Ricky Burns and Kevin Mitchell highlight a big Saturday in UK boxing. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
Were it not for a string of question marks against the mindset of the challenger, it seems highly likely that this weekend's big lightweight showdown in Glasgow, Scotland, would be priced up closer than it already is.
While the trite ‘Battle of Britain' tag - a cliché almost involuntarily assigned across a breadth of sporting events at even the slightest glimpse of a possibility that English and Scottish representatives may cross paths - is wearing thin, all signs point towards Saturday night's bout giving us one of those rare things: a good, old-fashioned domestic dust-up, albeit one with a version of a world title at stake.
It's an area in which Kevin Mitchell (33-1, 24 KOs) has previous form. His eight-round war with then-unbeaten John Murray was universally considered to be among the best on British soil last year, and it's that fight - a career-best performance from Mitchell - that will likely be used as a blueprint if he's to prise the honours away from beltholder Ricky Burns (34-2, 9 KOs), the -150 favourite.
As you'd expect, in travelling to Glasgow to take this fight - the same city that's hosted four of Burns' six contests at world level under the WBO banner - Mitchell is, as he was against Murray, the underdog (+162). Coming in to that fight as a +200 shot following a catastrophic three-round wipeout at the hands of Michael Katsidis - who, in turn, was a +140 dog himself - it seemed as though the knives were already out for Mitchell. A series of unwanted outside-the-ring news stories meant that, again, his fight preparations were disrupted, as they were in the run-up to that loss at Upton Park. Nonetheless, Murray - an opponent that seemed to be all wrong for him at the time - was essentially beaten at his own game by an aggressive, incisive Mitchell, who in the process made a mockery of those who said his career was all but finished.
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Yet just over a year later, many have the same lingering doubts about the likeable, but fragile, Essex-born man, despite his assertions that his head is straight again. A subdued tune-up showing against Dominican rag Felix Lora (Mitchell was a huge -5000 favourite) proved nothing and achieved little. With the Burns fight long in the works, Mitchell could be forgiven for picking a journeyman to simply stay active and not jeopardise his title shot, but you wonder whether such a lacklustre performance only served to stall his momentum after the explosive display against Murray.
Though the two are friends outside the ring, Burns is, in many ways, antithetical to Mitchell's now-almost-signature mercuriality and, as a betting proposition, has been as reliable as any at short prices over the past couple of years. His title reigns at both 130 and now 135 have their detractors, however, and it says much of the calibre of opposition he's been up against that the hugely-impressive Roman Martinez win, which with he first claimed a WBO belt, is probably still his best work. That's no disgrace in itself, of course - Martinez was a heavy -500 favourite going into that fact, irrespective of the fact that the fight was held in Burns' (+300) backyard, which means that almost certainly he'd have been shorter still had the contest been staged elsewhere. That said, throughout the remainder of his campaign at 130, the names he went up against were questionable at best, and a succession of easy home defences came next: Andreas Evensen (Burns a -1500 favourite), Joseph Laryea (-1500) and an already-injured Nicky Cook (-600) were all your usual Frank Warren fare, of course, and Burns swiftly jumped up to lightweight before any credible test was presented to him.
The notable common opponent between Burns and Mitchell is, of course, Katsidis, but as a measuring stick it's probable that he's a unreliable one: he went into the Mitchell fight (Mitchell -170) on the top of his game, having just beaten Escobedo for an interim title, one win away from a shot at Juan Manuel Marquez, whereas the weary version that faced Burns had comprehensively lost two of the last three. That an ill-prepared Mitchell lost to an in-form Katsidis was no real surprise, but it seems a stretch to say that the Mitchell who fought Murray would have struggled with the Katsidis of last November. It's worth pointing out though that Burns was the underdog in that fight (+160) and it's to his credit that he outpointed the Australian well, in a style befitting of a long odds-on favourite. Last time out, Paulus Moses offered little variation from the template set by Katsidis, in that he was a stocky, game and ultimately shop-worn test who offered some resistance but little else.
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Mitchell will ask an altogether different set of questions and it's certainly one of the more interesting clashes, stylistically speaking, that Burns has been involved in for some time. Burns is a smart, solid boxer - good at most things but not exceptionally so. In Mitchell he has an opponent who, for once, he may not be able to outthink, to keep at bay with an effective jab and wait for openings. It's a formula that's served him well, and indeed, it's Burns' patience and consistency that's as impressive as anything - but the question is whether it's a gameplan that works against somebody who's as technically good as he is. Mitchell is the more varied fighter of the two, capable at range or forcing the issue, but possesses knockout power that Burns isn't renowned for, and indeed hasn't particularly required up to this point. With only nine stoppages in his 34 wins, it's no surprise that a Burns KO is offered at +600. The price for Mitchell to end things inside the distance is best-priced at +500 (as short as +300 elsewhere, which is too short), with the suspicion that a fight in which the two go toe to toe favours the heavy hands of the challenger more.
It does, however, seem likely that this is headed for the later rounds, if not the final bell. Burns won't be the stationary, straight-line target that Murray was and, from the Martinez fight onwards, four from six of the final outcomes have read the same: Burns UD. The Burns decision of any kind ranges from odds-on, at -110, up to a market-best of +100, with +150 available for those who favour a Burns nod across all three scorecards. With all three judges being English, Mitchell won't be afraid to take this the distance, but, as ever, fighting against the noise of a vocal crowd responding to the home fighter's every effort is no easy task. Mitchell is priced at +333 to get the nod, with the fight -225 to go the full twelve. It does, however, seem unlikely that we'll see a set of scores as lopsided as the 120-110s and 117-111s we've been used to throughout Burns' spell as titleholder, and should this be the seesaw battle anticipated, the draw comes into play at +2800, as well as the possibility of the split decision, listed at +1000 and +1400 for champion and challenger respectively.
Blue chip super bantamweight prospect Carl Frampton (-275) takes on Canadian southpaw Steve Molitor (+333) in what figures to be an interesting step up in class. Molitor was extremely lucky to get away with a split decision robbery last time out against Sebastien Gauthier, but is unlikely to be the beneficiary of such generosity in Belfast.
Another judge's favourite, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (-225) rematches Francisco Palacios (+200) and, if you saw the first fight and resulting split-decision call, the fact that he's favoured to win again may surprise you. The fight is, of course, back in Poland - Palacios will likely need to win emphatically to get anything from this, but that may not be beyond him.