Klitschko and Jennings Put Aside Distractions and Weigh In

Photos: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

Eventually, they all end up defeated, their strength and will either beaten rapidly or bludgeoned steadily out of them. It has been that way with all of Wladimir Klitschko’s challengers over the last 11 years, ever since a shock loss to Lamon Brewster that seemed at the time to portend the effective end of a promising career but in fact kick-started the development of Klitschko 2.0. That new, improved fighter – now with better defense and greater confidence – has been generally acclaimed as the best heavyweight in the world for a number of years now, and at Friday’s weigh-in for Saturday’s HBO World Championship Boxing title defense against Philadelphia’s Bryant Jennings, there was evidence that it is not only those who confront him inside the ring who end up as mere shells of their previous selves.

For months, Shannon Briggs (whose come-from-behind stoppage win over Sergei Liakohovich in 2006 was arguably the last great heavyweight title fight) has chased and taunted Klitschko: gatecrashing his press conferences, confronting him over lunch and even using a boat’s wake to knock him off a paddleboard, desperate to goad the Ukrainian into offering him a title shot. But Klitschko remained unmoved and largely impassive in the face of such insults, and on Friday (and indeed at Tuesday’s press conference), Briggs stood meekly on the other side of a rope line, unleashing the occasional “Let’s Go, Champ!” but otherwise seeming to recognize that his efforts had failed, that he had nothing left to offer bar a caricature of his recent act. Indeed, after Klitschko and Jennings had weighed in, Briggs offered, not a challenge, but encouragement. “Face off,” he cried at the two combatants, and they duly obliged, staring unflinchingly into each other’s eyes for what felt like a good minute and was certainly long enough for even the assembled spectators to start to feel uncomfortable.

His willingness to lock the champion’s gaze for as long as possible suggests – as his respectful but confident utterances during the fight’s build-up also suggest – that Jennings has not yet acquiesced to the inferiority complex that Klitschko is so effective at instilling. And indeed, there are many reasons why he should not: he is young, athletic, and undefeated, and possesses good hand speed and a strong punch.

But Jennings began boxing only six years ago, after Klitschko’s second world title reign was already three years old. His nineteen pro fights pale into insignificance when set against Klitschko’s ledger of 66 paid contests and a solid amateur career. And while Jennings may be big and strong, he is – unusually for 6’3”, 227 pound man – at a distinct size disadvantage against the champion. Klitschko, an imposing physical specimen, stands 6’6” tall, and on Friday outweighed Jennings by close to 15 pounds.

Klitschko is bigger, more experienced, and frankly better. This is the heavyweight division, where one punch can change anything; and Klitschko can be beaten, as Brewster was the last one to show.  Klitschko is far from dismissive of his challenger, hyping him up as “a real life Rocky Balboa from Philadelphia.”

But Rocky lost his first shot at Apollo Creed, and the likelihood is that, by the time all is said and done on Saturday, Jennings too will be licking his wounds and joining a mass of antecedents forced to acknowledge their fealty to Klitscho’s reign.

 

Weights:

Wladimir Klitschko 241. 6 lbs

Bryant Jennings 226.8

 

Sadam Ali 146.8 lbs

Francisco Santana 146.4

Mayweather-Pacquiao Approaches

Photos: Alexis Cuarezma

Photos: Alexis Cuarezma

By Thomas Hauser

The contract weight is 147 pounds. The WBA, WBC, and WBO titles will be on the line. But the sanctioning bodies are irrelevant. On May 2 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao will be fighting for the championship of each other.

It’s an event of staggering economic proportions and almost certain to be the most lucrative prize fight of all time. But boxing fans won’t be tuning in on May 2 to see Mayweather and Pacquiao count money. They want to see them fight each other.

For most of the past decade, either Floyd or Manny has been the consensus choice for top pound-for-pound fighter in the world. For much of that time, whichever of them wasn’t ranked #1 was #2.

