Klitschko Emerges a Victor After Jennings Offers Surprising Challenge

Photos: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

Sometimes a champion can lose a little, even while winning by a lot. And a challenger who is clearly defeated can nonetheless score a win of sorts, a moral victory that he can carry with him into his future career. So it was at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night: Wladimir Klitschko successfully defended his heavyweight championship of the world by deserved unanimous decision, but Bryant Jennings – who did not begin boxing until Klitschko’s second and current world title reign was entering its fourth year – deserved plaudits for taking the fight to the Ukrainian champ with a moxie that, ultimately, was not enough to overcome his deficit in experience, strength, and skills.

This was a fight that Klitschko was widely predicted to dominate, and although he clearly won the great majority of rounds, and the outcome was rarely if ever in doubt, Jennings did enough to make the champion look less than comfortable on several occasions; even as Jennings lost the fight, he managed to win over large segments of the announced crowd of 17,506.

Jennings (19-1, 10 KOs) came out of his corner at the opening bell all nervous energy, circling the outside of the ring and showing constant upper body movement that had Klitschko struggling to land his vaunted left jab. In the second, the Philadelphian sought to get close enough to score against his larger foe, but even though Klitschko’s jab was not landing cleanly, its very existence was successful at keeping Jennings at bay; and on those occasions when Jennings was able to slip underneath it, Klitschko wrapped him up before he could do any more damage.

In the third, Jennings’ movement began to diminish and Klitschko’s jab increased its potency; on two occasions in the round, it was followed by a straight right hand, the second of which appeared to catch the American’s attention. Klitschko’s right hand, when utilized to maximum effectiveness, is a mighty weapon, yet it was deployed relatively rarely, leading some to wonder if it was damaged. No, said Klitschko, it was fine; the problem was Jennings.

“He didn’t give me a chance to throw the right as much as I wanted,” he said by way of complimenting his opponent.

As if realizing he was falling behind, Jennings came out for the fourth swinging for the fences, although a wild left hook missed by a mile. As he stepped forward rather than move sideways, he presented Klitschko with greater opportunities of his own, and the champion simultaneously scored against and frustrated his foe by punching and clinching, a fact that Jennings noted afterward.

“Every time I started working, he held,” he complained. To his credit, though, he refused to be intimidated by the champion’s tactics, keeping his hands moving even as Klitschko wrapped him up. “As he was holding I was hitting him to the body. I must have hit him with about 100 body shots. Not much to the head though.”

The contest became an absorbing clash of styles, Klitschko working the left jab and looking to land a right hand behind it, Jennings circling then leaping forward with punches from odd angles. By round seven, feeling increasingly comfortable with his performance levels, Jennings was even showboating, shrugging in response to a trio of Klitschko punches and yapping at him as the referee pulled them out of clinches. Referee Michael Griffin took a point from Klitschko for that clinching in round 10, and had Jennings been able to also win that frame, the two-point swing could have provided strong momentum; but by this stage, Jennings was finally running out of energy and ideas, throwing punches with insufficient frequency and landing them with inadequate accuracy.

The American began the twelfth and final frame with desperate lunging punches, but Klitschko slipped effortlessly out of the way; and then, when he most needed to stage one final desperate assault, Jennings stood with his back to the ropes, unintentionally offering Klitschko an invitation he readily accepted. A series of left-right combinations thudded through Jennings’ guard, and a punctuating right hand rattled him badly. It was not enough, however, to prevent the fight going to the scorecards, where Klistchko (64-3, 53 KOs) prevailed by margins of 116-111 (twice) and 118-109. 

“I thought the scores should have been closer,” protested Jennings, although frankly they were probably as close as they could have been. “We’re two confident fighters. I’m a man. He’s a man. When we got in the ring tonight we both came to fight. He rapped me pretty good a couple of times when he penetrated.”

In pushing a dominant world champion hard, even without ever truly seeming likely to win, Jennings emerged with genuine credit. He’ll surely receive other chances. Klitschko, a decisive victor, nonetheless showed hints of vulnerability that might provide potential further foes with at least a smidgen of optimism. But for now he remains firmly top of the heap, and the roar of the MSG crowd was still ringing in his ears as he soaked up the adulation and gave praise to his beaten foe. 

“This has been an absolutely great experience,” he said of returning to the Garden. “I loved seeing all the fans. I can’t wait to come back here again.”

Jennings, he said, “would have beaten a lot of heavyweights tonight. Bryant is a great athlete and a top contender and I welcome him to the top of the heavyweight division.”