By Kieran Mulvaney
Watch: Fight Highlights
Shortly before the co-main event, the Theater at Madison Square Garden turned into a sea of red, as what seemed to be a sizeable percentage of New York's Polish community loudly voiced its enthusiasm for heavyweight Artur Szpilka. But no amount of vocal support was enough to prevent Szpilka from losing his unbeaten record via 10th round stoppage to undefeated Philadelphian Bryant Jennings.
The first four rounds were largely even but surprisingly uneventful, both men moving and feinting and attempting to set up shots, but Jennings blocking much of Szpilka's offense with his gloves, and Szpilka showing some deft head movement to slip many of Jennings' blows.
As the bout progressed, however, the American's superior technique and conditioning began to come into play. A left hand to the solar plexus caused Szpilka to wince and drop to his knees, and although he beat the count and staged a determined fightback in the eighth, as he grew weary, his head became a sitting target which Jennings hit with increasing rapidity.
Even so, the bout seemed likely to last the distance until a short Jennings left hook snapped Szpilka's head around and the Polish fighter slumped into the ropes. Referee Mike Ortega correctly ruled a knockdown, but although Szpilka rose to his feet before the end of the count, he looked completely spent. Ortega allowed the bout to continue, but not for long; Szpilka was slumped over and taking further punishment to the head and body when Barry Jordan, the medical director for the New York State Athletic Commission, walked along the apron to signal his desire for an end to the punishment. Ortega stepped in and halted the contest with 40 seconds remaining.
Szpilka fell to 16-1, and Jennings registered his 10th knockout in 18 career victories without a loss.
HBO Boxing's Kieran Mulvaney goes one-on-one with Artur Szpilka, as he prepares to take on Bryant Jennings in Saturday's undercard on HBO at 9:45pm ET/PT:
HBO Boxing's Kieran Mulvaney catches up with Bryant Jennings ahead of his undercard bout vs. Artur Szpilka, this Saturday at 9:45pm ET/PT on HBO:
For Bryant Jennings, 2012 was a breakout year. Paired with the fledgling NBC Sports Network, he and the channel rose together as he fought five times and scored five wins -- three by knockout -- and established himself as arguably America's best heavyweight. Since then, however, inactivity prompted by promotional issues limited "By-By" to just one fight in 2013, a sixth round corner retirement of Andrey Fedosov, and his long absence from the airwaves expended virtually all of the momentum he generated.
On Saturday, the Philadelphia product will attempt to re-ignite his career on HBO's airwaves when he faces Polish power-puncher Artur Szpilka, who was "discovered" during a soccer-related brawl and who created his own following in America last year with two thrilling encounters with Mike Mollo. Will the volatile Szpilka detonate on Jennings? Will Jennings send Szpilka to dreamland? Or will the fight go the distance? Their CompuBox pasts reveal the following factors that may shape the outcome:
Reaching Peak Performance: Despite a then career-long 188 day layoff coming into the Fedosov fight, Jennings was in fine form as he averaged 70 punches per round, landed 37% of his total punches and 56% of his power shots and out-landed the Hollywood-based Russian 157-81 overall, 31-6 jabs and 126-75 power. The only negative: He tasted 34% of Fedosov's overall punches and 46% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts. Was his uncharacteristically leaky defense a product of rust or was it due to the 24-2 Fedosov's talent? Saturday's fight may reveal some answers.
During his 2012 campaign, Jennings continually added dimensions to his game while largely neutralizing his opponents -- although he did suffer an unofficial third-round knockdown against Bowie Tupou. No matter: Jennings out-landed Tupou 33-12 (total) and 29-11 (power) in rounds four and five, landing 67% and 71% of his power shots before scoring a most decisive knockdown in the sixth.
In his televised fights against Maurice Byarm, Sergei Liakhovich and Steve Collins, Jennings steadily increased his average output (49.4, 58.4 and 60.6 punches per round respectively) as well as his margin of total connects (167-120 against Byarm, 253-124 vs. Liakhovich and 246-85 vs. Collins). Working behind his jab (he landed an avg. of 6 of 23 per round in his last 5 fights), his power-punching accuracy against Liakhovich and Collins was particularly impressive (58% and 44% respectively). In fact, Jennings landed nearly half his power shots in his last five fights and his jab is a weapon Szpilka has not seen recently. Mollo (2 fights) and Minto landed less than one jab per round while throwing just 15 per round.
Stylistic Gyrations: In his two fights against Mollo, Szpilka was forced to dredge up his street-fighting past. The first encounter saw the Pole dropped in rounds one and four while in the rematch he was spilled in round three. However, both bouts ended with a sensational Szpilka left cross that left Mollo flat on his back.
The tumultuous action overshadowed Szpilka's numerical dominance. In bout one, the Pole out-landed Mollo 135-59 overall and 72-2 in jabs but Mollo hung in because he trailed only 63-57 in power connects and landed 36% of his hardest blows to Szpilka's 42%.
The rematch was a more tepid affair in terms of average output (36.8 for Szpilka, 40.6 for Mollo compared to 56.7 vs. 34.5 in fight one), perhaps because Mollo was determined not to get hit nearly as much. Nevertheless, Szpilka led 69-39 in total connects and 60-35 in landed power shots and he also was far more accurate (41%-21% overall, 16%-5% jabs, 54%-35% power).
But when Szpilka faced 42-fight veteran Brian Minto, he was far more cautious in his approach. While he was bombs-away against Mollo (66.7% of his total punches in the rematch were power shots), he was more judicious against Minto as 248 of his 405 punches (61.2%) were jabs, of which he landed 14%. The long-range boxing worked well, for he limited Minto to 15% overall and 27% power and tasted only 2 of Minto's 205 attempted jabs. Szpilka wasn't accurate (20% overall, 14% jabs, 29% power) but he was effective enough as he out-landed Minto 80-69 overall and 34-2 in jabs and didn't wobble despite being out-landed 67-46 in power shots.
Szpilka was calculated, cautious and crafty against Minto while he was caustic, careless and crushing against Mollo. Which Szpilka will show up on Saturday?
Prediction: Byarm was the last southpaw Jennings faced and for the most part he fared well in that fight. Jennings has grown as a fighter since then and given his devotion to fitness he should be more than ready to take what Szpilka will dish out. Both have scored devastating knockouts but the difference is Jennings' more consistent accuracy. If that continues Saturday -- a question given the layoff -- Jennings should win by late-round TKO.