Johnathon Banks Sacks Seth Mitchell

Photos by Gautham Nagesh for StiffJab.com

by Gautham Nagesh

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J.—Emanuel Steward may be gone, but his legendary Kronk Gym lives on in both name and spirit.

Steward’s protégé Johnathon Banks (above) made sure of that on Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall, derailing fast-rising heavyweight Seth Mitchell (below) with an inspired performance. Banks was too quick and too slick for the former Michigan State linebacker, knocking Mitchell down three times en route to a second-round stoppage. Banks later dedicated the win to Steward, who first taught him to box at the age of 15.

“I know he’s a man of knockouts, he loved knockouts,” Banks said of Steward. “Never forgotten, and we’re truly going to miss him.”

Banks has fought 31 times professionally and lost only once, but is still viewed as a disappointment by some. Like most Michigan boxers, he fights only sporadically and often in far-flung locations, far from the mainstream fight press. Now, after spending half his life in a boxing gym, Banks suddenly finds himself victorious on HBO, just one week after training heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko to victory.

How he got there will be replayed and debated endlessly. Mitchell’s late embrace of the Sweet Science is well-documented, but his imposing size, strength and athletic talent have helped him play catch up with remarkable speed. Just five years after he first walked into Old School Boxing Gym, Mitchell has become an HBO fixture and is fighting near the top level. There was even talk of a Klitschko fight next year, though that now seems beyond premature.

Mitchell controlled the first round, stalking the smaller Banks around the ring and pumping his heavy jab. Mitchell’s hands and arms are so large, his punches resemble a medicine ball attached to a tree trunk. He appeared to affect Banks early with both his jab and body shots, while the Detroiter looked downright timid in comparison.

But Banks was merely playing possum. He came out for the second round trying to counter, stopping Mitchell’s advance with well-placed jabs instead of merely tying up. A left hook also landed as Banks bounced around the ring, looking clearly more comfortable than his foe. Mitchell is dynamic, but not as quick or fluid as a natural boxer. Even his most effective punches are more notable for their violence than technique. He has so much power to spare, his awkward technique is seldom penalized.

On this night it was. Mitchell landed a thudding right hand to the body, which drew gasps from the crowd. Banks retreated and Mitchell followed him to the ropes, leaning in and over-committing with a sweeping right hand. Banks bounced off the ropes to avoid the punch, then came back immediately with a right uppercut-left hook combination that rocked Mitchell badly. Seth kept his feet and tried to hug Banks around the waist, but the Detroiter merely shrugged him off with the left before smashing Mitchell to the canvas with his own right hand.

Mitchell rose, clearly dazed, and tried to hold on with more than half the round left. But his attempts to grab his opponent were unsuccessful, as Banks smartly punched inside his foe’s arms. Mitchell then tried gamely to fight back, launching his huge left hook but missing, while Banks continued the barrage. Another right hand hurt Mitchell for the second time, then Mitchell tried to bully Banks back against ropes.

Banks was ready, waiting for his moment and snapping Mitchell’s neck with a short left hook to the chin. Mitchell’s legs started to go as Banks hit him with three hard right hands, the last one sending him crashing into the ropes for the second knockdown. Mitchell bravely rose, but he had no legs left. Banks came right after him, landing a pair of massive rights that dropped Mitchell for the third time. Seth was struggling to his feet as referee Eddie Cotton waved off the fight, handing Mitchell his first career loss.

Mitchell was remarkable composed afterward, referring to the loss as a learning experience and appearing humble yet determined at the post-fight presser. Given his football career, it’s not surprising he is used to dealing with losses and setbacks. And make no mistake, this was a big one. Banks is a small heavyweight, and not often mentioned among the division’s best. Banks’ talent outstrips his reputation, but the loss will convince Seth’s detractors that his late start cannot be overcome.

That is likely too harsh. Seth has his flaws, chiefly defensive, and he will never be mistaken for Pernell Whitaker. One could also question the wisdom of matching a talented but raw heavyweight against such a well-schooled puncher, exactly the kind of fighter capable of pulling the upset. Still, Mitchell is only 30 and has been boxing for just five years. The loss, though a bad one, did not appear to shake his confidence or seriously affect his health. There’s no reason to believe he’s not capable of becoming a star, provided a renewed commitment to honing his technique.

But more caution should likely be taken in terms of choosing Mitchell’s opponents. The Klitschkos are out of the question at the moment, as both would be able to tag Seth with a right hand right now from a mile away. Fast, slick heavies like Banks and Eddie Chambers are likewise probably an unsafe choice, especially if they can punch. But there are plenty of large, slow Europeans and even Americans out there looking for a heavyweight payday, and Mitchell could use the seasoning. Being hit a few times without getting his clock cleaned may help him avoid those shots later.

As for Banks, the win is a nice tribute to his mentor and could pay bigger dividends down the road. As the trainer of the top fighter in the division, Banks logically doesn’t appear to be a contender for a title shot. However, a rematch with Tomasz Adamek might change that impression and would give Banks a chance to avenge his only loss. That fight would fit well on NBC Sports, which has purchased additional dates from Adamek’s promoter Main Events to fill some of the vacuum left by the NHL lockout.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some personal connection to this fight. Mitchell is not just one of our favorite local boxers to cover, he is a genuinely nice guy that I have grown to respect during our many conversations. I spoke to him afterward on Saturday night and he seems undeterred by the setback; as such, I’m confident he will rebound and continue to refine his skills. Mitchell showed plenty of heart in this fight and his work ethic will help bring him back. Where he can go remains the big question.

I also had the privilege of visiting Kronk multiple times this year, and speaking at length with the great Emanuel Steward. It is hard not to smile when you realize that Banks now has a shot at being the 42nd world champion tutored by Steward. It has been a rough month for denizens of Kronk, who have lost a mentor and patriarch, and for the Michigan State Spartans, who have watched a once-promising football season go up in smoke. Obviously one loss is much greater, so perhaps is fitting that Detroit and not East Lansing enjoyed some much-needed athletic relief on this night.

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