There are various sports that, when played at the highest level by protagonists approaching peak performance, can be legitimately described as beautiful or brutal. But it is perhaps only in the sport of boxing that the beauty and brutality arrive simultaneously: and even in the prize ring the occurrence is rare and fleeting.
However, those lucky enough to witness Kevin Mitchell versus Daniel Estrada in London last night were undoubtedly treated to an exhibition of those two contrasting qualities combining as the Englishman’s masterclass destroyed the Mexican in eight breath-taking rounds.
Mitchell probably needed to put on just such a show. For a few years now he has been in danger of consigning himself to that overcrowded stable of fighters we label, talented but wayward. It is a sorry purgatory that almost inevitably leads to an eternal nearly man status in the boxing afterlife.
Despite flashes of brilliance, bouts against Breidis Prescott and John Murray spring to mind, and countless attestations of his potential from within the gym, an apparent aversion to life on the straight and narrow proved a bigger threat to Mitchell’s career than any opponent he faced.
World title opportunities against Katsidis and Burns came and went with the Londoner failing to see past the fourth round in either. The Burns defeat was almost two and a half years ago and with Mitchell now thirty, there was more than a hint of now or never in the air around the O2 Arena yesterday evening.
Thankfully, the East End boy didn’t disappoint. Having left Frank Warren, signed with Eddie Hearn, and reconnected with his old amateur trainer Tony Sims, Mitchell appears a fighter reborn. Fitter, healthier, better prepared and, perhaps most important of all, more mature, The Hammer looks determined to make the most of whatever remains of his career.
From the first bell to referee Ian John-Lewis stepping in midway through the eighth to save Estrada from himself, Mitchell put on a workshop on hitting and not getting hit that should be put onto DVDs and sent to every youth boxing gym in the country.
Estrada is a live foe for any lightweight in the world and, unlike Billi Godoy who flew from Latin America to England with the sole purpose of spoiling and surviving against John Ryder on the undercard, El Tremendo came to fight and to win. Mitchell’s brilliance simply prevented him from doing either.
The pattern was set in the opening three minutes. Estrada is a tall, rangy 135 pounder and with an extra nine centimetres of reach at his disposal, he naturally looked to establish a controlling jab to keep his smaller, nippier opponent at bay. The tactic was sound but the execution proved more problematic for the Mexican as Mitchell quickly realised he could move untroubled in and out of range and dissect Estrada’s loose guard, practically at will.
In seeing all the punches coming well in advance of their arrival, Mitchell slipped and countered with ease from the opening salvo. A long, looping left uppercut-cum-hook was to prove particularly effective and it was this punch that best encapsulated the beauty and brutality of the fight.
Time and again Mitchell crouched with a poise that belied his nervous energy before launching his gloved fist in a graceful rising arc to bypass Estrada’s defence and thump viciously into the unguarded chin, jaw or cheek of the Mexican. On the rare occasion that route was blocked, short, shocking overhand rights landed flush and kept Estrada in a constant state of confused alert.
In the third, perhaps sensing the futility of his jab, Estrada decided to march in with more intent. But in advancing with a distinct lack of head movement, he provided a sitting target for the accurate counter-punching of Mitchell and the change in tactic only led to more pain. Following a series of thudding combinations, he went down and though his body rose quickly, some self-belief must surely have remained on the canvas floor.
We’ll forgive the ragged, wild swings from Mitchell during the remainder of the stanza as he looked for an early stoppage for, in truth, the rest of his performance was flawless. There were now vicious flurries every couple of minutes within which hurtful blows landed with an accuracy and frequency that would stop many a fighter. Just as important, he received precious little in return.
Though the cliché of the tough Mexican is well-worn by now, that does not make it any less true when encountered. By the fifth, at the very latest, there was no question of who would win, but only how and when. A TKO midway through the eighth cleared up that uncertainty and nobody complained when the referee decided he had seen enough.
Sims, Hearn and Kevin’s three young lads were quickly in the ring to embrace the winner. Sims spoke of the rewards for a renewed focus in the gym, Hearn of another crack at a world belt, while the trio of mini-Mitchells simply swelled with pride at their old man’s performance.
I wrote three words before switching off the coverage and going to bed. Joy. To. Watch.