By Nat Gottlieb
The only one who can help Bryant Jennings beat Wladimir Klitschko will be standing in the ring with the challenger on April 25 at Madison Square Garden. He is not a trainer or a cutman. The only tools of the trade he’ll hold in his hands will be a scythe and hourglass.
Nobody beats Father Time. It’s just a matter of when he takes you down.
Although heavyweight champion Klitschko is 39, so far he has beaten back the sands of time. Dr. Steelhammer has not lost a fight in 11 years, having won 17 straight title defenses, all with seeming ease. The next time he shows signs of slowing down will be the first time.
Jennings (19-0, 10 KOs) is no kid at 30, but in terms of experience, he’s a mere pup in the ring compared to Klitschko. To put it in perspective, when the late-starting Philadelphia boxer made his pro debut in 2010, Klitschko was preparing for his 57th fight. While Jennings is an athletically-gifted boxer who moves well in the ring and has a mental toughness forged in North Philly, the question remains: is he good enough to beat Klitschko?
HBO analyst Max Kellerman thinks he can, but with a caveat.
“Klitschko is rightly a huge favorite,” Kellerman says. “But very few fighters in history have mowed down top contenders without losing for as long as Klitschko has during this streak. One off night in the heavyweight division is all it takes. Jennings has to hope Klitschko has one and has to be emotionally prepared to take advantage if he does.”
Even if Jennings is emotionally prepared, Kellerman says Klitschko (63-3, 53 KOs) has to play his part, too. “Wladimir is 39 years old. Until Foreman KO’d Moorer in 1994, 39 would’ve been the oldest heavyweight champion in history. No one goes on forever.”
In order for Jennings to close the book on Klitschko’s seemingly never-ending story, he’s going to have overcome the Ukrainian’s heavy edge in ring experience. Ask him about that, the feisty challenger just brushes the question off.
“I’ve got a great amount of experience in life,” he says with attitude. “Do you know where I’m from? North Philly.” He pauses to make sure you get what it means to come from that part of town. “I had to overcome many obstacles in life. I had to work at four and five jobs. Just the fact that I’m not there, that I actually got out after everything that went down there, is an accomplishment.”
The 6’3" Jennings also dismisses questions about having to deal with Klitschko’s imposing 6’6" frame. “Height doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “It’s how hard you want it.”
Jennings wants it bad.
“I have this fear of not wanting to go back to North Philly,” he says, “and this fight takes me farther away from there. What I have from my experience is mental toughness, the confidence that I can be resilient, that I’m brave and have heart.”
Yeah, but so does Klitschko.
Some will look at the champion’s long reign, the wealth he’s accumulated along the way, his Hollywood fiancée, and assume he's long been accustomed to the finer things. They would be wrong.
Although Klitschko’s father was an air force colonel in the old Soviet Union, both Wladimir and his boxing brother, Vitali, were raised in poverty, living their early years outside of Kiev in a one-room shack that housed their parents and their grandmother.
“It’s pretty obvious that the Soviet system had an effect on Vitali and me growing up,” Klitschko has said. “I was shooting AK-47s. I was learning how to throw hand-grenades. We were running into underground shelters with gas masks, and there were explosions.”
But unlike Jennings, Klitschko’s tough childhood also came with a perk from the Soviet boxing system. The Ukrainian didn’t have to work at four or five jobs as Jennings did. In fact, boxing is the only job Klitschko has ever had since his early teens, when he was targeted as a promising athlete and placed in a Soviet sports high school designed to churn out Communist sports heroes.
When Jennings graduated from high school with a wife and kid, there was no such support system in place for him. To feed his family, he had to take a job as a mechanic in Philadelphia’s Federal Reserve Bank. Klitschko, on the other hand, was placed on the fast track in the Soviet boxing machine. As an amateur, the Ukrainian racked up an amazing record of 134-6 record, culminating with his winning Olympic gold in 1996.
Much can be gleaned about the Philly boxer from his every day Twitter and Instagram postings. In his tweets earlier this month, it was clear he was on edge and sick of questions about the fight. “Don't ask how training going if you don't know how training go!” he tweeted, and then added: “I hate to answer that question seriously. I will leave you hanging quick.”
As this fight grew nearer, Jennings got testier and testier, snapping answers to almost any question. When asked if it’s an advantage for him that this fight will take place in New York and not Germany—where Klitschko has fought 10 of his last 12 bouts—he replies: “The only difference that fighting here makes is if I win, I can celebrate right away, that’s all.”
A query about his game plan brings more attitude: “You can’t walk into a fight 100 percent on paper,” he retorts. “You can’t assume things will happen the way you planned for. When I get in the ring, I take it one round at a time.”
Perhaps it was Klitschko who summed Jennings up best when the champ said at a press conference: “I see how Bryant Jennings acts. I see how he walks. I see how he shakes hands. I see how he speaks. He has the qualities of Rocky Balboa from Philadelphia.”
If Jennings hopes to have his Hollywood fantasy come true, he's going to need a little help. He'll need Klitschko to get old fast.