At one point in the 1994 released movie ‘A Bronx Tale’ Lillo Brancato Jr remarks in a look-back voiceover, “These guys had a reputation for breaking up bars, but they knew in that instant, they’d made a fatal mistake. This time they walked into the wrong bar.”
The ‘guys’ were a group of Hells Angels bikers whose lack of foresight had led them into attempting to unwittingly terrorise the local mafia hangout. As Brancato intimated, a decade before beginning his own real-world incarceration for first-degree attempted burglary, these guys were used to being the bully, until they met a bigger much nastier foe. And to top it all off, not only did they get a physical pasting from the cosa nostra, but the local wannabe youths also carelessly took their Louisville Sluggers to work on their prized motorbikes.
There’s a lesson there somewhere…
Shannon Courtenay may think it unfair to be cast as a ‘bully’ – after all, she has widely documented her setbacks in both the real and virtual world at the hands of bullies. However, there too have been examples where the mask has slipped, and uncomfortable shadows cast on elements of her own questionable behaviour. Perhaps something evidenced further by her petulant post-fight demeanour following her dismantling by American challenger Jamie Mitchell (now 7-0-2, 4KOs) last month at Liverpool’s Echo Arena.
The heavily marked face that looked aghast as David Diamante redirected her WBA bantamweight title -one that Courtenay had already surrendered on the scales- to Las Vegas, and then jabbered ungraciously all over Mitchell’s first interview as champion, was not one struggling to come to terms with defeat, but instead, one that simply couldn’t countenance it.
Mitchell wasn’t meant to win. She was meant to turn up and take her medicine. That she had the temerity to turn up and win. Well, that was simply unacceptable. Pride comes before a fall, as they say, and sometimes it doesn’t require a baseball bat to beat out the lesson.
“I was irritated that she was even sitting next to me,” says Mitchell on a midnight call with Boxing Social direct from her Vegas home. “I couldn’t understand why they [DAZN] just invited her in on my moment. For me, it was disrespectful for them to even allow that to happen.
“But then she [Courtenay] starts saying I didn’t hit her. I’m not listening to that. I’m like give me the mic back so I can talk. But you know what; that’s just Shannon man. Somewhere inside her, she may have underestimated me, because she is so into herself and how amazing she is. But I think she was just being who she is.”
For Mitchell, her antipathy towards Courtenay is very real, and not one of the confected pantomime boo-hiss variety. “I wanted to knock her out,” she admits. “I wanted to beat her more than I wanted the belt. I’m disappointed that didn’t happen.”
There is special ire from the 36-year-old concerning her British opponent’s plethora of pre-and post-fight excuses, in particular her reasons for failing to make weight. “Sorry to talk about blood,” says the new champion. “But I had 50 fights in the amateurs, and it felt like every time there was a tournament I was on my period. She says she didn’t have her period for three years and then suddenly, the day before weigh-in it starts. You know, she says as well, that she went to the doctor back in June about it. If you know you are fighting in July [the original fight date] then why do you go looking for it then?
“They need to come down harder on people [who miss weight] and not have this favouritism for people,” she adds. “If I’d have done it there would have been a big issue. But I’d never do that to myself or the people around me. I have too much pride and respect for myself. I couldn’t go home to my son empty-handed knowing that I hadn’t made weight.
“She really could have made it if she’d wanted to. But it just shows the mentality. She’s so creative with these excuses. I have this joke now that anytime anyone makes excuses, I say “Here you go with that Shannon Courtney shit!’ Every time, as soon as I hear an excuse.”
You get the feeling that from Mitchell’s perspective she would like to move on from Courtenay to other challenges, but there is still the small matter of a rematch clause. The new champion’s concern is that she will be left dragging her heals while Courtenay navigates her ongoing knee problem, at just the time when she is desperate to push on. “I don’t want to wait around,” she confides. “There are other women out there that I can be matched against. But you know, I don’t know if that rematch clause is voided because it’s meant to be at 118 and not 120.5lbs. I don’t know if her actions voided it. We need to look at that.”
In many ways, Mitchell sees herself as the poster fighter for those in the sport who never get a chance. Those boxers who toil diligently and effectively in empty arenas and small hall shows, and despite their aptitude at hitting people never get the call to the big-time. There is an obvious paradox between former-champion Courtenay who has been pushed by promotors, television networks, and compliant media almost since day one, and Mitchell whose existence has been eked out by necessity in low-rent Mexican venues and provincial showgrounds.
“There’s a lot of good fighters out there that just don’t get an opportunity,” she agrees. “I got mine and I took advantage of it. That is all you can do in this sport. I already knew I was a world champion a long time ago. The belt is just confirmation for me. A belt doesn’t make me. It just lets people know who I am.”
Hardship tales are frequently a committed bedfellow to success and failure between the ropes. Most fighters have one: some disarmingly gritty and real; others perhaps more concocted. Courtenay has hers and has writ it large across the media, as does Mitchell; although you would need to search harder to find it.