Mayweather’s legs aren’t what they used to be. Pacquiao is six years removed from his eleven-month peak (December 6, 2008, through November 14, 2009) when he demolished Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, and Miguel Cotto.

But Mayweather and Pacquiao are still two of the best fighters in the world. And the two most marketable.

Mayweather opened as a 5-to-2 betting favorite. The odds have dropped a bit since then but are expected to rise during fight week when the “smart money” comes in.

The case for a Mayweather victory is simple. He’s the naturally bigger man, the physically stronger man, and the more technically proficient fighter. He’s also undefeated, while Pacquiao has five losses and two draws on his record. As Floyd noted at the March 11 kick-off press conference, “When you lose, it’s in your mind.”

Mayweather has three alternative routes to success in Mayweather-Pacquiao:

(1) He can outbox Pacquiao and dictate the distance between them. Either stay too far away for Manny to hit him or smother Pacquiao’s punches. (See Mayweather vs. Juan Manuel Marquez as Exhibit A.)

(2) He can throw Pacquiao off his game by roughing him up on the inside. (See Mayweather vs. just about everyone he has fought, and contrast that with Pacquiao vs. Agapito Sanchez, where a rough, sometimes dirty, approach bothered Manny.)

(3) He might land a big punch and whack Manny out. (See Mayweather’s check hook vs Ricky Hatton and Pacquiao-Marquez IV.)

Can Pacquiao give Mayweather trouble by emulating the strategy that Oscar De La Hoya employed en route to a split-decision loss? Probably not. Part of what gave Floyd trouble against Oscar was Oscar’s size. De La Hoya used his jab effectively in the first half of that fight to score points and break Mayweather’s rhythm. But Manny isn’t as tall as Oscar, nor does he have Oscar’s reach or timing on the jab.

Add to that the fact that Pacquiao isn’t physical enough to force his way inside against Mayweather the way Marcos Maidana did. He’ll have to get inside with quickness and angles against an opponent who’s a master of angles.

Speaking of Mayweather-Pacquiao, Larry Merchant noted, “One guy [Pacquiao] throws bombs. The other guy [Mayweather] defuses them; that’s his priority. One guy's purpose is to hit and not be hit. The other's purpose is to not be hit and hit. In general, defense can shut down offense. Great pitchers shut down great hitters.”

The most forceful advocate for a Pacquiao victory on May 2 is Freddie Roach. As Manny’s trainer, Roach has a vested interest in the proceedings. But over the years, he has been constant in his observations:

*  (2009) “I don’t see Mayweather as a great fighter at 147 or 154. Oscar almost beat Mayweather, and Manny didn’t lose ten seconds of any round against Oscar.”

*  (2009) “I've thought about Mayweather for a long time now. His style does pose some problems because he's very good at what he does. I know he’s hard to get to, but we will get to him. Manny can match Mayweather's speed and he has better footwork and more balls. Mayweather is a fragile guy. He'll break down.  He can't stand up to Manny's pressure.”

* (2015) “Mayweather fights in spurts these days. He likes to lay up on the ropes. He takes a lot of rests in the ring. One of the keys to victory for Manny is to recognize when Floyd is taking a break and to stay on the offensive and keep scoring points. But the big thing is that Manny himself has to recognize when Mayweather is catching a breather. It doesn’t help for me to see it from the corner.”

* (2015) “Mayweather can’t move quite as well as he used to. I think Manny’s power will overwhelm him. He has never been against someone with the speed of Pacquiao. Seeing it is one thing. Dealing with it is another.”

But there are times when Roach admits that Mayweather is a tall mountain to climb: “Without a doubt, it's the toughest fight in the world for us, I know that. I want to start working on some changes, some new moves, some traps we need to set. This is a whole new ballgame. Everything that worked against De La Hoya, everything that worked against Cotto, everything that worked against Hatton, will not work against Mayweather. We have to come up with a whole new game plan.”

