Byron Mitchell: Heavy hands find a human touch

Byron Mitchell was once known as the ‘Slama from Alabama’ with a heavy-hitting reputation in the ring, but at home, his hands required a gentler touch caring for his disabled son Bryson. 

Mitchell’s name will set bells ringing if you are familiar with Welsh great Joe Calzaghe’s career. After losing to Calzaghe in a two-round firefight in 2003, Mitchell was so outraged he quit boxing and spent a four-year break switching from fight cheques to pay cheques in the 9-to-5 world. His main source of income came from a furniture delivery company.

“I was just disgusted. It was unfair and I was never hurt,” Mitchell said in a slow, raspy voice recalling that night with Calzaghe in Cardiff. 

“It upset me so bad I thought, ‘To hell with this’. Before I became champion [stopping Frankie Liles in the 11th round in 1999], I had never worked before. In the hiatus, I worked a few jobs, but it just didn’t give me the same satisfaction. I guess [compared to] the level of money for the sacrifices that were made in boxing, it didn’t add up.” 

The hard-hitting Byron Mitchell halts Frankie Liles in 11
to win his first world championship in June 1999.

Bryson, who is now 23 years-old, has required 24-hour care by the former two-time WBA super-middleweight champion, his wife Chastity and mother-in-law because he has a range of disabilities including blindness, loss of speech and paralysis. 

Mitchell admits that looking after Bryson was tougher than any challenge he faced in the ring and would sometimes distance himself, partly out of fear and partly out of care, for he was afraid of accidentally hurting his delicate son. 

“I did everything to provide for him through boxing but I kind of spaced myself from him in sort of an alienation type way. Basically, because I didn’t know what to do,” said the 46-year-old.  

“Everything I’ve done in my life, I’ve always been heavy-handed and the last thing I wanted to do was accidentally hurt him by trying to help him because he’s never been able to walk, talk or see. He’s totally disabled.” 

Being a parent of a child with high support needs is stressful because you have to make adaptations and follow a daily routine, which in Bryson’s case wasn’t easy. 

“My mother-in-law doesn’t have the strength to move him around or change his diaper because he still has to wear those,” continued Mitchell. 

“I’ll change him and she feeds him and bathes him. We used to have people help us with him but at one point we discontinued that because we saw them do things that we could do ourselves. It’s challenging but he is not a problem because he’ll let you know when he’s ready to eat. He has his own way of letting you know, and I picked up on that. He’s a fairly good child.” 

Mitchell engaged in a two-round firefight with Joe Calzaghe back in June 2003.

The Calzaghe fight wasn’t Mitchell’s biggest payday. Mitchell’s manager, the renowned Don King, rewarded him with $350,000 dollars against Bruno Girard before he won his second world title against Manny Siaca (WTKO12). 

“Of course, I wanted the million-dollar pay days but what people fail to realise about DK is he sacrificed a lot to make these fights happen,” said Mitchell. “He gave me the most money I had ever seen compared to a 9-to-5 job, so I was never upset with the money. That money has [made it possible] for me to take care of my family.” 

It’s fair to say that Mitchell didn’t cope with the break well while he was working for a furniture delivery company and life at home turned grey. He suffered with depression and anxiety, but the diagnosis wasn’t confirmed until 2016, four years after he finally retired with a 29-11-1, 22 KOs record.

“It’s crazy that you mention it because I wasn’t aware of it,” Mitchell replied when Boxing Social asked him if depression was a factor for the first four-year hiatus. 

“There were times I was very depressed and I never even considered it as a thing before. I suffered from anxiety, depression but before my doctor diagnosed me, I didn’t know I had it but I was very low in those periods. I slept a lot and I was just lazy. It was weird, I could tell I wasn’t myself. I would be upset by very minor things and I knew I was a very different person.” 

Mitchell’s irritability meant he required an extra person in his Alabama home, so his mother-in-law stepped in to assist him with Bryson. “Even the sound of banging dishes would irritate me,” he said. “My wife is a nursing home nurse so she’s hardly ever home because of work. I was at home with Bryson and, with my issues, we had to get to some help, so my mother-in-law offered to move in and help.” 

