Atlantic City, NJ – A week ago Johnathon Banks was in Hamburg, working the corner of Wladimir Klitschko, telling the reigning heavyweight champion of the world the kind of things he would tell him, imagining what he would say.
Saturday night Banks heard the words himself, channeling Emanuel Steward’s wisdom, his rapid-fire staccato voice: “You can’t win unless you let your hands go, be first, be in control.”
Banks honored his Hall of Fame former trainer, whose death on Oct. 25 stunned the boxing world, by pulling off a stunner himself and stopping previously undefeated and favored Seth Mitchell at 2:37 of the second round in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, as the HBO-televised co-feature to Adrien Broner vs. Antonio DeMarco.
“I guess this part of my story, and as your life unfolds, everyone has a story to tell,” said Banks, “and the position I was left in this time last week was as a trainer, and I’m still a fighter. I believe I showed everyone tonight that I’m still a fighter.”
Banks improved to 29-1-1 (19 knockouts), with his only loss coming on Feb. 27, 2009, by eighth-round TKO when he challenged then-IBF cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek. “I heard Emanuel’s voice every second, same as last week in Hamburg, I heard his voice last week. Emanuel introduced me to all of this. I can’t help but to hear his voice.”
Then Banks recounted the story of how he first met Steward at the fabled Kronk Gym in Detroit when he was 15. He approached the legendary trainer and Steward kept walking. The second time Steward saw Banks he was sparring. The venerable teacher stopped the sparring, pulled the young fighter aside, and told him to put his right hand here and left hand here.
Seconds later, Banks dropped the sparring partner—just like he dropped Mitchell three times in the second round Saturday night.
“It was a very emotional night, but I had to keep that all bottled up until I took care of my business,” Banks said. “Even though my trainer, Sugar Hill, Emanuel’s nephew, he had to keep himself bottled up until after the fight.”
Banks initially hurt Mitchell, 25-1-1 (19 KOs) with a right hand that caught the former Michigan State football player squarely on the chin.
“I was shocked that I hurt him. I didn’t think it hurt him because he was ducking under,” Banks said. “I saw his feet wobble and I was trying to do what [Chazz] Witherspoon didn’t do [in Mitchell’s previous fight, when Witherspoon had Mitchell in trouble in the first round]. I wanted to keep touching him, keep touching him. He was hurt real bad the first time. I wanted the fight to continue. I wanted to stretch him out.”
In the opening round, the 242-pound Mitchell looked strong, using a quick jab and stalking the 218-pound Banks. A right connected on Banks’ jaw and put him in some momentary trouble as he tried ducking away from a punch. He reeled back into the ropes, seemingly dazed before regaining his composure.
“I learned not to reach so much and to be patient,” Mitchell said afterward. “We knew he was a counter puncher and I didn’t feel he had a lot of power. What I plan to do now is watch the film, look at my mistakes and rest a little bit. I have to correct the lunging and being off balance, I was too audacious and reckless.”
In the second round, Mitchell dropped a right to the body, but Banks began countering him. He began boxing more, and letting his hands go.
Banks fought for the dear friend and father figure he had lost. Hill pushed him forward for the uncle he had lost.
“I had to get on him, like Emanuel would have,” Hill said. “This was a tough night for us. I think Johnathon and I both have a lot of Emanuel inside of us. Growing up, all I saw was Kronk fighters win. Johnathon is family to us, myself and Emanuel. He was fortunate to go to Lennox Lewis’s training camps, and Wladimir Klitschko’s training camps. Johnathon has had a bad two-and-a-half years after the Adamek fight. He went downhill, so it was more about getting his confidence back and his rhythm and timing back. He’s been gradually coming back. We had a good outcome tonight.”
Between the first and second round, Hill got up Banks’ butt; he had to bring the fight out of him. He knows what makes Banks tick, what makes him cry and what makes him smile, knows how he thinks.
Everything Steward taught them has now become a part of their fabric. Hill and Banks heard a voice from on high looking down and shouting in that rapid-fire staccato way, “You can’t win unless you let your hands go, be first, be in control.”
“I was thinking of Emanuel all through the fight; I wouldn’t be where I am, right here, and in Hamburg, Germany, thanks to him,” Banks said. “I’m showing my appreciation by working hard so I can continue in his name.”
Photo by Naoki Fukuda