But what’s the plan?

Prior to Pacquiao’s fourth and final fight against Juan Manuel Marquez, Roach told this writer, “I’ve had three chances to get Manny ready for Marquez, and I haven’t gotten it right yet. It works perfectly in camp. Maybe this time I’ll say, ‘Okay, Manny. Just go out and f------ kill this guy.’”

Pacquiao-Marquez IV ended with Manny face down, unconscious on the ring canvas.

That said; Pacquiao’s style is dangerous for any opponent, including Mayweather. And Floyd isn’t as good a counterpuncher as Marquez. Juan Manuel lived for the counter and committed to it. Floyd is more likely to pull away from punches without throwing back. If Pacquiao puts his punches together when Mayweather pulls away, he could nail him.

Mike Tyson knows a thing or two about boxing. People tend to lose sight of the fact that he’s a serious student of the game. Analyzing Mayweather-Pacquiao, Tyson recently declared, “Manny is going to feint Floyd out of position a lot and make him throw more punches than he’s used to, and that will open Floyd up. Floyd has never been tested. Whatever happens in the fight, I think he’s going to get hit and hurt more than he has ever before. We’re going to see how tough he is.”

Pacquiao is more willing than Mayweather to gamble in the ring. In the end, that could be his edge.  But Manny will need to gamble successfully to win.  And most gamblers who come to Las Vegas go home losers.

So . . . What should boxing fans expect from Mayweather-Pacquiao?

Let’s start by cutting through some of the hyperbole. This is not “the most-anticipated fight ever” or “the most important fight ever.” Yes; it will gross an enormous amount of money. But Lady Gaga does bigger numbers than Frank Sinatra ever did. That doesn’t speak to the quality or relative importance of their work. Nobody looks at New England’s thrilling Super Bowl triumph over Seattle earlier this year and says, “Wow! It was memorable because of how much money it grossed.”

There have been many fights that were more important than Mayweather-Pacquiao from a social and political point of view.

Arthur Ashe once said, “Nothing that Frederick Douglass did, nothing that Booker T. Washington did, nothing that any African-American had done up until that time had the same impact as Jack Johnson’s fight against Jim Jeffries on July 4, 1910. It completely destroyed one of the crucial pillars of white supremacy - the idea that the white man was superior in body and mind to all the darker peoples of the earth.”

More people listened on the radio to Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in the first round of their June 22, 1938, rematch than had listened simultaneously to anything before in the history of the world. That night was the first time that many people heard a black man referred to simply as “the American.”

Millions upon millions of people carried the historic first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in their hearts. Writing in advance of that March 8, 1971, encounter, Mark Kram declared, “This is THE international sporting event of our age, one of the great dramas of our time. The thrust of this fight on the public consciousness is incalculable. It has been a ceaseless whir that seems to have grown in decibel with each new soliloquy by Ali, with each dead calm promise by Frazier. It has cut deep into the thicket of our national attitudes and it is a conversational imperative everywhere.”

Mayweather-Pacquiao pales in comparison with these celebrated encounters and others like them In terms of its social impact. With Johnson-Jeffries, Louis-Schmeling, and Ali-Frazier, the combatants represented opposite sides of a supervening socio-political issue. Here, Pacquiao represents the Filipino people. And Floyd is either admired for his ostentatious lifestyle or disliked for incidents that have left him more familiar than one might like with the criminal justice system.

With Johnson-Jeffries, Louis-Schmeling, and Ali-Frazier, depending on who fans were rooting for, the outcome affected their mood like the death of a friend or the birth of a child. One week after Mayweather-Pacquiao, the result will matter to the Filipino people. Beyond that, a handful of insiders will be counting large sums of money and the rest of the world will have moved on.

