JOHN Mitchell might be regarded as the ‘country boy’ of the Irish PFL Europe contenders, despite hailing from Cork city – but boy, has he been to some countries.
Now resident in Dubai, it was a trip to Thailand that set him on his way into MMA, while he travelled to compete in world rowing championships as a youngster.
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His involvement in the Professional Fighters League play-offs on Saturday night, one step away from the Championship finals in Dublin in December, will only be his second time in Paris, though, as he recalls:
“I’ve been there when I was 12 years old – things have changed since. It was a school trip to see the Mona Lisa – and fighting was absolutely banned on it!”
It’ll be ‘no holds barred’ when he takes on Frenchman Geisym Derouiche for a place in the lightweight decider.
Facing a home favourite will be tough, but Derouiche is a late replacement after Alex Chizov failed to make weight - and Mitchell beat the Frenchman last time out, in Berlin in July.
More importantly, the 28-year-old from the Rebel County believes he should have won much more convincingly:
“I’m my own hardest critic, I dominated the fight from bell to bell… But…I didn’t get the finish and I know I’ve a lot more to show. I’ll be going in with the mentality that it ‘lost’ the last one because I know I’m so much better than I previously showed.
“The guy was proved the best striker in either one of the tournament brackets, he was multiple Muay Thai champion, undefeated boxer, hadn’t lost since 2017 – and I dominated him.
“I’m going to put it on him,” Mitchell insists, “a big ‘Cork Horsebox’ performance.”
He laughs about his own nickname, explaining that it wasn’t his first:
“Ultimately, I knew I was going to leave Cork after finishing college and I went to Dubai – I impressed people here. I got offered a big fight against a Chechnyan guy, with a big record, and I beat him and it steamrollered from there…
“Initially, because that fight was so bloody, my management called me ‘The Ripper’. I didn’t feel that suited me 100 per cent.
“One nickname I’ve never been able to get away from, but I actually really like it, is ‘The Cork Horsebox’. I’m strong, like, and I’m from Cork, it’s more rural Ireland. It’s funny, I love it. I’m from the city, but it still stuck.”
Although he says, “Now Dubai feels like my home in many respects,” he’s still keen to get back to Ireland for the first time in around 18 months, not least because “my sister had a baby so I want to see my nephew.”
If he does qualify for the decider in Dublin, it could be an ‘all-Ireland Final’, with Dubliner Dylan Tuke fighting in the other lightweight semi-final:
““I hope that fight does happen,” confirms Mitchell. “I’d love to see two Irish lads in the final together, it’d be great for Irish MMA.
“I think Dylan’s sound, but I’m sure he’d love to fight me and I’d love to fight him. That would be huge, build-up would be amazing. I really wish him the best in his fight so that could happen.”
Mitchell’s road here has involved rivers, as a talented young rower, coached by Teddy O’Donovan, father of World Champions and Olympic silver medallist brothers Gary and Paul.
Rowing still benefits him in MMA, he believes: “Obviously they’re chalk and cheese - rowing’s nothing like getting slapped in the face - but I’ve been competing at a very high level for as long as I can remember. They’re similar in that respect.
“Many times in rowing races you start questioning yourself – and many times in fights it comes to that point where you push on or give up. Clearly, if you look at my fights, I push on.”
His time in Thailand was also hugely influential: “I did a seven-week camp in Thailand recently and it was as real ‘coming around’ experience.
“I was there seven years ago fighting professionally in Thai boxing before I ever made my MMA debut.
“I was in Phuket, so there were a lot of foreigners in that gym. That trip was what set me up for my career today. I still think I had my hardest fights then.
“From my personal experience, Thai boxing seems physically a much tougher sport, in terms of the damage you can take – but MMA is mentally a lot harder. I’m sure people will have different ideas on that.
“In my opinion, in MMA there are so many different facets you have to watch out for: you can’t just box too much, or kick too much, you’ve to worry about wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu, all that. I’ve found MMA a lot more challenging.”
He’s enjoyed plenty of success, though. A three-time Cage Legacy Welterweight Champion, the reigning Akuma Lightweight Champion, and a Celtic Gladiator Super-Welterweight Champion, making him a three-weight division champion across multiple organizations.
Even so, he regards PFL Europe as his biggest stage – so far: “100 per cent. When I started I set a goal that I was going to be signed to a major league organisation by 26. That happened, and I ended up fighting in that.
“I’ve been fortunate enough that everything has nearly gone perfectly according to plan. When I win this tournament outright I’ll push on to a bigger stage.”