The reinvention of Kevin Mitchell

Mark Butcher
17/04/2015 10:00pm

Kevin Mitchell had to lose his way before he found himself as a fighter.

Mitchell’s brand of power and inner fire has always made his fights a compelling spectacle, but the discipline was missing when it mattered. 

Inner turmoil and personal problems blighted the popular West Ham lightweight and played their part in crushing losses against Michael Katsidis and Ricky Burns.

Yet reunited with Tony Sims, the trainer who moulded him as an amateur and guided him to an ABA title in 2003, Mitchell is on the brink of a WBC title shot against new champion Jorge Linares.

The West Ham puncher meets high quality Mexican Daniel Estrada at the O2 Arena on 31 January in a fight sanctioned as a final eliminator for the WBC title. It’s a welcome second chance for Mitchell who narrowly missed out on an IBF 135lbs challenge against former champion Miguel Vazquez after failing to make the check weight for his title eliminator victory over Ghislain Maduma (w tko 11) in May. Given Vazquez’s spidery and often unfathomable style that may have been a blessing in disguise.

“A fight against Vasquez would have been hard work, to get hold of him. He’s awkward and horrible to watch. It would have been a horrible fight,” Mitchell, 38-2 (28 KOs), told Boxing Monthly at Trinity Housein the City of London. “These fights against Estrada and [Linares] are bouts I know I can win. I know Estrada can be chinned. I hit hard. I’m very heavy-handed. My movement has to be very fast moving, explosive and powerful. Not slow, jabbing and moving off him. That’s what I have to do with this kid.”

Mitchell’s world title aspirations seemed in tatters after shock early defeats against former WBO interim champion Katsidis (l tko 3) and ex-WBO title-holder and current gym-mate Burns (l tko 4), but the West Ham fighter’s life was in disarray after a painful break-up from the mother of his children.

“Katsidis chinned me, but people did not know the life that I led going into those fights. It was ridiculous,” admitted Mitchell. “I was fighting outside nightclubs. I was meeting a girl at 3am right before that fight. The night before a world title fight! That shows you where my head was. I split up with my missus, my babies’ mother and I was all over the place. The Ricky Burns fight I had [a long] absence from training. I put on loads of weight and had to lose it all in nine weeks which was a struggle. I just wasn’t there.

“When I first broke up with my babies’ mum, I blew about £180,000 over nine months drinking,” confessed Mitchell. “I was out partying everywhere. I was a young kid with a few quid in the bank. I didn’t know how to invest it and was stressed out with the pressures of not having my kids around me. Things weren’t going right and I struggled – I made mistakes. Now my life is settled. I have the kids every Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m friends with their mum now. I’m training all the time which makes me happy. Having Tony Sims around me is perfect.”

The reconnection with respected trainer Sims has reinvigorated the West Ham fighter with both men wishing they had never parted after a successful amateur partnership. “I trained with Tony up to the age of 18,” recalled Mitchell. “He’s very knowledgeable and knows what makes me tick. He knows how to get me fit and push my boundaries, what to say to me. He does everything right for me. I wish I had listened to Tony when I was 17 and about to turn pro.”

Mitchell’s promoter Eddie Hearn, the guiding light for so many of the UK’s top 135lb fighters, also acknowledged the trainer’s pivotal role in Mitchell’s renaissance. “Tony Sims has transformed Kevin’s career. He’s transformed his life,” Hearn told Boxing Monthly. “Kevin was with him at the start of his amateur career and I think he’s only taken boxing seriously when he’s been with Tony. I believe Kevin can become world champion, but Estrada is a great fight for him. He’s very fit and experienced. I was ringside when Estrada fought (WBC ‘Champion in Recess’) Omar Figueroa and he gave him a lot of problems in the early rounds.”

Sims has a demonstrable, personal affection for Mitchell and believes the West Ham puncher can emulate his previous world champion Darren Barker and overcome life’s obstacles to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

“We parted company because he signed for a promoter I wasn’t working with, Sims told Boxing Monthly. “Through the years, I saw Kevin at shows and we always got on really well. It’s nice to have him back. He’s a lot older and more experienced, but to me he’s still the same Kevin. He’s been with a couple of good trainers along the way, but I feel I moulded him into who he was going to be as a pro. We work well together. I really want to see him win a world title. I know a lot of people do. He’s got that much ability. He should have won it a long time ago, but it’s like he said his head was not there at the time. I just think it was bad preparation. 

“With the Maduma fight, Kevin had 12 weeks of training and was ready. Unfortunately, the morning of the fight he put on an extra 1 3/4 pounds [over the 10st 5lbs check weight limit] and that was a hiccup by him. It won’t happen this time,” stressed Sims. “Kevin was devastated. It took a lot out of him. It was a hard fight and he fought brilliant that night. Maduma was a very good fighter. He was smart, he was fast, he could punch. Kevin had a bit of time out of the gym. I could understand where he was coming from, but Vazquez wouldn’t have been a good fight for Kevin. He’s on his back foot all the time, a very negative fighter. Kevin would have had to chase him which is not what he likes doing. Linares is a come forward fighter. He goes on the floor. Estrada is tough. He’s on the back foot a little bit, but he still has a go. So these fights are tailor-made for Kevin.” 

The 30-year-old Mitchell is a diehard West Ham United fan and draws heavily from the historic football club’s fan base. The East End catchment area is steeped in boxing folklore and, for Mitchell, there would be nothing more special than winning a world title fight at the club’s Upton Park stadium – scene of that disappointing loss to Katsidis in May 2010.

“It’s great to be a West Ham fighter and loved by my own people,” said Mitchell. “I go to Upton Park and I’m friends with the players, but you’ll see me in the pub over there. I’m not the sort of guy who thinks he is the ‘big I am’. I’m just a normal fella and I think that’s why the West Ham fans can relate to me. It’s a passion of mine to have the West Ham fans following me. They go to the arenas, sing my songs and “I’m forever blowing bubbles” [West Ham’s anthem]. You can’t beat that support.” 

“Kevin’s memories of fighting at Upton Park have been bad memories,” added Sims. “It would be nice to put that right for him in his career. Kevin’s so talented and to defend the title at Upton Park against maybe another English lightweight would be an amazing situation. I would be immensely proud and overjoyed for him to win this world title. The same as when Darren Barker won his belt – through the trials and tribulations. When you’re a trainer or manager and watch what fighters go through, the ups and downs in their careers, when they finally make it in the end - it’s such a thrill. Money can’t buy that feeling. If I help Kevin win a world title, nothing will make me more happy.”

Boxers are, of course, susceptible to the same hardships and distractions as the rest of us. Mitchell is a perfect illustration that if a fighter’s personal life is not right, his professional one will suffer, too.

“People don’t see behind the scenes, what goes on in fighters’ personal lives,” explained Sims. “Kevin split up with his wife and his kids and things like that, in your personal life, do not help at all. The general public only sees boxers in the ring. The commentators may say they’ve done 10 weeks of training, but if there are problems going on in their head the training is not what it should be. Your personal life has to be good to come through the training.”

The hard-hitting Mitchell is refreshingly honest about the problems that held back his career in his younger years. “Women. Definitely women!” smiled Mitchell. “I should have pulled out of fights though I never did. But that’s the rollercoaster of life. If I didn’t do those things, and take the chance where I got beaten, I wouldn’t be where I am now.

“I don’t regret one part of it. I’ve loved every minute of it. I’m still on big shows at 30 years of age and yet my time to shine is still to come. I’m known worldwide, but I want to be mega and a household name and 2015 will be the year when I become huge.”