Boxing is surely the only sport where the items supposedly signifying its pinnacle are handed out rather more like the Sacrament than the Papacy. Indeed, the accrual of world title belts has long formed part of a happy charade designed to indulge fighters and promoters wielding some slack with the political hobgoblins who claim to administer the sport. Varyingly, nationality, race, ethnicity and religion -- not to mention the support of boxing’s innumerable cohort of bureaucrats -- have been proven to equal talent and dedication in their relative importance to gaining the salutation of champion. The schema set in place to ensure a fair fight -- separate weight categories, three unbiased judges, a referee to administer the rulebook -- are invariably jettisoned in the quest to fix a tacky belt to the waist of the favoured few.
[ Recap: Burns Defeats Mitchell in Glasgow ]
In 2010 at Upton Park, West Ham, Kevin Mitchell was expected finally to scale boxing’s greasy pole. When he then bombed out in front of 20,000 East End fans to a typically relentless Michael Katsidis -- towed in under the misapprehension that his increasingly faded skills and worn body would offer little resistance -- a striking array of excuses followed, uncommon perhaps only in their capacity to amaze and confound. Which professional prizefighter allows his preparation for the biggest night of his career to be usurped in importance by late nights and petty squabbling? The pink-pants-wearing living room lothario Julio Cesar Chavez Jr himself might have learnt a thing or two from the attitude of the Dagenham fighter.
Yet how Mitchell must have longed for a return to Upton Park on Saturday night at the SEC Arena, Glasgow. The magnitude of the task at hand was severe enough without the 10,000 strong crowd resembling Birnam Wood come to High Dunsinane. In Ricky Burns, now 35-2, Mitchell was meeting a two-weight world champion who has appeared to exist in a state of perpetual improvement ever since a pair of losses in the space of twelve months between February 2006 and 2007 threatened to derail his burgeoning career. Forced to travel north of the border, there could be little doubt that this world title belt would not be gift-wrapped and delivered to Mitchell on a silver platter.
Indeed, Burns’ ascent to the top of the super featherweight rankings saw him confound those bookmakers and onlookers whom had made him an overwhelming underdog before his 2010 bout with Roman Martinez. Though promoter Frank Warren subsequently arranged a number of woolly defences for the Scot -- with the likes of Evensen, Laryea and Nicky Cook making Nathan Cleverly’s recent opponents appear a veritable murderer’s row -- his move to lightweight preceded a return to fighting of the more competitive sort. Wins over Katsidis and Paulus Moses established Burns as the WBO lightweight titlist, further legitimising a slate which had, at the elite level, appeared threadbare beyond Martinez.
[ Related: Mitchell Gives No Excuses For Loss ]
That in-ring dominance had, however, always seemed something of an illusion. Indeed, in a boxing landscape which places vital importance in tangible athletic qualities such as hand speed and power, Burns is very much an anomaly. Victories over faster punchers and harder hitters appeared more the result of some blinding trick of light than any clear brilliance from Burns. His punches appear ungainly, his style easy to work out. Entering the ring on Saturday night was a champion -- and a dominant one at that -- who had nevertheless failed to convey any impression of invincibility.
Mitchell figured to be a tougher assignment than Burns’ previous domestic opponent, the unfortunate Cook. A smashing eighth round stoppage of the earnest John Murray had buoyed those supporters so disappointed by his first loss and, though the following fourteen months had seen Mitchell sidelined barring a barely-disguised sparring session with Felix Lora, many held hope that the Dagenham fighter would finally deliver on his vast potential.
The first round appeared only to justify the many onlookers backing Mitchell. Burns started gingerly from an upright stance with a characteristically high guard, as Mitchell led with a low-slung left hand which snaked through the slight gap between the Scotsman’s gloves on a multitude of occasions. Buoyed by his frequent success, Mitchell punctuated the stanza with a sharp right hand, drawing a gale of inaccurate punches and suggesting that something far more maleficent awaited his opponent.
Hopes that Burns was to be deterred were quickly dispelled in a pair of strong rounds for the defending titlist. Adhering fervently to the mode and method which have propelled him to success, Burns started peppering Mitchell with double jabs and straight rights, while occasionally allowing imaginative flair to permeate the mechanics of his robotic style. If the low lead hand had served to Mitchell’s advantage in the first round, increasingly it became a hole in his armoury which Burns was determined to exploit. Overhand rights caught him unaware with increasing regularity, while the left hook -- Mitchell’s fiercest weapon -- only grew in predictability every time he attempted to launch it. As had been the case in so many of Burns’ recent fights, an opponent with quicker hands and greater thump was being made to look insufficient.
Yet although Burns was outboxing Mitchell in dominant fashion, this was by no means comparable to Sergio Martinez’ exploits just a week before in his striking performance as matador to Chavez Jr’s bull. Here, Burns was not so much matador as desatascador -- quite literally, "plunger" or "unblocker" -- as he ceaselessly found ways through the defences of Mitchell, even when he appeared out of range. Mitchell might have possessed the faster hands, but Burns’ greater precision of movement meant that he was comfortably able to dictate the geography at which fighting would take place.
As the contest threatened to settle into what appeared to be an inevitable groove, a left hook from the ether entirely reconstructed a narrative which had seemed largely familiar. Familiar this was not, however, as Burns, with only nine stoppages among his previous thirty-four wins, confounded history, science and all onlookers by dropping Mitchell to the canvas. Previously thought to be one of those rare specimens to whom the old adage that a fight can end at any moment did not apply, Burns found a savage, jolting dose of power to shake his opponent down to the laces of his boots. So rarely greeted by the sight of wounded prey, Burns surely could have been forgiven for failing to finish Mitchell off, yet the subsequent onslaught was swift and efficient, inviting Terry O’Connor to terminate the action after Mitchell had met the canvas once again.
Joseph Conrad once said, of the human heart, that it is ‘vast enough to contain all the world.’ Mitchell, vanquished again in devastating fashion, might just have agreed. Broken by a better man, he was at once dignified and respectful in defeat. Yet how many times -- and for how long -- can Mitchell’s febrile heart continue to withstand such unexpected and painful failure? After this latest loss, he shall most likely be asking himself the same thing.