The long and largely unappreciated heavyweight title reign of Wladimir Klitschko continues Saturday when he fights Bryant Jennings at Madison Square Garden, the site of his last appearance on U.S. soil more than seven years ago. In the 14 fights since Klitschko has only tightened his grip on the most celebrated prize in boxing:
* His current 8 year, 11 month reign is now second on the all-time list behind Joe Louis' 11 year 8 months. Larry Holmes, at seven years three months, is now third.
* He is now 24-2 (19 KO) in title competition.
* He hasn't lost a fight in more than 11 years and has gone 21-0 (15 KO) in that time.
* His 63 career wins are the most of any heavyweight champion who has won a title in the 21st century, six ahead of Shannon Briggs' 57 and 13 clear of Nikolai Valuev and Hasim Rahman. Among all titleholders Klitschko is 10th all time, three behind number-nine Louis and his 54 knockouts ranks fourth behind Bob Fitzsimmons (59), George Foreman (68) and Primo Carnera (71).
* His 17 consecutive defenses thus far ranks only behind Joe Louis (25) and Holmes (20) and if one adds his five WBO defenses between 2000 and 2003 his 22 total defenses and more than 11 years as a titleholder ranks him second only behind "The Brown Bomber." Given the current crop it appears that "Dr. Steelhammer" can rule for as long as he pleases, and there's a distinct possibility that Louis' previously untouchable records could be surpassed. In fact, if Klitschko's current reign lasts beyond August 9, 2015, his combined championship reigns will total 11 years 256 days -- one day longer than Louis'.
Undefeated Philadelphian Bryant Jennings is the latest to challenge Klitschko's supremacy. His three-inch height disadvantage is dwarfed by his shortcomings in terms of ring experience. One example: Jennings has fought 102 rounds in his entire professional career while during just this title reign Klitschko has engaged in 145 championship rounds and 196 during his two title reigns. Another: Jennings is 19-0 (10 KO) as a pro while Klitschko is 20-1 (13 KOs) in only those fights lasting beyond six rounds.
That said, upsets bigger than this have happened and Jennings can take solace that he is the only man on earth authorized to try and break Klitschko's string of success on the appointed night. But will he do it? Statistical factors that may sway the contest include:
Feast or Famine: In recent years Klitschko has either produced big numbers or unusually small ones. In his most recent fight against Kubrat Pulev, Klitschko averaged just 18.9 punches per round (to Pulev's 23.3) but he made each count. He scored two knockdowns in round one, added one in the third and polished him off with one in the fifth. The fight totals were unimpressive (38-25 overall, 21-10 jabs, 17-15 power) but his accuracy was (43% overall, 40% jabs, 47% power). The jab worked well, if sporadically (11.2 jabs thrown/4.5 connects per round). Meanwhile, he tasted 23% overall, 16% jabs and 33% power, but he did absorb plenty of rabbit punches as well.
His output also was sub-par against Tony Thompson in their rematch (20.2), Alexander Povetkin (34.8), Jean Marc Mormeck (39.7) and David Haye (42.4) but his opponents threw even less (Povetkin 23.6, Haye 24.2, Mormeck a head-shaking 5.6. Thompson averaged 30.5). But in three of the last four fights before facing Pulev, Klitschko returned to his volume-punching ways. Against Mariusz Wach his output was 57.8 while against Francesco Pianeta he fired 45.6, almost identical to the 45.5 heavyweight average. Against Alex Leapai, however, his pace surged to an incredible 84.3 while maintaining his legendary power (knockdowns in rounds one (one) and five (two)) and accuracy (37% overall, 30% jabs, 47% power). The connect gaps were commensurate with the gulf in talent (147-10 overall, 67-6 jabs, 84-10 power).
Klitschko's statistical dominance in his last 12 fights rivals that of anyone in history. He has out-landed them 1,563-468 overall, averaged 9.5 jab connects per round (nearly double the 5.6 heavyweight average and tied for #1 among CompuBox Categorical Leaders with GGG and Mauricio Herrera) and his opponents were held to 4.7 total connects per round, almost one-quarter the 16.4 heavyweight norm. Opponents landed just 21% of their total punches (trailing only Rigondeaux, Lara & Mayweather) and just 23% of their power shots, trailing only Rigondeaux and 1% better than Money Mayweather's 24%.
A Matter of Style: During Jennings' rise he mostly fought accessible aggressors and when he did he put up impressive numbers. Against Artur Szpilka he landed 41% overall and 46% power, 41% overall and 44% power against Steve Collins, 37% overall and 56% power against Bowie Tupou and Andrey Fedosov as well as 48% overall and 58% power against faded former titlist Sergey Liakhovich. In nine CompuBox-tracked fights leading up to the Mike Perez bout, Jennings averaged 50.6 punches per round and landed 39% overall and 46% power to his foes' 26% and 35% respectively.
But when he faced the slippery but very low-output stylist Mike Perez last time out, he struggled to find the target. His output dipped to 42.8 punches per round and though he prevailed 149-116 overall and 136-104 power his accuracy declined to 29% overall, 9%
jabs and 38% power. The good news was that Perez landed just 20% overall, 5% jabs and 30% power despite being the more active fighter (47.6 punches per round). Still, when given a more challenging and sophisticated style, Jennings looked nothing like the efficient beast he had been against more agreeable styles. And if any heavyweight alive personifies sophisticated and disagreeable in terms of tactics, it is Klitschko.
Prediction: The 18th verse will be the same as the previous 17 -- and, over two reigns, the 23rd verse as the previous 22, a Klitschko victory. Whether he tries to impress the U.S. audience with offensive firepower or if he smothers his way to a "W" like he did against Liakhovich, he will walk out of Madison Square Garden as the winner and still champion. Once he does, history awaits.