When the subject of his 2007 comeback was discussed, Mitchell said something that this writer had heard before. “I was once a beast and somewhere within me that beast was there but now, he’s taken, he’s no longer there anymore,” he said.

It was a similar phrase to one uttered by the once formidable Mike Tyson on his ‘Hotboxin’ podcast as he contemplated shaking the rust off his iron for a proposed and much-debated ring return (for charitable purposes). 

Mitchell says he understands Tyson’s motivations but having been on that road himself, he warns what may lie ahead. “Most definitely, I can relate to Mike,” he added. “I had that desire to regain lost territory and be a champion or legitimate contender again. I thought I still had it, but I realised I was no longer that person.

“The motivation just wasn’t there,” continued Mitchell. “When I got out to run, it took me 16 or 17 minutes to run two miles. I thought, ‘Heck no! This is crazy’. Somewhere in those four years, I realised the ring was where my passion was, but I lost a lot. Quite naturally, Father Time beats you, and you could no longer do the things you could do. That was the hardest thing for me to accept.” 

Less than two years after a fourth-round stoppage loss in his first fight back at the Miami Sheraton Hotel against Richard Hall, Mitchell was given another significant opportunity; this time at light-heavyweight against future two-time WBA champion Beibut Shumenov in his native Kazakhstan. Again, Mitchell lasted just four rounds. 

“I had sparred with Beibut for a couple years in Vegas and I never knew it would be a potential fight but I enjoyed those camps with them,” explained Mitchell. “They needed a credible name on his resume and, quite naturally, I was that person as a two-time champion. After the fight, I noticed my career needed a major overhaul. I needed to step up my preparations or I needed to leave the sport altogether.”

Mitchell persevered for three more years but depression often reared its ugly and unwanted head, which saw him retreat into his own solitude. “I’ve always been a loner,” he said. “I like to be by myself. I secluded myself but sometimes I realised you can say things that hurt other people. That happened a few times and sometimes I wished I could just run away. I didn’t want my family. I didn’t want my mother-in-law or my wife. I just wanted to be by myself.” 

Even today, Mitchell says he doesn’t leave his home much because he finds it hard to trust people. “I’m not a great people person,” he continued. “People are funny, man. They’ll smile at you in the face and stab you in the back. I used to go in a gym here locally, but they tried to assassinate [my character] so to speak.” 

Mitchell was encouraged to become a trainer by his father after hanging up the gloves for good, but in this side of boxing he still had problems to deal with. 

“My dad always taught me to find something I love and that’s why I tried to go to a gym and help the future boxers come along and then I ran into an obstacle. I was helping out at a local gym in Alabama and a lot of my clients were female,” he said. 

Somebody reported comments Mitchell had supposedly made to his wife, who was working on the gym reception, but he insists it was just conversational small talk that was blown out of proportion. 

“I asked a couple of them if they had a boyfriend and I wasn’t trying to get with them because I’m married,” continued Mitchell, who got remarried to Chastity in 2013 after a separation in 2003. “It was never as serious as a sexual harassment charge, but somebody sent a message to my wife saying I was trying to hit on my customers. And there’s nothing more important to me than my marriage.” 

Mitchell did eventually find his peace with leaving boxing behind and now serves on a retired fighters’ union called BMMAFU as its Vice-President, with the aim of helping retired boxing and mixed martial artists get the transitional support they need. 

“Knowing I had reached a point [in boxing] where many others have never gotten helped me through. I did it twice,” Mitchell said when I asked what lifted the emotional weight off his shoulders. “I did my best and did what I had to do so what’s to be depressed about? You gave it your all so there was nothing to hang your head over. 

“That would be my message to anyone, whether it be Mike Tyson or a younger person. If you’re going to do boxing, stick with it because each time you spend taking time off, you lose a part of you.” 

Main images: (L) Boxrec (R) Press Association.