It doesn’t seem to bother Bryant Jennings that few outside of his support group in North Philadelphia regard him as a serious threat to the heavyweight throne.
Jennings, who is 27 years of age, is just three years removed from the first day that he laced up gloves at the same ABC recreation center that he still trains out of. Standing just 6-foot-2 and weighing around 220 pounds, he doesn’t fit the bill of the 6-foot-6, 250-pound giants that dominate the heavyweight landscape. He obviously isn’t an Olympic gold medalist like titleholders Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin are, with a modest 13-4 amateur ledger to his credit.
But Jennings (12-0, 5 knockouts), who faces former WBO heavyweight titleholder Sergei Lyakhovich this Saturday at the Aviator Sports Complex in Brooklyn, N.Y., has the opportunity to announce his presence in the heavily European populated division with an impressive victory here. The bout will be Jennings’ second consecutive appearance on the upstart NBC Sports Network’s Fight Night boxing series, affording him another opportunity to fight in front of a nationally televised audience.
Jennings’ last bout, a unanimous decision victory over fellow unbeaten hopeful Maurice Byarm, was a major step up as both men jumped from competing in six rounders against journeymen to going ten full rounds on national television on just five days notice. The leap in competition brought out the natural competitor in Jennings, teaching him lessons on the job about self-belief that only pushing one’s limits can bring out of them.
Lyakhovich (25-4, 16 KOs), though well past his prime at 35 and having fought just three times in the last four years, represents a far steeper step up in competition than did Byarm.
“I do think this is a stepup, because he’s much more experienced,” said Jennings. “I wouldn’t say hes any better than Byarm, but he definitely has the history and background that comes with being a former champion.”
If there are whispers that Jennings is in over his head, it isn’t the first time.
Jennings, who had excelled at basketball and football among other sports at Ben Franklin High in Philadelphia, didn’t pick up boxing until he was 24 after curiosity compelled him to explore the rest of the rec center that he utilized for his primary athletic preoccupations. There he met Fred Jenkins Sr., a highly-respected if uncelebrated trainer who had once brought David Reid to a gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Jennings had his first amateur bout a month after putting on gloves, making it to the PAL Nationals and National Golden Gloves finals, losing to the vastly more experienced Lenroy “Cam” Thompson, who will be representing the U.S. this year at the London Games.
Jennings will frankly tell you that he lacks experience. But he will also tell you that that won’t hold him back.
“I had the will and the drive to complete anything I was attempting to do,” said Jennings, when asked what he felt helped him get to this point with little experience. “I think that plays a part moreso than anything. Without will, drive or heart, you won’t succeed. I knew a lot of guys that had talent, but their will and their drive, they lacked drive. They don’t take it far. Heart is another thing because you can’t teach heart.
“Me being from Philadelphia, it’s really a great thing because it matches me. I fit the description of a Philadelphia fighter. I have to keep that going and I can’t let this city down. I have to make that statement true because Philly fighters are great.”
Jennings will also tell you that he is one of the best conditioned heavyweights today. Though small by modern heavyweight standards, Jennings practically lives in the gym, never allowing himself to get out of shape.
“That’s my lifestyle, I’ve been in shape for awhile,” said Jennings, who also works a 40-hour-a-week job as a building mechanic at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia. “Boxing shape is pretty much different shape, but ever since I was a boxer I’ve been working myself up to be champion style shape, which I am right now.
Jennings believes that physical conditioning is a major determining factor in a division where there is no weight limit. Fighters can come in at any weight they feel like, affording some with just enough rope to hang themselves with. It’s no surprise that the two men who exemplify physical fitness in the division – brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko – are also the two most insurmountable forces in the division.
“They’re probably two of the few that are in shape,” said Jennings. “Like Chris Arreola to me, is pretty good, he can give you pressure but his downfall is when he didn’t stay in shape. I’m quite sure he’ll tell you that. That’s not really bad to say that, but he knows what he’s capable of doing but he never gets in shape. You never see the 100 percent version of him. Some guys never get in shape.”
The top-heavy nature of the division isn’t something that Jennings sees ending any time soon. Three of the division’s belts are held by either of the Klitschko brothers, including THE RING title held by younger brother Wladimir. The undefeated but protected Alexander Povetkin holds the WBA’s version of the belt and is considerably more vulnerable. Yet despite the Klitschkos’ advancing ages, Jennings doesn’t see anyone on the horizon that can unseat them.
“I haven’t seen anyone,” said Jennings. “Because a lot of guys have advantages, but they’re one-dimensional. They have good offense, but they have bad defense. They’re good pressure fighters, but they can’t box. I’m not saying there isn’t one, but I haven’t seen one that actually had the ability to do that.”
The steady increases in competition won’t soon end for Jennings, he says. Jennings says he aims for the top of the division – either the Klitschkos or Povetkin – by January of 2013, less than a year away.
‘That’s what I’m aiming for,” said Jennings. “As I state this, I state that humbly. I’ve only been pro for two years, I’ve had 12 fights, all exciting fights. I’ve fought some decent opponents, a couple journeyman, a couple of good fighters that were supposed to be promising. I did it all off natural ability. The more and more I’m in the gym, the more I learned. I think I’ve got it.
“I’ve seen people like Dereck Chisora and David Haye, how much more skill do you need to take it to that level? A lot of these heavyweights don’t really have the skill, they’re not the guy you want to look at. They may be winning fights, but they don’t win them decently. They don’t look like old school fighters. I feel as though I’m supposed to take that on.”
You can tell Jennings that he’s in over his head, but that isn’t likely to deter him.
Photo / Chris Cozzone-Fightwireimages.com
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to GMA News and the Filipino Reporter newspaper in New York City. He is also a member of The Ring ratings panel. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.