The Road Warrior Points The Way

Published 10 years ago
The Road Warrior Points The Way

Brian Mitchell grew up in a ring. When he was three years old, his father, Brian Mitchell senior, was a South African bantamweight champion. He was throwing punches from the age of nine. In the late 1980s, his boxing career lit up with 45 wins, 21 knock-outs, 12 World Boxing Association (WBA) Super Featherweight titles and an International Boxing Federation (IBF) Super Featherweight title. They called him the ‘Road Warrior’; he couldn’t fight at home because of sanctions in South Africa. Boxing brought him tragedy as well as fame. Now he is on the road again, paving the way ahead by spotting new boxers.

From the ring to the ringside seat, the ‘Road Warrior’ says his name is one of the many reasons why boxers in Africa are drawn to his gym.


“It was quite a simple process for me. I had retired undefeated and to stay with boxing was easy for me. I left the game for three years, never went close to a gym or a fight, then I decided that boxing had been my whole life, and I opened a gym and became a trainer,” he says.

After training boxers for 10 years, Mitchell decided to move into the business side, using all the knowledge of his 35 years in the boxing world.

Mitchell’s rise to fame was hardly glamorous. He was raised in a broken home on the rough side of Johannesburg, in Troyeville. Mitchell grew up fighting in the streets more than in the ring. It steeled him through 10 years as an amateur. By the time he turned professional he was well conditioned and fame beckoned. On a spring evening in 1986, Mitchell won the World Super Featherweight title against Panama’s Alfredo Layne at Sun City, in the North West province of South Africa.

Victory proved bittersweet. South Africa was shunned from international sport because of apartheid. It forced Mitchell to become a wandering champion; traveling the globe to fight opponents on their home turf, with few South Africans to cheer him on.


“I think the fact that I was never able to defend my title in my own country did a lot for me. I had to all of a sudden become a man and stand on my own two feet and be half a politician and half a world champion boxer. Wherever I went I was bombarded with questions about apartheid and being a white South African. I had to stand up for myself from that point of view. I had to say ‘look I’m not a politician, I am a boxer, but what I know about politics, where I come from, boxing in the townships has no racial issues,’” he says.

“It was tough but it worked for me. It helped me to get to the hall of fame in boxing in 2009. In hindsight, all the hardships made my career. Fighting my opponents in their backyard and earning dollars helped me a lot. I didn’t have anybody bugging me for fight tickets. You had nobody around,” says Mitchell.

Nearly 30 years on, Mitchell has found many promising fighters. Among them is Democratic Republic of the Congo-born Ilunga ‘Junior’ Makabu. He has fought everyone he can in Africa and Mitchell is lining Makabu, who now has a WBC cruiserweight silver belt, up for fights in Monte Carlo.

“He can compete with the best in the world. He in fact phoned me to manage him. He said he wasn’t getting enough activity, enough fights. He knew I could get him fights so he phoned me and we did a bit of a deal,” he says.


According to Mitchell, boxing in Africa is on the rise. The popularity of what he calls boxercising, people who like training but never intend to fight, has increased interest.

“Boxing is a funny sport. Through the years it goes up and down. Right now, there are a lot of good fighters in the world. There is a lot of talk about boxing. A few years ago, it was going through a bit of a slump. It depends on who the actual figureheads are at the time. You need those personalities, like Floyd Mayweather and Muhammad Ali.”

In South Africa, top fights draw in crowds of 3,000. A Mayweather fight in Las Vegas gets 100,000. But most of the money in boxing is made from pay-per-view.

“In the States, pay-per-view is huge. Hundreds of millions of people will pay to watch a fight. The casinos pay to host them as well. Imagine two million hits paying $100 to watch a fight. Supersport [South African sport channel] will pay $200,000 for the fight,” says Mitchell.


Mayweather’s fight against Saul ‘Canelo’Alvarez drew $150 million in pay-per-view revenue with 2.2 million buys. The prize money is nothing to sneeze at either. Mayweather was expected to roll in a guaranteed $41.5 million appearance fee and a final take could approach $100 million after ticket sales, according to FORBES magazine. Makabu gets $10,000 for his fights.

“You’ve got to make it big. Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are some of the highest paid sportsmen in the world. But they are the best in the world. I wouldn’t say it’s the best-paid sport in the world. If you get to the top, you’ll be a superstar. Guys have much better equipment available. They have fancy machines with treadmills, nutritionists and sports psychologists. That’s changed for the better. But I think the fighters were better in the seventies and the eighties than they are now. I think as far as toughness goes and work ethic and training in the gym, there were more characters worldwide that stood out in the eighties,” says Mitchell.

The glitz and glam of boxing does have its dark shadows. Mitchell’s longest shadow was cast by the death of Sowetan-born Jacob ‘Dancing Shoes’ Morake, the only boxer to beat Mitchell in a fight. Mitchell connected with a right cross to Morake’s head. The knock-out punch ended with Morake’s neck hitting the ropes. He never regained consciousness, dying in hospital a day later.

Mitchell says he paid for the funeral and it was hard to move on.  But he did.


“It was something that happened that you don’t expect to happen and you don’t want to happen. I wouldn’t have won a world title if I had retired after a fight like that. I left it. I can’t take the blame for it directly; it was part of the sport. You are going out there to knock him out and beat him, but you’re not looking for a tragedy.”

According to Bob Yearham, in charge of boxing at Emperors Palace in Johannesburg, Mitchell is the face of the sport in Africa.

“He’s a great man and presenter; he’s rubbed shoulders with the best,” he says.

The man who is a legend in boxing rings around the country is humble about his exploits. He says his most memorable punch was thrown where it all began; facing off with Layne. He’s also a man who doesn’t really enjoy boxing movies, but has a secret respect for Rocky and Million Dollar Baby. You could say the ‘Road Warrior’ has traveled every avenue in boxing. The only thing you could say he hasn’t done, is bite off someone’s ear.