When he was attending Michigan State, Seth Mitchell often would wake up and almost immediately begin entertaining thoughts of skipping class. So many distractions, so many other social opportunities availed themselves to the standout football player that academics seemed inconsequential during those moments.
But Mitchell managed to sling his body out of bed and be in his classroom seat by the required time, keeping in mind the value of a college degree even though an athletic scholarship had him on a path to the NFL.
Little did Mitchell appreciate at the time how that determination would impact his post-graduate career, when the Brandywine native decided to give it a go as a heavyweight fighter after a knee injury dashed aspirations of playing professional football.
These days, instead of rising for class or attending study hall, the undefeated Mitchell (24-0-1, 18 knockouts) has been challenging his physical limitations while training for his HBO-televised bout against Chazz Witherspoon on Saturday night in Atlantic City for the vacant North American Boxing Organization title.
The fight is scheduled for 12 rounds, a first for Mitchell, 29, who hasn’t gone longer than eight rounds in his career. Only one of Mitchell’s last nine fights lasted beyond the third round, and all came via knockout.
“No one wants to study all the time. No one wants to go to class every single day and sit in there for those grueling hours,” said Mitchell, who received a degree in criminal justice with a specialization in security management. “But it’s something you have to do if you want to achieve a certain goal. If you want to reach the apex, you’ve got to do what you’re supposed to do, and that just goes with boxing.”
Witherspoon, meantime, also owns a college degree, making this the uncommon fight in which the principals easily could be part of the white-collar workforce rather than trading blows inside the boxing ring.
Witherspoon’s path to college was through an academic scholarship, although he received multiple offers to play Division I basketball and run track. The Philadelphia-born fighter elected to pursue a degree in pharmaceutical marketing at Saint Joseph’s after amassing a 3.8 grade-point average in high school, and Witherspoon (30-2, 22 KOs) joked if he weren’t in the fight game, he’d probably be carrying a briefcase.
Witherspoon, 30, began his amateur boxing career before graduating in 2005, winning a pair of local Golden Gloves titles and a national Golden Gloves championship. He also placed second in the U.S. championships in 2004 to qualify for the Olympic trials and made the U.S. Olympic team as an alternate.
“I believe Seth is that same type of guy,” Witherspoon said. “When I read up on him, and from what I’ve seen and heard, he’s somebody that’s worked hard in athletics and in football and became an all-American, and he’s doing that in boxing now, too. What he’s doing speaks for itself in a short amount of time.”
Mitchell’s ascent through the professional ranks came after just 10 amateur bouts; considering he started to box relatively late in his athletic career, his trajectory is on an accelerated pace compared with other notable heavyweights. Fort Washington’s Riddick Bowe, for instance, didn’t get his first major title shot until his 32nd fight.
With a victory over Witherspoon, Mitchell’s opportunity to fight unified heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko probably would come within his next several bouts and certainly before the 30th fight of his career. A win also would reinforce Mitchell’s standing as the most promising candidate to bring the unified heavyweight championship back to the United States for the first time in more a decade.
“I know if I don’t win this fight against Chazz Witherspoon, it’s just going to set me back,” Mitchell said. “I want to keep this train moving, keep the hype going, just keep my momentum. I think that’s big because ultimately my goal is to fight for the championship and hopefully become financially secure and win the heavyweight championship of the world.”