Indeed, Mike Tyson had a much bigger impact on the American psyche than Mayweather or Pacquiao. Tyson’s celebrity status exploded out of control. Everyone knew who he was. When Tyson crashed his car, got into a street fight, appeared on Barbara Walters, or was tried and convicted in Indiana, it was on the front page of newspapers across the country. When Mayweather was arrested and went to jail, it was on boxing websites and TMZ.

Because Mayweather-Pacquiao lacks the historical gravitas of boxing’s most socially important encounters, it will be remembered in direct correlation to how good a fight it is. It could be similar to Mayweather’s outings against De La Hoya and Alvarez, which were hugely successful economic ventures but contributed little to boxing lore. Or it could be something more.

In a best-case scenario, Mayweather-Pacquiao will be similar to Sugar Ray Leonard’s first fights against Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns. Those fights captured the imagination of sports fans in advance and, more important, delivered on their promise. They were epic battles.

But Leonard-Duran III (which came almost a decade after their “no mas” rematch) and Leonard-Hearns II (separated by eight years from its predecessor) are best forgotten. The fighters were too old by then.

So let’s give the last word to Ray Leonard, who recently observed, “Mayweather is 38 and Pacquiao is 36. They have looked good in their fights, but you notice them slowing down and getting hit more.”

Then Leonard added, “This fight here is more important than any fight in their life, career, everything. This fight is about bragging rights. This fight is about legacy.”

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book (Thomas Hauser on Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.

Hey Harold! - Klitschko vs. Jennings

HBO Boxing's Unofficial ringside judge Harold Lederman breaks down Klitschko-Jennings. 

Fast Rising Ali Faces Stiff Test From Santana

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Nat Gottlieb

Only a thin line separates prospects from contenders, but bridging that gap is not easy to do. The quickest way to cross theline is by having a breakout fight. Unbeaten welterweight Sadam Ali had his coming out party last November, when as a decided underdog he stunned the top-tier contender Luis Carlos Abregu by knocking him out in the 9th round.

The next step up the ladder for Ali is to earn a title shot. Standing in his way is a rugged and hungry Francisco Santana, who has won 10 straight and is hoping to use Ali as a means for a breakout out his own. The two boxers with big aspirations will square off on Saturday night as the co-featured event when Wladimir Klitschko defends his heavyweight title against Bryant Jennings at Madison Square Garden on World Championship.

The 26-year-old Ali (21-0, 13 KOs), who fights out of Brooklyn and was a 2008 U.S. Olympian, has long been regarded as a potential champion. All that has kept him from a title shot were a few erratic performances. But against Abregu, whose only loss in 37 bouts was to Timothy Bradley, Ali finally put it all together.

Utilizing his terrific hand speed, excellent foot movement, and superior defensive skills, Ali befuddled the hard-hitting Argentinean through the early rounds, forcing a frustrated Abregu to stalk a ghost without being able to land one of his signature bombs.

Ali patiently waited for the right moment to pounce and it came in the 6th round. With 1:06 left, Ali was circling away from Abregu when he suddenly set down on his feet, lunged in and nailed a surprised Abregu with a hard right hand that sent Abregu to the canvas. He managed to beat the count but was clearly shaky.

From that point on it was academic.

Ali brilliantly set Abregu up for the key blow in the 9th round. After spinning off the ropes, where Abregu had him trapped and was throwing a torrent of punches, Ali feinted a left hook, pulled the hand back, and at the same time threw a straight right so fast that the Argentinean never saw it coming. Down he went.

Abregu managed to get up again, but with Ali pounding him against the ropes without resistance, referee Harvey Dock jumped in and stopped the fight. Sadam Ali had arrived.

Now along comes the 28-year-old Santana, (22-3-1, 11 KOs), who after struggling for much of his early career, seems to have put his act together. The Californian has strung together a 10-fight win streak that includes an upset of previously unbeaten prospect Eddie Gomez last June.

Santana traces his sudden emergence in the welterweight division back to a fortuitous event in 2012 when he was brought to Manny Pacquiao’s gym in the Philippines as a replacement sparring partner for Amir Khan. Surrounded by champions, including Pacquiao, Santana saw firsthand what it would take for him to get to the next level.

