ATLANTIC CITY - Boxing has been searching for the next great American heavyweight for more than a decade.
Shannon Briggs, Chris Byrd and John Ruiz held various titles, but they merely held slivers of what was boxing's most coveted championship. No USA-born heavyweight has captivated the division since Evander Holyfield ruled in the late 1990s.
In the last five or six years, all of the relevent title belts have been strapped around the six-pack abs of brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitchscko.
Two of the brightest American prospects will be squaring off at Boardwalk Hall Saturday night when Paulsboro resident Chazz Witherspoon (30-2, 22 KOs) faces Seth Mitchell (24-0-1, 18 KOs), of Brandywine, Md., on the Bernard Hopkins-Chad Dawson undercard.
"This is a big fight for me," said Mitchell, who is ranked No. 6 by the World Boxing Organization (WBO). "If you take the Klitschko's out of the picture, I think I mix in well (with the other heavyweight contenders). Hopefully, this time next year I'll be fighting for a title."
One of the problems with the heavyweight division is that most of the top 230-pound American athletes are playing linebacker in the NFL or power forward in the NBA.
There was a time when both Mitchell and Witherspoon were leaning toward football and basketball, respectively, before they turned to boxing.
Mitchell, 29, was an All-American middle linebacker for Michigan State University before a chronic knee injury forced him to hang up his green-and-white jersey. After graduating in 2005 with a degree in criminal justice and security management, he decided to give boxing a try soon after watching Indianapolis Colts safety Tommy Zbikowski fight in 2006.
"I didn't want to give up football, but I had had seven surgeries on my left knee and the pain was just too much to keep going," Mitchell said Thursday at Caesars Atlantic City. "I still wanted to compete at something and watching Tommy 'Z' motivated me to take up boxing.
"The only thing I miss about football now is the team comraderie. I still bleed green and white. But my future is in boxing now. It's tough getting punched in the face for a living, but this is what I chose to do to provide for my family (he's married with a 5-year-old daughter and 17-month-old son)."
Witherspoon, 30, also had aspirations of becoming a pro basketball or football player while growing up in Paulsboro.
He was a career 1,000-point scorer for the Red Raiders' basketball team and was also a top high jumper on the track team.
"I also went out for the football team every year, but I was a wide receiver and we never threw the ball," Witherspoon said with a laugh Thursday at Caesars Atlantic City. "Kevin Harvey (who eventually played for Temple University), was our quarterback and we went 67-0 by running the ball on every play. Once the preseason ended, I headed to the gym to play basketball."
Witherspoon turned down some basketball and track scholarship offers in favor of an academic scholarship to Saint Joseph's University, where he graduated in 2005 with a degree in pharmaceutical marketing.
It was while he was at St. Joe's that he decided to follow in the footsteps of cousin Tim Witherspoon, a former heavyweight champion, and take up boxing.
"I thought that I was starting to get a little fat, so I took up boxing as a way to get in shape," Witherspoon said. "I had some success as an amateur and then I made a decision to get into the hurt business."
Both heavyweights will also be trying to dispel the notion that educated, articulate and nice guys can't make it in such a brutal, seedy sport.
Rather than engage in any Floyd Mayweather-style trash talking, Mitchell and Witherspoon have both expressed nothing but respect for one another, though their admiration figures to disappear once they get into the ring Saturday.
"First and foremost, I'm a father," said Witherspoon, whose wife is pregnant with the couple's fifth son. "I want to be somebody they can always look up to and be proud of, so I won't do anything to compromise my integrity."
Mitchell and Witherspoon have their share of critics.
The knock on Mitchell is that he is being coddled by his handlers, including Golden Boy Promotions. Aside from a second-round TKO over Timor Ibragimov last December, most of his victories were earned against mediocre competition.
"The naysayers and doubters motivate me," Mitchell said. "I don't let accolades get to my head. I believe in myself, but I'm not cocky or arrogant. Anybody can lose on any given day, but if you're prideful and lose, the fall is so much harder."
Witherspoon has more experience, but has yet to prove he can handle top opponents. Both times he stepped up in competition, he lost to Chris Arreola and Tony Thompson, respectively. He lost to Thompson via ninth-round TKO at Boardwalk Hall in 2009.
"The funny thing about that fight is that I don't remember it," Witherspoon said. "I got a concussion in the second or third round and I really don't have any recollection of it. I remember that I was going to say something to my coach, but my pride kicked in and I didn't.
"I consider myself a man's man. I am a momma's boy, but if you try to bring the rumble to me, I'm going to give it back to you."
Contact David Weinberg:
Chazz Witherspoon (30-2, 22 KOs)
vs. Seth Mitchell
(24-0-1, 18 KOs)
When: undercard of Bernard Hopkins vs. Chad Dawson fight on Saturday
Where: Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City