When Ricky Burns defends his WBO lightweight title against Kevin Mitchell this Saturday in Glasgow, Scotland, it will be the not unfamiliar case of two good friends—who just happen to be world-class prizefighters—boxing for a championship.
While some might question whether Burns and Mitchell are willing to inflict enough serious damage upon one another, the fight promises to be filled with action.
For Mitchell (33-1, 24 KO), the shot against Burns (34-2, 9 KO) offers the possibility of redemption. In 2010, then-interim WBO lightweight champion and all-action warrior Michael Katsidis annihilated a seemingly ill-prepared Mitchell in three thrilling rounds at Upton Park.
Losing in front of his hometown fans was one thing, but it was the manner in which Mitchell was dispatched that proved most puzzling.
Coming off of two impressive wins—a lopsided decision against Breidis Prescott, where Mitchell put on a boxing clinic, followed by a two-round destruction of Ignacio Mendoza—Mitchell was outgunned and out-hustled by the brave and powerful, yet limited, Katsidis.
Mitchell rebounded nicely with an eighth-round TKO of former European champion John Murray, but he has fought only once since July of 2011—against journeyman Felix Lora. In an article by ESPN.com’s Dan Rafael, Mitchell made it clear that he understands the stakes of the fight:
"Business is business, though, and if I lose then I'm back to the bottom of the pack, and I'm not going there, so it's a must-win fight for me. Losing to Ricky is not a option. We're full of respect for each other, we're both at the top of our game, and it's a fight between the two best in Britain and two of the best in the world. It's going to be a great fight for the fans and media.
"Once we're in that ring and the bell goes, though, it's going to be brutal. Ricky knows what he's got in front of him, and I'm going to be hitting him harder and faster than he's ever been hit before. I'm in this business to win world titles. I lost the first attempt against Michael Katsidis and I won't be needing a third. This is it for me."
According to Rafael, Mitchell employed Burns as a sparring partner for his bout with Murray. The magnitude of their championship fight this Saturday, however, certainly eclipses any other instances when they’ve shared a ring.
Burns, a two-division champion, certainly understands this. He will undoubtedly be looking to out-box his powerful opponent in front of his hometown fans.
Though not a thudding puncher, Burns has tremendous height (5’10") for a lightweight and classy boxing skills.
Burns’ two career loses came in 2006 and 2007, in fights for domestic and continental titles. Since those defeats, Burns has parlayed a four-fight reign as Commonwealth (British Empire) Super Featherweight Champion into a WBO title reign at 130 pounds.
Two title defenses followed before Burns moved up to lightweight, where he significantly captured the interim WBO strap via lopsided decision over Katsidis, which he then legitimized with a wider unanimous decision against Paulus Moses in his last fight to shed the “interim” tag.
Having convincingly out-boxed Katsidis, Burns might hold the psychological edge over Mitchell, who seemed to wilt in his only career defeat.
Further speculation that Burns got the better of Mitchell in sparring has left the challenger smarting. Mitchell, as quoted in Rafael’s piece, has firmly downplayed such assertions:
Who will win Saturday's WBO title fight?
"There's been loads of bull---- about it. Basically, I'd been out of training for a while, having a beer with some of my boys. I'd been back in the gym maybe three days. Fourth day, Ricky turns up and -- you know me -- I'll spar anyone. Ricky was 12-rounds super-fit, as he always is. I was just four days in the gym, but I thought I was doing him a favor.
"First day, I knocked out eight rounds and I did well, especially at the start. One point, I had him flying across the ring from a left hook, something [trainer] Jimmy [Tibbs] constantly reminds me. Second spar, I could only manage five [rounds] before stepping out."
Mitchell blames Burns’ trainer, Billy Nelson, for circulating the lopsided sparring information, so don’t expect this to fuel Mitchell’s anger towards Burns. That said, if Mitchell wants to win, it is essential that he fight with a mean streak.
As the taller and more skillful boxer, Burns holds a reach advantage and could look to keep Mitchell at range with precise and technical fighting. Burns possesses an extremely accurate left hook to both the head and body, and is adept at using the punch to either time his opponents’ advances or initiate offense off his jab.
Burns does have an accurate and stinging straight and overhand right as well so Mitchell will want to prioritize avoiding the left as he moves into range. Mitchell must get in close to thwart Burns’ reach advantage and make use of compact power punching.
Given that Burns is not a menacing one-punch knockout artist, a crucial aspect of the bout will be whether Burns’ boxing and movement will be enough to keep the stronger Mitchell at bay.
Burns has been an underappreciated champion for some time now, and a convincing win against Mitchell could propel him to greater recognition in a wide-open lightweight division.
While the fight should be contested at a world-class level, expect Burns to dig deep and impress with flashy combinations, even if he has to settle for a decision against the rugged and determined Mitchell.