“I actually came back from the Philippines a different person,” Santana has said. “It was a privilege to spar with Khan and it definitely gave me a big boost in confidence.”

While Santana is not nearly as polished as Ali, what he lacks in skills he more than makes up for with aggression and a strong will to win. He also has above-average hand speed, a mean left hook, and fights out of a high-glove defense that’s hard to penetrate. The hook is by far his best punch, but its effectivenessdepends on how he throws it.

Santana often launches that shot with a wide, looping movementthat sometimes keeps opponents from seeing it until it’s too late. But by going wide, he also leaves his whole middle open and vulnerable to a strong counterpuncher with fast hands. Someone like Sadam Ali. 

Formerly trained by ex-bantamweight champion Wayne McCullough, Santana now works with Hoss Janik in Ventura, Calif. out of Knuckleheadz Boxing, the same gym that produced former welterweight champion Victor Ortiz.

In press conferences leading up to this fight, both boxers have promised a war. If so, it will be a war of attrition, with the winner going on to bigger things, and the loser taking a painful step backward.

Confident Jennings Is an Underdog to All But Himself

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

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.”

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

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.

Klitschko-Jennings Open Workouts

Photos: Will Hart

Terminal 23 in New York City was the site for this week's Klitschko-Jennings media workouts. Browse through photos of Wladimir Klitschko, Bryant Jennings, Sadam Ali and Francisco Santana.

Klitschko vs. Jennings happens Saturday at 10pm ET/PT on HBO World Championship Boxing. 

Klitschko Returns to New York

Photo: Will Hart

Photo: Will Hart

By Frank Della Femina

It’s been nearly seven years since he last fought in the United States, but Saturday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the longest-reigning heavyweight champion in boxing history makes his return to the ring.

“I had stadiums, big pay-per-view fights over there, it’s been exciting times,” Klitschko said of his fights overseas. “But you know what? Here I am standing at Madison Square Garden. And it reminds me of my memories 15 years ago.”

While not his first appearance on US soil, that April 2000 undercard match-up against American David Bostice – a second-round TKO victory – improved the Ukrainian’s record to 33-1 and thrilled a New York audience.

However, his 2008 fight at MSG, a 12-round unanimous-decision snoozer versus Sultan Ibragimov, left Klitschko apologizing to fans for the lackluster result during his post-fight interview with Max Kellerman.

“You’re as good as your last performance,” Klitschko said of that night. “I had some great fights in the past, I’ve had some boring fights in the past, boring for the audience. But to tango, you need two.”

Kubrat Pulev was the last to pencil his name onto Klitschko’s dance card this past November, an outing that sent him down to the canvas four times as the reigning champ secured a five-round TKO victory. The home-away-from-home crowd in Hamburg, Germany showed their elation for Klitschko, but he believes the man across from him is due just as much credit.

“He came to fight and he made the fight,” Klitschko said of Pulev. “It’s not just me, that’s him. He made the fight the way it was. My experience and my capability of delivering punches and winning the fights, I have it there. But I need that person to tango with.”

“You have to have someone that gives you that good fight,” he added. “Not just running around and not trying to get hit and someone who comes and wants to win. That makes the whole energy of the fight different, and the look of the fight too.”

So is Bryant Jennings, the man Klitschko has dubbed “Rocky Balboa” – if only for his Philadelphia roots –that guy?

“You never know until you see the person in the ring. There’s a lot of things that a boxer needs to handle before the big fight. It’s a lot of pressure – mental pressure, pressure on all sides of it. He’s going to face the best man in the heavyweight division and it’s going to be challenging and we’ll see how things go on fight night. Maybe he’ll give that exciting fight, maybe he won’t. My prediction is he will.”

Klitschko and Jennings face off Saturday at 10 PM ET/PT on HBO World Championship Boxing.