Sharmba Mitchell doesn’t toil in a business where sensitivity is prized. He’s a fighter. But when asked if he’s happy with his local profile, the Takoma Park native flashes a touchy side. He wants folks around here to realize a hometown hero is wandering among ’em and has been for years.
“The Capitals can’t get out of the first round of the playoffs. The Wizards never do anything. How long has it been since the Redskins won?” he says. “I’m born here, raised here, and I’m as good as anybody in the world at what I do. But the media gives everybody else all the attention.”
Mitchell’s ring record makes a fine case that he’s underappreciated. Since turning pro in 1988, he’s 55-3, with 30 knockout wins.
And even Mitchell isn’t sure how many titles he’s held. “Six or something like that,” he says. Whatever the number, his fistic achievements have garnered a big ho-hum at home. When Mitchell won his first world title with a unanimous decision over Khalid Rahilou in Paris in 1998, he wasn’t looking for a street to be named in his honor or a parade. But he probably expected that the news that he’d conquered the globe would rate more than a 6-column-inch piece on page D17 of the Washington Post.
On Nov. 6, the Post will have another event to bury deep in the Sports section. Mitchell will fight for the undisputed (or as undisputed as a boxing title can be) junior welterweight crown against heavy-handed Russian Kostya Tszyu.
The bout, which will be telecast live from Arizona on the Showtime network, will give Mitchell a chance to avenge his only defeat of the last decade. In 2001 in Las Vegas, he lost his championship to Tszyu, who is now fighting out of Australia, when a chronically problematic knee gave out after seven rounds.
It’s not as if Mitchell hasn’t tried to get attention. He pals around with LaVar Arrington and childhood friend and fellow Takoma Parker Steve Francis, the NBA star, when not in the ring. And when on the job, his ring ensemble, highlighted by below-the-knee trunks that appear to have been through a wood chipper, is regarded as among the gaudiest in boxing. And that’s saying something.
“Sharmba looks like the
Goodwill box threw up on him,” says Bert Sugar, another Washington native and for years boxing’s go-to raconteur.
And Mitchell’s known as one of the more aggressive trash talkers now in the game—another uneasy feat. He did nothing to hurt his reputation by calling Tszyu “fat boy” in a boxing periodical before the champ had finalized a deal to give Mitchell a rematch.
“Sharmba was really quiet when he first came into our gym as an 8-year-old,” says Brenda Davis, wife and partner of Adrian Davis, Mitchell’s first trainer. “He wouldn’t talk to anybody. But, well, he’s really made up for that.”
And since recovering from surgery to repair the damage that killed his chances against Tszyu, the 34-year-old Mitchell has fought the schedule of a greenhorn. The upcoming bout will be his fourth of 2004. Meanwhile, injuries have kept Tszyu, a 35-year-old with a 30-1 record, out of the ring for nearly two years.
Several of Mitchell’s fights over all those years have been before the locals. His 2001 title match with Reggie Green headlined a 1999 card at MCI Center, but Mitchell’s victory was greatly overshadowed by the mere presence of Don King, his promoter at the time.
Mitchell was also on a 1993 card at RFK Stadium headlined by Riddick Bowe vs. Jesse Ferguson, but all the attention went to the fact that it was the first heavyweight championship fight in D.C. in more than half a century. (That bill has gained stature in boxing circles over time, however, for featuring a bout in which then-superhuman Roy Jones Jr. whupped then-unknown Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins hasn’t lost since, and last month he gave Oscar De La Hoya the beating of his life.)
So Mitchell’s hometown presence remains minimal. The lack of local notoriety, he says, helps get him out of bed every morning at 5, upcoming fight or no upcoming fight, to put in the road work.
“People will write about some dude who just came to town to play soccer before they’ll take a look at me. Some out-of-towner who just got here will get the endorsement deal with Herb Gordon Chevrolet or whoever before I will,” says Mitchell. “I can’t explain why D.C. never pays attention to its own, but that’s the way it is around here. And that motivates me.”
Mitchell is also quite aware that his body of work, particularly since losing the title to Tszyu, hasn’t gone unnoticed in the boxing community.
“Sharmba’s been around a long time, and he’s only gotten better,” says Al Bernstein, the lead boxing commentator for Showtime. “I think part of that longevity is, if you look around, guys are sticking around longer in baseball, football, basketball, hockey—and boxing is no exception. But with Sharmba, him fighting so much at this age is also part of his strategy to keep himself fit and stay in Tszyu’s radar, while waiting for [Tszyu] to get healthy. I think Tszyu would have given him a rematch anyway, but Sharmba forced the issue with that busy schedule. I think that was a brilliantly conceived strategy, and now we’re going to find out if what happened the last time out was really all because of [Mitchell’s injured] knee. I can’t wait for this fight.”
Sugar seconds Bernstein’s emotion, adding that the only aspect of the Mitchell-Tszyu pairing that he’s not excited about is its locale.
“Kostya Tszyu is the heaviest hitter south of the heavyweights that I’ve seen in 40 years,” says Sugar. “I once saw him knock a man down twice with one punch. That’s over the union limit. In terms of pound-for-pound fighters, he’s in everybody’s Top 10, even if they can’t pronounce his name. But Sharmba, he’s exciting, he’s fast, he’s powerful, he’s experienced—and he’s left-handed. Put that together, and he spells trouble for Kostya. This fight deserves Vegas. In Phoenix, they’re gonna be in front of 1,000 people and 2,000 cactus. But I’m looking for a very good fight.”
Mitchell, with his regular degree of professional humility, says he’s sure to come out on top when he faces Tszyu. He’s less certain that a win will affect his local stature, however.
“Come Nov. 6, I’m going to be the undisputed champion of the whole wide world, recognized as the best in the whole wide world at what I do,” he says. “But see if I’m throwing out any first balls.” —Dave McKenna