When Boxing Social does mention it near the end of our conversation -having located information from an ancient interview that Mitchell provided to a local news outlet back in her amateur days- she reels off the details as if they were items on a grocery list. “You wake up and you don’t have your mum and dad, nobody don’t know who your family is and you just got these people that you don’t even know beating on you for no reason. You ain’t got no food, people putting beer in your bottle; just not knowing what the hell will happen to you next.
“Being woken up in the night just so they can beat you. By the time I was ten, I wasn’t any good to nobody. Back then I was tough 24/7 -even in my sleep-always waiting for something because that was my life. I had to fight for myself. It was a dark place that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” she says, of her childhood.
Mitchell doesn’t provide any more details, but you can find the full depth of her challenging upbringing online should you want to read it. The champion, for her part, is done with it and sees no sense in looking back and wringing out a tear-stained handkerchief of what would undeniably be warranted self-pity. “I don’t need it to drive me no more. We are past that. I am in a totally different situation now; a different level,” she says emphatically.
“I don’t need anything to push me or get me started. I don’t need to think: why did this happen to me? I’m not a poor me kind of a person.
“Now it’s all about the next fight and seeing how I can destroy someone’s health. That’s what pushes me forward. I’m sorry to sound so mean. I’m a sweet person really,” adds Mitchell.
“But when I get to fighting, I turn into something different. My past was able to give me that because long ago I had to say to myself: ‘I’m never letting anyone do these things to me ever again.’ I have always been a tough girl, even when I was ten years old. I think I was tougher then than I am now. I was a whole different person back then, but now my toughness is channelled and only comes out when it needs to come out.”
Beyond titles and paycheques, you get the sense that the thing that drives Mitchell most is providing a happy and stable home life to her son. Now just five years old it is obvious that she wants to provide him with the security and love that she never experienced. The battle having now been won with her past by the recasting of so much hate into love. “He looks up to me to take care of him,” reveals Mitchell.
“He doesn’t care what I been through. All he cares about is where he is getting his next video game or his next meal, and that he has a safe place to sleep. I am here to make sure that happens and wherever he goes that he is treated like the great kid he is. That is how my past drives me now instead of any of the other stuff.”
With a childhood blighted by neglect and abuse it would have been so easy for Mitchell to take the wrong forks in the road leading to the short-term highs of drugs or booze. Yet, to her credit, she has chosen the longer, tougher road of training and fighting; putting one foot in front of the other as the sun rises above the lonely tarmac; or endlessly repeating the same drills in windowless gymnasiums. If anyone in this hardest of sports has earned their success, then it is surely the 36-year-old. “I had my fight street fight when I was ten,” she recalls matter-of-factly.
“The girl I fought was 18 years old. She was bothering me, doing stuff, just torturing me for no reason. I was always a real quiet person, but I was very dangerous, too. I’d already been through so much and I didn’t like being messed with. I remember that I beat her up real good. Afterwards, everyone was looking at me like they were in shock.
“I would just fight all the time, sometimes two or three times a day. When I was 16, I went up and broke this girl’s jaw. It looked like she’d had a stroke. I scared myself with that when I saw what I’d done to her.”
This fight formed the catalyst for Mitchell’s entry into boxing. Years of brawling on the street had provided her with an unshakeable inner toughness that was ripe for moulding in the gym. She recalls the staff at her youth placement asking her what they could do to stop her fighting? Her reply was straightforward: “I want to box.”
She fell in love with the sport instantly and not surprisingly proved to be a natural, prospering within the much-needed structure and discipline that boxing provided. In a laureled amateur career, Mitchell went on to be rated number one at bantamweight in America, before having her Olympic dream quashed via the familiar narrative of poker-style bad beats and wilfully myopic officialdom.
Turning pro in 2017, her early fights were all on the road; unglamorous nights on provincial shows, deep in the shadows, far removed from the brilliant neon of boxing’s big-time. Reduced to attempting to push her career forward in Mexico, Mitchell credits her manager -Brian Cohen- with directing her out of the backroads and onto the sport’s sunlit freeway.
“Brian has done a phenomenal job with me,” the 36-year-old confirms “He’s really set me up; every fight has been a level up and they’ve all been on pretty big platforms, especially compared to what I was doing before. He’s done an outstanding job. Not just with me but all the females he is managing.”
Whatever the future holds Mitchell is determined not to be remembered as a “one-hitter quitter” – but her days of fighting for survival on the street are long behind her. “That shit scares me,” she laughs. “I don’t like doing that no more.”
Instead the woman who carries the nickname of ‘The Miracle’ now has something much bigger than herself to fight for. “I fight for people who can’t fight for themselves,” she says, in a final nod to her past. “If I can be a ‘miracle’ to someone else and give them belief in themselves, then that is what I’m about. I want to try and make a difference in someone’s life by using the platform I have now.”