On November 30th in Birmingham, England Hall of Fame promoter Frank Warren will promote South Africa’s WBO bantamweight champion Zolani Tete in a mandatory defense against Filipino John Riel Casimero. Tete, who carries as potent a punch as the Springbok front row, is by no means the first world champion to make a fist of it in Birmingham and he won’t be the last according to Warren. He sees a bright future for the city where he staged his first ever world title fight back in 1985 when the plucky Welshman Colin Jones engaged himself in a fiery battle with the highly-skilled American Don Curry before succumbing on cuts.
That may have been a generation ago and subsequently Birmingham has somewhat rested on its record of hosting big names and big fights with barely a marquee contest since Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank declared their World War 1 in November 1990. Now, such is the boom in boxing, Birmingham is back in focus as a major fight venue so don’t be surprised if Frank comes up with something spectacular for his 2020 vision.
In the past some famous figures have skipped across the canvas at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) and other venues are dotted in and around the city, among them St Andrews, home of Birmingham City FC where Henry Cooper fought local pinup boy Johnny Prescott in 1965.
Amir Khan, Naseem Hamed and Robert McCracken, a former middleweight title contender and now coach to Team GB in the Olympics as well as Anthony Joshua, also sharpened their pro careers in Birmingham as did Olympians James DeGale, Billy Joe Saunders and Frankie Gavin, all signed by Warren. Of this trio DeGale and Billy Joe became world champions while Birmingham born-and-bred Gavin might have done the same had he not tried too hard to live up to his nickname of “Funtime’ Frankie. But he remains Britain’s only world amateur champion.
Rivalling him as one of Birmingham’s boxing history boys is the redoubtable Bunny Johnson.
An accomplished boxer with a whiplash left hook he became Britain’s first black heavyweight champion, dismantling Danny McAlinden for the title in 1975 – some performance from a bulked-up light-heavy. Bunny later moved back down to this division and captured a second British title, the only one ever to do so.
Before the Jamaica-born immigrant Johnson made his mark, Birmingham had celebrated another accomplished fighter in Jack Hood, whose achievements and gentlemanly manner as British and European welterweight champion in the 1920s and 30s had made him boxing’s Beau Brummie.
But the man whose name remains firmly lodged in the hearts of diehard Black Country boxing fans is that of Charlie Mitchell, whose exploits both with and without gloves date back for more than a century and a half.
For all its passion for pugilism Birmingham has never had a world champion (Richie Woodhall was born in Birmingham but was brought up and lives in Telford). Mitchell is the man who came closest to the crown. And what a character he was.
In his bare knuckle days ‘Madcap’ Mitchell took on all comers often fighting as many as four bouts in one night. There is no doubt the swaggering, foul-mouthed braggart attained greatness. He was the only boxer capable of holding a candle to “Boston Strong Man” John L Sullivan, considered as invincible then as Mike Tyson was a century later.
Mitchell, born on November 24, 1861, did not give a James Figg about reputations and told the world “I am the greatest” long before The Man himself arrived on the scene.
He lost only three times in a 19-year career; in over 100 bouts only Dominick McCaffrey, Gentleman Jim Corbett and Sullivan bettered him.
Although not a big bruiser (he stood only 5'9" and never weighed more than 168 pounds, Mitchell was a big boozer. A bully with a huge ego, he was one of the few Brits capable of beating the best America had to offer.
He famously fought and lost to Sullivan in 1883, when he was the first opponent to knock down the Boston Strong Man. Their second meeting took place five years later (March 10, 1888) on the grounds of a chateau at Chantilly, France, which has gone down in fistic folklore.
It lasted a brutal two-hours in high winds and driving rain on a mud and blood-spattered field during which Mitchell deliberately stamped on John L’s foot. “Be a gentleman, you b******!” bellowed the furious American.
After 39 rounds the pair were unrecognisable, too weary and weakened by blood loss to carry on. Neither could lift his arms to punch and the contest concluded as a draw
The local gendarmerie arrived at this point and arrested Mitchell, who spent the next few days in a cell and was later fined by the local magistrate, boxing being illegal in France at that time. Sullivan managed to evade the law, and, swathed in bandages, was taken back across the Channel to spend the next few weeks convalescing in Liverpool.
In 1894 Mitchell fought in his most noteworthy bout, against James J Corbett for the world heavyweight championship. Corbett won by KO in the third round, pocketing $20,000, worth a million or more in today’s currency. Mitchell died in Hove, Sussex, in April,1918 aged 56, from complications of late stage syphilis infection. And they called them the good old days, eh!