A story of Untamed Resilience
"The fame is great, but you can't take your foot off the pedal. Everyone wants your title."
South Africa's Brian Mitchell is arguably one of the country's best-known names in boxing sport. Signed by an historical 45-win record in the World Boxing Association's Super Featherweight division, Brian earned his induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (IBHOF) in 2009 and most recently another WBA belt. The sport itself was familiar in the Mitchell family line, with Brian's dad being a street fighter and former professional boxer in his time. Despite his father's wins, Brian's childhood was tough with separated parents and humble family economics.
Brian grew up in Malvern, a town East of Johannesburg. "Nobody had swimming pools at home. Our toilets were outside in the garden. Boys used to fight a lot, and I was one of them!" Brian recalls. But there's a resilience that came from the harsh environment. "Growing up on the Backstreets of Malvern made me mature way above my age, and it was fighting for survival." He eventually took those fights into the boxing ring, a decision that launched a legacy career. But South Africa's political landscape during the boxer's 1980's rising international career would prove to be a thorn in his side.
The decorated boxer recalls the disappointment at not being able to compete with world-class fighters. "I was banned from international fights in my country of birth, the country I still live in and value. In those days Don King was promoting the World Boxing Champion (WBC) Azumah Nelson and would not have anything to do with South Africans." Riots and picketing patterned tournaments and competitions.
"Demonstrators were calling me names. I was called a white racist, amongst other things. In London, they never wanted to put up the boxing ring for me. I had to fight in Panama during the civil war. I couldn't leave my hotel at times and had to train in my hotel room. It got so bad that I wanted to leave Panama, but they withheld our Passports until after the fight. I was never a White racist. I fought in all the South African Townships and had Black Sparring Partners and friends as well as a Black trainer. Being a racist was the furthermost thing from the truth. I actually never fought a white South African."
While South African sanctions continued, Brian chose to focus on his skill sets rather than try to change mindsets. He trained hard and forced himself to go into another zone every time he stepped into the boxing ring. Even his mental strength was continuously noticed. "Every fight I was against the odds; my opponent country, the judges, referees were all biased. It was very tough winning out of my comfort zone."
Today, the eradication of Apartheid means that people of colour can pursue the sport with greater ease. But it takes the Brian Mitchells of the world to face these oppositions and demonstrate to a younger generation of fighters that they can achieve international careers even when riots and name-calling blaze it. People like 21-year old Ricardo Malajika whom Brian is managing. "The WBC listed him as 34th in the world in his division after 5 fights. He is going to set the world alight in the next few years." Under his guidance as well as Anton Gilmore's tutelage, Ricardo's training is centred on the same principles the legendary boxer used to win; discipline, dedication and determination.
Brian maintains that youngsters are a lot more spoilt today with sponsorship and fight fees. "Some guys get too much fame too quickly. But you need to look after it as you can go from Hero to Zero if you don't. The fame is great, but you can't take your foot off the pedal. Everyone wants your title." Brian's advice to the next generation is to stay humble and dedicated. Nobody is bigger than the sport.
Since choosing to retire early, Brian stayed close to the sport and the boxing ring through roles as a manager, trainer and commentator. These days, there is even a theatre show about Brian's life called Road Warrior and Eye of the Tiger. "I have been on stage 6 times telling my life story." Brian also carries on with corporate motivational talks and fundraising. He is dear to his family values and faith, which he believes underpins all that he does.
History allows us to remember the names of legacy leaders because of the lives they led or work they chose to do. Brian Mitchell is one of them. "I want people to remember me as a guy who grew up with nothing fancy but through sacrifice made in big in the world."
Follow Brian Mitchell on Instagram @brian_mitchell14