Jennings and Ortiz Seek Their Place in a Newly Open Heavyweight Division

Photos: Will Hart

By Oliver Goldstein

Three weeks after Tyson Fury shocked Wladimir Klitschko in Dusseldorf, another heavyweight battle is taking place, this time pitting Bryant Jennings against Luis Ortiz in Verona, New York on Saturday night on HBO Boxing After Dark (10:15 PM ET/PT). Forgettable as the actual fight proved to be, Fury’s win over Klitschko was a truly unforgettable result, with the Ukrainian’s decade-long dominance of the division, part shared with his elder brother, finally ending in something like conclusive fashion.

Fury's words and actions since the moment he took the belt have run the gamut from baffling to offensive. Nonetheless his win has returned some vim to a division that’s spent years on life-support. Unless Fury transmogrifies into a completely efficient, completely dominant fighter, it's exceedingly unlikely he'll replicate the Klitschkos' stranglehold on the division.

The result of this is to lend increased significance to most all heavyweight fights featuring plausible contenders: so where Bryant Jennings, three or so weeks ago, was just another former Klitschko challenger, now he’s a good shot at maybe being champion in the next year or two. Klitschko might beat Fury in their scheduled rematch (anyone who saw how the Ukrainian shook the British fighter in the final round will appreciate the possibility), but the landscape feels like it’s shifted for good.

This is Jennings’s first fight since he lost to Klitschko this past April. Ortiz, his opponent, is a Cuban emigré with 23 wins (20 KOs) and 2 no contests on his ledger, one the result of a failed drug test after fairly thrashing Lateef Kayode in September 2014. Based now in Miami, Ortiz certainly looks the part of a heavyweight boxer, even if he sets up somewhat in the style popular among some contemporary Cuban boxers: lurking on the back foot, Ortiz waits to lure fighters onto his southpaw back hand, dangling his chin to tempt people in.

And while Ortiz might not possess the defensive capabilities of Guillermo Rigondeaux, he's also far less likely to let his fights meander while his audience snores. Ortiz whacked Monte Barrett around for three rounds, but he was also tapped plenty on that exposed chin. At 36, this is a big step-up for Ortiz: just six months back he featured in an absurd fight against hapless Butterbean mimic Byron Polley (though at least Ortiz, unlike most of today’s heavyweights, proved willing to go to Polley’s substantial body), and now he meets Jennings.

Which is not to suggest this step-up is insurmountable: Jennings is a capable fighter, yes, but no great puncher, which means Ortiz should have time to get his licks in. Still, he’s unlikely to succeed just sitting back waiting for the American to over-reach. Even against Klitschko, where a fighter of Jennings’s 6'3" stature is basically forced to start lunging, the Philly man was able to time his bull-rushes to some extent. As a consequence, for at least some of their fight, Jennings had Klitschko shook. With a solid chin, generally sound defense (Jennings fights with a high but mobile guard, at his best deflecting punches rather than simply absorbing them) and decent pedigree, Jennings presents a sizable challenge. Ultimately his record is full of fighters of Ortiz’s standard, the likes of Mike Perez, Artur Szpillka, and Siarhei Liakhovich. And this might indeed be the start of Jennings’s time. Strange to say, but eight months on from his first loss and the future looks bright. Get past Ortiz, and a big lump called Fury might soon be in his way.

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In the co-featured bout, Nicolas Walters returns against Jason Sosa, a 27-year-old American who finds himself between a rock and a hard place at Turning Stone this weekend. Sosa is 5'5", has a 6 inch reach disadvantage, and has never fought anyone nearly as good as Walters.

The Jamaican, with a 26-0 record, didn't exactly thrill the Madison Square Garden crowd in a fight with Miguel Marriaga last June, but this one should remind all of his fondness for gore. Walters has not quite had the 2015 he’d likely have wanted, and Sosa might subsequently suffer for it.

Now competing at super featherweight, there are an abundance of good fights to be made for the Montego Bay puncher. Last year Walters stopped both Vic Darchinyan and Nonito Donaire, the former on a sickening left hook, timed almost as well as Donaire’s famed 2007 KO of poor Darchinyan himself, and then the latter in October after six punishing, wearying rounds. The "Axe Man," as Walters is known, has heavy, heavy hands.

And that, ultimately, should be the story of Saturday night. Unless the four pound climb from featherweight to 130-pounds is somehow debilitating for Walters — something both science and history would certainly reject — he should power to victory against an opponent ill-equipped to meet him. Onwards to better things, hopefully in 2016.