The butterflies flutter when a fighter steps into the ring, but they usually fly away after the first tentative blows.
When Sharmba Mitchell steps into the ring tonight at the Glendale Arena near Phoenix, his nerves may be settled merely by seeing Kostya Tszyu, his opponent in the International Boxing Federation junior-welterweight title fight, step into the ring. That will end 3 1/2 frustrating years of dashed hopes and shattered dreams for Mitchell.
Most 140-pounders, at least the realistic ones, would dread the thought of getting into the ring with Tszyu, a clever, dangerous opponent who has lost only one of his 31 fights, victorious in 24 of them by knockout.
But Mitchell was well past of the point of intimidation Feb. 3, 2001, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Events Center. After seven rounds of his unification fight against Tszyu for the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Assn.'s 140-pound titles, Mitchell, struggling with an injured left knee, was in a competitive fight. One judge had the match even. Tszyu led by three points on another scorecard and by four on the third.
Ordinarily, there would have been plenty of time for Mitchell to pull it out. Unfortunately for him, though, his injured knee gave out and he reluctantly limped out of the ring a loser, vowing there would be another day.
While negotiations for a rematch began, both men went on with their careers. Tszyu has since won his ensuing four fights, including a spectacular second-round knockout of Zab Judah later in 2001. Mitchell, his knee healed, has won eight in succession, improving his record to 55-3 with 30 knockouts.
Mitchell, though, could never reach Tszyu. They were to have fought in September of last year, but an injury to Tszyu’s Achilles’ tendon necessitated a cancellation. They were to have fought in February of this year, but a ruptured shoulder tendon suffered by Tszyu only weeks before the match resulted in a second cancellation.
Did Mitchell ever reach a point where he feared the fight wasn’t going to happen?
“No,” he said, “I got to a point where it was like, ‘OK, let me just keep fighting [while others negotiate].’ If I would have gotten into thinking that it would not happen, then I probably would have stayed inactive.
“It took me back to the days when I was undefeated and I was supposed to get a world title fight, didn’t get it, fought another person and still did not get the title fight. I got frustrated, did not train and ended up losing [to Levander Johnson after going 30-0] and missing my world title shot.”
Tszyu knows all about lost opportunities. He hasn’t fought in 22 months because of the shoulder injury, his last bout a sixth-round TKO of James Leija in January 2003.
“It was a little frustrating, but everything that happens in life, I try to turn into my favor,” said Tszyu, who has three young children. “I used the time off to have fun with my family.”
Time off can be fantastic for family life, but it can be bad for a fighter’s professional life, upsetting timing, focus and endurance. It would have been understandable if Tszyu had taken on a lesser opponent to reacquaint his body to the rigors of the ring. When the suggestion was made, though, Tszyu bristled.
“I have had good fighting preparation with great sparring,” he said. “I am sharp. I am living a very healthy life and I do not think I need any tuneup fights.”
The fight can’t happen soon enough for Mitchell. “It has been a long time waiting,” he said. “Ever since I came to training camp, I have been counting down the days, like I have been in jail, marking off a calendar.”
Tszyu got through his training camp without injury. Now if he doesn’t jam his thumb putting on the gloves, trip coming into the arena or stagger going through the ropes, Mitchell’s long wait will over.
Then all he has to do is figure out a way to beat Tszyu.
Also on the card, World Boxing Organization junior-featherweight champion Joan Guzman (21-0, 17 knockouts) defends against Marcos Licona (21-4-1, 7).... An all-woman boxing event, titled “A Ring of Their Own,” debuts in Las Vegas on Jan. 29, with promoters hoping to stage monthly shows.