Wednesday, June 11, 2008

His Classroom is the Ring

'Coach' Al Mitchell knows who is number one as his top student, Vernon "The Viper" Forrest wins another fight with Mitchell at his side.

Uncasville, Conn. - To watch Al Mitchell in a fighter’s corner is to see a teacher at work in a classroom where he always seems able to get the point of his lesson across.

Tonight at the Mohegan Sun Casino, Mitchell will again be instructing a star pupil on the lessons of the fight game, as his charge, WBC Super Welterweight titlist Vernon ’The Viper’ Forrest, defends his belt against Sergio ‘The Latin Snake’ Mora.

It seems like Forrest and Mitchell were just here. Six months ago, on a cold and blustery December night in another mega-casino just a few miles through the wilds of the Connecticut woods, Forrest, in the first defense of his title, knocked out Italian challenger Michele Piccirillo in the 11th round.

In between the roar of the crowd on that night, you could hear, if you listened closely, the calm and reassuring voice of a bespectacled, moustached, little man watching intently from behind the ring post in Forrest’s corner.

“Touch him, son…just touch him. That’s it…there you go. O.K., now son. Use the jab, don’t forget about your jab. That’s it, that’s it…just like we worked on in the gym.”

It’s that calm demeanor and easy, caring nature that has caused the fighters Al Mitchell has worked with over all of the years to look up to him the way they do. They simply call him “Coach” as though he were a lovable high school phys. ed. teacher and to the boxers that he mentors, Mitchell is a man that wears many hats; he's one part trainer, one part father figure and one part guidance counselor.

“The thing that I try and teach is balance,” says the 61 year-old Mitchell. And by balance he doesn't mean being able to hook off the jab without falling down. He means balance in life and that boxing is only one small aspect of who a person is and that there has to be more to life than just boxing in order for it to be worthwhile.

So while Mitchell's focus is on making his fighters the best they can be inside the ring, much of his effort is also spent on making them a more educated and well-rounded person outside the ropes.

“People have a negative idea about boxing that it's a poor man’s sport," he says. "People think that only fools or dumb kids do it just to find a way to live. What people don’t know is that about ninety percent of the people that are in boxing are in it because they love it.”

And Al Mitchell clearly loves boxing.

How else would you explain why he's been imparting his wisdom on impressionable minds for the past 43 years? He’s been instructing young students on the nuances of the fight game since he was an eighteen year old kid himself. After going 43-1 as an amateur bantamweight in the 1960‘s, Mitchell hung up his gloves for good and began his improbable journey as a teacher.

A native of the rough streets of North Philadelphia, Mitchell used to train in the same gym right alongside “Smokin’” Joe Frazier and “Gypsy” Joe Harris. He later became a shopkeeper who ran a small variety store across the street from the recreation center where he trained boxers.

One night ended up changing his life forever when he was beaten up and robbed while leaving his store. As a result of the attack he spent nearly a week in the hospital in a coma. Not long after that, in 1984, Mitchell decided to get out of the retail business and take up a safer vocation.

In 1989 he landed the position for which he is most well-known when he became the head coach of the boxing program at the United States Olympic Education Center at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. He would later become the head trainer of the 1996 U.S Olympic boxing team and the technical adviser for the 2004 Olympic Team.

He has traveled the world to train the nation’s best young amateur talent and has worked with almost 100 national champions. 1996 gold medalist David Reid was one of his creations and he also coached two Olympic bronze medal winners. Mitchell has been producing top flight fighters for decades and his first professional world titlist was Charlie “Choo Choo” Brown who held the IBF lightweight belt for two and a half months back in 1984 when he won a 15-round split decision over Melvin Paul.

But it’s Vernon Forrest whom Mitchell has helped develop since he was an amateur and it’s Forrest that he has a special bond with and it’s Forrest who is the shining star of an example of what Al Mitchell can really do with a willing student. The two of them have been together in one form or another for almost two decades and it was Forrest who actually convinced Mitchell to move from Philadelphia to Michigan to accept the USOEC job. The pair have come full circle in the boxing game as Forrest was the first Olympian to come out of Mitchell’s amateur program.

Forrest (left) and Mitchell (right) are pictured together with an unidentified man at an amateur boxing event last summer.

“Vernon was the first guy that I trained in the program in Michigan,” says Mitchell. “The thing I always admired about Vernon is that he always outworked the other guys. Vernon never got anything easy, and he never gave up inside or other side of the ring. That’s the most important thing to me and that's the sign of a true champion.”

Forrest turned pro 16 years ago, a skinny 21 year-old kid on a Las Vegas card that was headlined by Orlin Norris. After a long time on the back burner of the pro game Forrest had his breakout fight in 2002 when he beat Shane Mosley nearly senseless in the basement of Madison Square Garden on a New York City Saturday night. It was one of Mitchell’s proudest moments as a trainer.

“A lot of people didn’t look at at Vernon's resumé going into the first Mosley fight,” said Mitchell. “I was with Vernon when he beat Shane to make the Olympic team and Vernon handled him easily. I looked at the odds and couldn't believe it. Vernon’s resumé was very close to Shane's with the exception of the big championship fights that Shane got the chance to fight in. Vernon’s a very smart fighter. Usually in a fight I'll say that a fighter sticks to a solid fight plan about sixty-five to seventy percent of the time, but I'd say against Shane he stuck to about ninety percent of the fight plan.”

Over the years, Forrest has built a career that is hall of fame bound and along the way he has become a multi-millionaire and has won world championships in two weight divisions.

When the 37 year-old Forrest climbs up the stairs and steps through the ropes against Mora on Saturday night, Al Mitchell will be right there behind him with a steady hand on his shoulder - just like he's always been.

And even though the boxing program at NMU was eliminated earlier this year due to budget cuts, Mitchell is still "Coach" to a group of young men that look to him for the direction and calming influence that he provides. A day after leaving NMU, Mitchell became the Director of the Marquette Boxing Academy at Ringside Fitness where he works alongside another of his star pupils, David Reid. The same David Reid that Mitchell took from being a truant peddling drugs on the streets of North Philadelphia to becoming an Olympic gold medal winner and professional world champion.

So on Saturday night at the Mohegan Sun, if you listen closely, you’ll hear his voice cutting through the roar of the crowd. Al Mitchell will be watching Vernon Forrest intently from behind the ring post.

“Touch him, son…just touch him. That’s it…there you go. O.K., now son. Use the jab, don’t forget about your jab. That’s it, that’s it…just like we worked on in the gym.”

"Coach" Mitchell's class will be in session.

June 2008

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