By Frank Della Femina
Call it confidence, gusto, or balls. It takes something to get into the ring with Wladimir Klitschko, and whatever that something is, Bryant Jennings has it.
Over a year ago, the Philadelphia native made his HBO Boxing debut on the undercard of a Mikey Garcia fight at The Theater in Madison Square Garden. Artur Szpilka, an undefeated opponent with a vocal Polish following, stood his ground but was unable to muster much of an attack. The first four rounds were filled with the typical dance and jive of two opponents feeling one another out. Before long Jennings stepped on the gas and banked on his overall athleticism and finesse to begin tapping away at his opponent. The aggression paid off in the eighth round when Szpilka took a knee and a breather before electing to go on. Jennings then delivered a vicious hook that left the Szpilka's head bobbing to the rhythm of his own imminent demise and, shortly after, referee Mike Ortega stepped in and brought the fight to a merciful end with only 40 seconds remaining.
Six months later, Jennings returned to The Garden to face Mike Perez, this time in the big room as part of the Golovkin-Geale undercard. If his first fight showed signs of fire and brimstone, then his follow up appearance consisted of doused flames and burning embers. Jennings’ split-decision victory over Perez was – according to HBO Boxing Insider Kieran Mulvaney – but one punch away from being likely scored a draw. Though it was more dance than fight, the result is all Jennings was rightfully concerned with.
"He wouldn't trade with me," Jennings said at the time. "I wanted him to stand in there and fight. I was expecting the inside pressure of Mike Perez. The decision didn't matter, as long as I get the win."
If those recent fights are any indication of how Jennings performs against his competitors on HBO, then his match-up against Klitschko remains a question mark.
“It’s great progress,” Jennings said. “I work hard and I’m a real athlete. I’m a real fighter. These are the things we work hard for. These are the goals we try to achieve, and I’ve achieved them all so far and this is the biggest one so far.”
It may feel that Klitschko has been fighting for so long that there are hand-painted depictions of his conquests slathered across the walls of Ukrainian caves. If that’s what 20 years of professional boxing amounts to, then so be it. Jennings can hardly match up to all the fights, knockdowns, and knockouts that Klitschko has amassed since he broke onto the scene in 1996.
At 19-0 (10 KOs), Jennings’ record pales in comparison to the growing legacy of Klitschko, who enters this contest with a 63-3 record, complete with 53 wins via knockout. Klitschko is 39 years old, and the nine-year age difference between him and Jennings – and the hope that someday Klitschko will have to lose a step – might be the only number in Jennings' favor. But it also accounts for only part of the gaping divide in two fighters' level of experience.
Jennings first stepped into a gym intent on making boxing a career in 2009. By that time, Klitschko had already amassed a 52-3 record and successfully won and defended his heavyweight titles a dozen times over.
“I was in the recreation center,” Jennings recalled of his decision to pursue the sport. “I was always playing basketball or something, I was there since I was 10 years old. My trainer always came down and said, ‘When you getting in the gym?’ So one day, I don’t know, maybe it was signing up to Golden Gloves or something, but it was a magnet that drove me to the gym and I was like, ‘All right. I want to sign up.’”
Like many teenagers who fantasize about living in lavish homes, driving fast cars, and sleeping on beds of money, Jennings always had a dream to pursue. He knew hard work would bring success, and all the gains for himself and his family would be a result of his sacrifices in the gym.
“Life before boxing was me just trying out different things. Having a dream that I was going to be successful at something. Having a dream that I was going to be financially successful, that’s the immature dream,” Jennings said. “But the more mature dream is just defining my purpose on earth and just being the lead, head guy of the family. Being a great example and just being an inspiration to everybody that I come in contact with. Before boxing, I had a good job. I could’ve settled for that. But I felt my purpose in life was something better than that.”
Up until this past year, a job at the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia helped Jennings pay the bills before “retiring.” His decade of service allowed for the pursuit of his dream, which he believes will now consume the next 10 years of his life.
Hailing from a town rich with boxing history has inspired Jennings to create his own legacy.
“Joe Frazier is definitely memorable. We’ll never forget what he did, and we’ll always respect his legacy, but it happened so long ago,” said Jennings. “It’s like the last time the Sixers won a championship. They respect the Dr. J’s and all when it happened, but it hasn’t happened in so long it’s like it’s never happened. People in this lifetime now are like, ‘That was 30 years ago.’ We need it to happen again so people of this generation can actually live that. Other people can reflect on when Joe Frazier won, but we need it to be current. We need it to be very current, and right now is the chance to bring it back and make it current.”
It goes without saying that Klitschko enters as the highly-touted favorite while Jennings, according to his opponent, is the real “Rocky Balboa”, a term that tends to float around boxing circles whenever a true underdog finds himself put to the test – especially a Philadelphian.
But Rocky is fake and Jennings is real. Just how real he is will be on full display when he takes on his biggest challenge to date.
“If I’m going to lose, I’m going to lose to the best, or to somebody good,” said Jennings. “That’s why I said when I was coming up, ‘Don’t give me no easy fights, please.’”
“Here I am at this point and the confidence is triple, and that confidence will help me move and work effectively in this fight, and I will be raising my hand at the end of that fight.”
Klitschko vs. Jennings happens Saturday, April 25, at 10 PM ET/PT on HBO World Championship Boxing.