Seth Mitchell, a professional fighter for barely four years, has been referred to by many as the best American heavyweight prospect for the past couple of those years. Now it's time for him to see if he can shed the prospect label and become an authentic contender.
The process began in earnest in December when Mitchell, 29, who turned to boxing after a knee injury ended his college football career as a standout linebacker at Michigan State, became the first man to knock out longtime fringe contender Timur Ibragimov, blowing him away in the second round in an electrifying performance.
The next step for "Mayhem" comes against Chazz Witherspoon, whose only losses have come to legitimate top contenders (and former world title challengers) Cristobal Arreola and Tony Thompson.
Mitchell and Witherspoon -- both college graduates -- meet in a scheduled 12-round bout on Saturday night (HBO, 10:15 ET) at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., on the undercard of the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson light heavyweight title rematch.
Mitchell and Witherspoon are both expecting to slug it out.
"He's going to be ready. I'm going to be ready," Mitchell said. "I know a lot of people are saying that Chazz has been at this level two other times and he's come up short. They say this is like the nail-in-the-coffin fight for him, but I feel the same way for me. I'm not finished reaching my goals, where I'm trying to go in my boxing career.
"This might be the nail in the coffin for Chazz if he loses this fight, but if I lose this fight, my coffin is going to be in production. I'm not ready for my coffin to be in production yet. You're going to have two heavyweights that are coming to put on a show."
Said Witherspoon: "When Chazz Witherspoon comes into a fight, he's coming to fight. I'm a man's man. I come to rumble. I don't fear any man. When I fight Seth, I'm not going to come and fight him like I'm scared of him."
Providing entertainment aside, the fight has deeper meaning for Mitchell. Heavyweight champion brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, who fight mostly in Germany, both are seeking reasons to come back to the United States to fight -- meaning they want an American contender to face.
In recent months, both have mentioned Mitchell (24-0-1, 18 KOs), who hails from Brandywine, Md., as a likely candidate. But Mitchell must continue to win if he's ever going to get that opportunity, which is what makes his fight against Witherspoon, 30, so important.
In fact, Mitchell said he was watching Wladimir's four-round destruction of Jean-Marc Mormeck on March 3 and heard Klitschko mention him as a possible opponent during his postfight TV interview.
"I definitely heard it," Mitchell said. "Actually, I don't have a lot of followers on Twitter, but I know about 30 minutes later, I jumped up like 400 Twitter followers. So that was pretty cool."
Although Mitchell has heard all the chatter about a potential championship fight with one of the Klitschko brothers, he's also smart enough to know that any prayer of that opportunity would quickly be erased if he doesn't come through against Witherspoon (30-2, 22 KOs).
"To be honest, it's really not that hard for me," Mitchell said about avoiding getting caught up in the hype. "I have to keep winning. If I don't keep winning, all that talk is for nothing. I just have to take it one step at a time. To say that I don't think about it, I would be lying. I do think about it, but at the same time, I keep everything in perspective. I have a good team around me. I just continue to work hard. But I know all of my plans are contingent on me winning and me looking impressive and improving at each and every fight. And thus far in my career, I feel that I have."
Although quite inexperienced against quality opponents -- Ibragimov is by far his most notable foe to date -- Mitchell has grown comfortable with the label of being America's best heavyweight prospect. There are others coming along, too: Bryant Jennings (13-0, 6 KOs) is two years younger than Mitchell and has looked impressive in two recent nationally televised bouts (including a knockout of former titlist Sergei Liakhovich on March 24); and 2008 U.S. Olympic bronze medalist Deontay Wilder (21-0, 21 KOs), three years younger than Mitchell, is one to watch.
"I believe in myself. I'm very confident, but I'm not cocky," said the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Mitchell. "I let other people say all the accolades and give all the praise. I just continue to work hard. I do believe I have the tools to become heavyweight champion of the world. But as far as me saying that I'm the next great American heavyweight -- I let everybody else say it. It sounds better when they say it. You'll never hear me say it. I'm just going to continue to try to be a sponge, work as hard as I can and try to reach my goals."
Witherspoon, of Paulsboro, N.J., and a cousin of former two-time heavyweight titlist Tim Witherspoon, has his own championship dreams -- even if they appear more distant than Mitchell's.
While Mitchell is hoping a victory will push him closer to a title opportunity, a Witherspoon victory would revitalize his career.
The 6-4, 230-pounder -- who has been one of Wladimir Klitschko's sparring partners in three training camps -- has won four fights in a row by knockout against no-name opposition since being stopped himself in the ninth round by Thompson in 2009. Now he's stepping up in competition again.
"I just plan on going out here and putting out my best performance," said Witherspoon, who counts former heavyweight champion Ken Norton as part of his management team. "Everything is starting to come together. Everything came together with this fight, and it came together out of nowhere. It was definitely a blessing to how I got with [2011 trainer of the year] Virgil [Hunter]. I got the chance to finally go away to camp, my first time ever being at a camp and getting good sleep and eating correct and training all the time.
"Everything came together, I believe, for a reason. I plan on going out there and putting on a good performance."