Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
When Rocky Balboa and Luke Skywalker took their cinematic bows, Elvis Presley was alive, Sugar Ray Leonard was beginning his professional career, and the heavyweight championship of the world was in the hands of Muhammad Ali. Nearly forty years later, Balboa is mentoring his former rival’s son, Elvis is living under an assumed name in a tropical paradise with Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, and Leonard has been a Hall-of-Famer for 18 years. (In the interests of remaining spoiler-free, the circumstances and whereabouts of Darth Vader’s son will not here be revealed.)
As for the heavyweight championship of the world: well, it is fair to say that Ali has never truly been replaced. Perhaps it is unfair to expect anyone to replicate that unique combination of skill and flair, although plenty have taken their turn at trying to match some of it. Larry Holmes, Ali’s immediate successor, suffered in his predecessor’s shadow despite an abundance of talent; Mike Tyson wrenched the division out of its post-Holmesian drought, suffused it with an excitement and vigor unmatched before or since, but flamed out in an orgy of self-destruction; Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko brought quality and class but rarely a connection with the masses.
Now, the heavyweights find themselves in another interregnum. Tyson Fury has dethroned the king, but few expect him to be much more than a transient occupant of the throne; and Klitschko’s demise has brought life to an emerging crop of contenders awaiting an opportunity to stake their claim. Bryant Jennings – like the fictional Balboa, a product of Philadelphia – is the last man to have tried and failed to defeat Klitschko, and he returns to the ring on Saturday night against one of the oldest prospects of recent times: the 36-year-old Luis Ortiz.
That Ortiz has only 23 professional fights at his age is a consequence of his upbringing, of having been brought through the extensive Cuban amateur system that produced the likes of Teofilo Stevenson and Felix Savon, who between them won six Olympic gold medals between 1972 and 2000 but never once joined the prizefighting ranks. After a reported 350 amateur wins, however, Ortiz did turn professional, leaving Cuba for the United States, motivated largely by a desire to seek a better life for a daughter with an incurable illness. Jennings, now 30 years old, did not even lace up a glove as an amateur until he was 24, but his natural talent and athleticism earned him a shot at Klitschko in his 20th fight and an invitation to return to HBO in this, his first outing since then.
Both men are soft-spoken and enjoyable to talk to; neither has the malice of early Tyson or the self-aggrandizing wit of Ali. Even should Saturday’s winner prove to be the next to grasp the championship chalice, many fans are likely to look forward to the time they surrender the crown to Anthony Joshua or Joseph Parker, two powerful youngsters in whom the Force truly does seem to be strong. But neither Jennings nor Ortiz will care: what matters for them is not what happened 40 years ago or what might happen several years hence, but the here and now. Jennings, having fallen just short of the brass ring once, will feel he cannot possibly afford to do so twice, and will be immensely motivated not to lose his second in a row; Ortiz, particularly at his relatively advanced age, may have only one shot and knows he cannot afford to be knocked off the path he is presently on. For both, the prospect of victory on Saturday night offers a new hope.
Weights from Turning Stone resort and Casino, Verona, NY
Bryant Jennings 229.5 lbs.
Luis Ortiz 239 lbs.
Nicholas Walters 129.5 lbs.
Jason Sosa 130 lbs.