Bryant Jennings once had a recurring dream. He was tearing through everyone in front of him, knocking them down one by one while absorbing the accolades of athletic stardom. He was making big dollars and taking care of his family without a concern for how to pay the next bill.
Those dreams were of Jennings on a football field, and reality didn’t quite work out that way.
Instead, that image of football success was replaced by Jennings wheeling around a warehouse on a forklift, and the many times his dungy work clothes stuck to his body, sweat stinging his eyes, as he installed more sheet rock and tile.
So a few days before Christmas in 2009, Jennings decided to walk into the ABC Gym on 26th and Master Streets in Philadelphia and create a new vision. There, Jennings’ idea of football stardom, by then long gone in a haze of missed chances, was replaced by this new vision: Tearing through everyone in front of him in a boxing ring, making a name for himself and taking care of his family through the harshest professional sport there is.
Jennings has taken a circuitous route to becoming a budding heavyweight contender. He’s had a perfect vehicle to showcase himself in NBC Sports Network’s new boxing series Fight Night.
This Saturday night will mark Jennings’ third appearance on Fight Night’s fourth overall show, when he takes on Steve Collins (25-1-1, 18 knockouts), the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Collins has a nice-looking record and more fights than Jennings (13-0, 6 KOs) but he’s never taken on anyone as hardnosed and mentally tough as the Philadelphia native.
Jennings has always worked. He began when he was 14 on a forklift and powerjack and continues today in the gym. The throwback work ethic is what first attracted old-school Philadelphia trainer Fred Jenkins to the thick-muscled Jennings in the first place.
“The kid had been in and out of the recreation center his whole life; every time I saw Bryant, I saw his athletic ability,” Jenkins recalled. “I would come up to him, ‘When are you going to try the gym?’ He would run up and down the court and outdo everyone with his physical strength. As a guy in the neighborhood, I watch everyone, and every time I saw Bryant, he was outdoing everyone.”
Jennings couldn’t have come along for Jenkins at a better time. The trainer had been in the doldrums. He had grown fatigued and frustrated through the years by fighters he had developed, then leaving him. And in walked Jennings, a football star at Ben Franklin High School whose aspirations in that particular sport petered out.
“I was on the down side,” Jenkins said. “You put your life into a fighter, get him the right position and they forget who got them there. I wasn’t going to let that happen again. If I was going to give a commitment to a fighter, I had to be sure.
“When Bryant came in, I told him to put some wraps on and I eased out of the gym for an hour. I came back in and Bryant was still in the gym, doing one round with every punching bag. He was still there. I asked a couple guys and they said he kept hitting the bag. My eyes opened up every time he hit the bag, because he hit it right. I thought, if he catches on, he was in.”
Jennings had a short spell in the amateurs, where his goal was to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. However, the politics and scoring system of the amateur ranks discouraged him (as it does so many aspiring U.S. amateurs). But the amateur process wasn’t about to beat up Jennings.
“Within 30 days (of training with Jennings) I had my first amateur fight; I was an amateur eight months before I turned pro,” he said. “My drive has a whole lot to do with intensity level. You can’t teach heart, you can’t teach will and drive. My first amateur fight was like a street fight. I had some slippery shoes on, in some hand-me-downs. I was never nervous. I went in and held my own. I won. But I wanted to look better. I never settled for what I’ve accomplished.
“I came into this game with a goal and that’s to go as far as I can. At first, I was aiming toward the 2012 Olympics. I had the age thing against me, but I just got disgusted with the politics of the amateur game. I started seeing something and I wasn’t going to let that ruin my goal. I was always physically and mentally strong. I had to move on.”
With Jenkins guiding him as trainer and manager, Jennings signed with local Philadelphia Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz, who then greased the skids for Jennings to latch on to the Fight Night series. He agreed to put his undefeated record up against another undefeated rising heavyweight, Maurice Byarm, and won a unanimous 10-round decision in the inaugural show of the NBC Sports Net boxing program.
Jennings followed that up by stopping former WBO titleholder Siarhei Liakhovich in the ninth round on the second Fight Night show on March 24 in Brooklyn.
“Bryant literally came out of nowhere, because he’s willing to stay active and fight competitive fights,” said Kathy Duva, CEO of Main Events. “Bryant has everything. He has a great story, a beautiful personality—and he’s willing to engage. The series is happening better and faster than we expected, and Bryant has been a big part of that.
“We’re building talent and that’s been the goal. Bryant has fit into the plans. We hope to keep doing this. Bryant is one of a few heavyweights that are very interesting. My personal belief is that we’re able to build a thriving heavyweight boxing scene, rather than send someone to Europe to get $225,000 for one of the Klitschkos to beat you up.”
Jennings, according to Duva, isn’t taking the recent formula of heavyweight failure, which is fighting one setup after another, then trying to cash in on a Klitschko.
“Three to five years from now, I’d like to see someone from the U.S. that’s able to recognize the heavyweight champion of the world,” Duva continued. “There is a huge opportunity for Bryant here to take that division and use all of that talent and create more interest.”
Jenkins isn’t worried about Jennings’ clock ticking too fast. Jennings is 27 and he’s been fighting since he was 24. There are rough edges that still need smoothing, like being more patient, and when to throw a punch, and punch through an opponent’s arms when they cover up.
“From my experience, Bryant is still a novice fighter,” Jenkins said. “If he becomes an open-class fighter, it’s all she wrote. He’s a top-notch novice fighter getting ready to go to an open class.
“There aren’t many superb heavyweights out there. Bryant’s only problem is a lack of experience. He trains 98-percent of the year. He’ll miss maybe 10 days in the gym. He’s picking up faster and faster. He’s a yes-sir, no-sir kid and he’s also honest. He’s been an opportunity and a blessing to me, and his time is due.”
Jennings is inching closer to realizing a new dream.
Photos / PhillyBoxingHistory.com and Main Events