consecutive fights, including three in the last eight months, and says he's never felt better.
When the 34-year-old steps into the ring at Glendale Arena in Phoenix tonight for his long-awaited rematch with Russian-born Kostya Tszyu, he will face a boxer who has been inactive for more than 21 months. First an Achilles' injury, then a torn shoulder tendon kept Tszyu (30-1) out of the ring and postponed rematches with Mitchell (55-3).
And even though Tszyu, 35, has eschewed a tune-up bout, deciding instead to fight Mitchell for the International Boxing Federation junior welterweight crown, Mitchell is not counting on Tszyu suffering from "ring rust."
"It's something I can't think about and I haven't thought about," Mitchell said. "Some people can overcome a layoff, some can't. Look at [Felix] Trinidad. Maybe [Tszyu] is one of the exceptions, one that can come back and look just like he did before the layoff."
Last month, Trinidad ended a nearly two-and-a-half year retirement when he scored a technical knockout victory over Ricardo Mayorga in the eighth round of their 160-pound bout at Madison Square Garden. Trinidad's decision not to fight a lesser opponent in his first fight back was questioned, until he sparkled against Mayorga, flooring the former champion three times before the fight was stopped.
Tszyu thinks he can have an equally successful return. He said he has been in training for most of the layoff, that he's pleased with his form and that his shoulder is not bothering him at all.
"Usually when you have some injury, it reminds you," Tszyu said. "But this particular time, I don't have any reminder of it."
When Tszyu and Mitchell first met, it was an injury to Mitchell that had determined the fight's outcome. Mitchell tore ligaments in his left knee in the days before their Feb. 3, 2001 bout, and despite swelling and a loss of sensation in the knee on the day of the fight, Mitchell decided to step into the ring. Through seven rounds, Mitchell was tied with Tszyu on one judge's scorecard and trailed on the other two, 68-64 and 68-65, respectively. But his knee would not allow him to answer the bell in the eighth round.
"I don't regret [the decision to fight] because, shoot, I'd probably still be in lawsuits now, and I'd probably still be getting criticized by the media," Mitchell said. "In this sport, anything can happen. One punch can turn a fight. I got in there, and I did well."
But the injury limited the punches he could throw, took away from his power and restricted his movement. Mitchell won't have those problems -- or excuses, if you ask Tszyu -- this time around.
And he likely will be better equipped to handle any rough tactics. Tszyu threw or pushed Mitchell to the canvas five times in the first fight -- Mitchell said Tszyu was trying to hurt his leg, Tszyu said he was protecting himself from Mitchell's advances.
"I picked up on some of my WWF moves," Mitchell joked. "I probably will welcome it. If I end up putting him in a figure-four leg lock, don't get mad."
Since that loss, Mitchell has patiently waited for another chance at Tszyu. Twice the rematch was set up, most recently for Feb. 7 in Moscow, but both times it was postponed because of Tszyu's injuries.
But Mitchell stayed focused, continued training and took care of business against the replacement fighters he faced.
"It took me back to the days when I was 29-0 and 30-0, and I was supposed to get a world title fight, then not getting it and then having to fight another person only to still not get the title fight," Mitchell said. "I got frustrated at a young age and then did not train and ended up losing and missing my world title shot. You learn a lot from when you are young. So now it is like just deal with it, it will come."
Finally, it is here. Tonight's fight, which sets up as a classic boxer (Mitchell) versus puncher (Tszyu) matchup, gives Mitchell a chance to settle what he calls "unfinished business," and establish himself as one of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters.
"This is the thing that's been on my shoulders and back and over my head for three years now," Mitchell said.