Tim Smith

Bryant Jennings says he’s ready for Szpilka, and the heavyweight top 10

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There was no grand plan of world domination when Bryant Jennings, a 24-year-old former standout defensive end at Ben Franklin High School, walked into a Philadelphia boxing gym to workout one day.

But as Jennings began to train, work his way through a few amateur fights, and look around the U.S. professional heavyweight landscape, he said “What the heck. Why not seek to dominate?”

For the past decade the heavyweight division has been Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko and everyone else. But that is changing as Vitali has given up boxing and his world title for politics in the Ukraine. Who knows how long Wladimir will continue to go it alone at the top?

Bryant (17-0, 9 knockouts), 29, is trying to separate himself from a not-so-crowded field of U.S. contenders and position himself for a run at a world championship.

He will take the first step when he climbs into the ring against Artur Szpilka, a contender from Poland, in a 10-round bout on the undercard of the Mikey Garcia-Juan Carlos Burgos title match at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on HBO on Saturday night.

The book on Szpilka (16-0, 12 KOs) is that he is a slugging brawler who will test Jennings’ chin. Plus he’s probably angry that he had to fly back and forth from Poland to the U.S. in less than a week because he had problems with his visa. Jennings isn’t impressed.

“I don’t really think nothing of him. He’s just another opponent,” Jennings said of Szpilka. “He’s nothing spectacular. Just somebody in my way. We took the fight because it was a name that was out there. I was willing to fight anybody.”

That might read like it was said with an air of arrogance. But it didn’t sound egotistical when Jennings made the statement about Szpilka. It sounded like a statement of fact. Perhaps it was his confidence speaking.

This will be Jennings’ HBO debut. In baseball terms it’s like going from Triple A to the Major Leagues. He knows it’s a gigantic step up in terms of visibility, but Jennings said he isn’t dwelling on it.

“It’s pressure, but no added pressure to excel and do well. I’ll treat it like it’s any other fight,” Jennings said.

Jennings fought just once last year after averaging five matches during his first three years as a pro. That’s a long stretch off for any boxer not named Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao.

Jennings explained that he was in the middle of switching management and he was also trying to land a fight with Wladimir Klitschko. He didn’t get the Klitschko fight, but he did change his management.

Under new management Jennings believe he will get a shot at the types of fights he deserves.

“I was watching guys like Seth Mitchell and Deontay Wilder fighting on HBO and making 10 times what I was making and I know I’m 10 times better than them,” Jennings said.

Jennings is one of the more active heavyweights in the ring, throwing combinations with accuracy and frequency. Because he got such a late start, he was a blank slate when he started forming his boxing muscle memory. There weren’t any bad habits to unlearn.

“I didn’t come to the game saying I didn’t have to do that or do this,” Jennings said. “The good thing about my trainer is he adjusted to how guys fight. Good thing I came into the game with a lot of talent. He let me see how I fought and let me work from there. The punch output is there. What you see is what you get.”

Jennings turned some heads when he took on former heavyweight champion Sergei Liakhovich in 2012. He controlled the fight with his jab and boxing skill and forced Liakhovich to quit in his corner in the ninth round. While he has progressed as a boxer, his level of competition hasn’t. He said it has been frustrating at times.

“I learned in this game you have to be real strategic,” he said. “Every fight is worth something. You can’t be building up records. You’re fighting to get into position (for a title shot). You put too much into that (building up the record) you’re not going to be ready when the time comes.”

He will certainly be taking on stiffer competition, especially if he’s going to continue to fight on HBO, in the near future. Jennings said bring it on.

“Nobody is a threat to me,” Jennings said. “You have Deontay Wilder, Chris Arreola, Bermane Stiverne. The usual names. Mike Perez they just threw up there. I told them that they were bluffing with this guy. The dude is nobody.”

The bright lights of HBO and fighting for the first time at Madison Square Garden aren’t intimidating for Jennings, who wants to make a statement against Szpilka.       

“That’s where I belong. It just so happens that this is the venue that was chosen,” Jennings said. “All the preparation that I’ve had will show. In my fights I get more excited at the end than I do at the beginning. If you don’t meet your expectations then you’re disappointed.”

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