Don’t look now, but there just might be an American heavyweight out there worth getting excited about.
Bryant “By-By” Jennings (18-0, 10 KOs), an undefeated 29-year-old prospect from Philadelphia will make his second appearance on HBO airwaves this month when he takes on Mike Perez (20-0-1, 12 KOs) at the American Bank Center in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Jennings-Perez is the main event of HBO’s Boxing After Dark doubleheader. The co-feature is a middleweight bout between Daniel Geale and Matthew Macklin.
This one is no gimme. Both heavyweights are highly skilled and solid-looking contenders. The winner of the fight will go a long way in making his case for a shot against world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.
Jennings, who started boxing in his early 20s, said he never really envisioned getting this far in his professional prizefighting career when he first stepped into a boxing gym.
“But after a couple of months that was my goal,” said Jennings. “I was fed a dream, and I just kept eating away at it. And here I am.”
Jennings isn’t your typical boxing interview. He’s affable, reflective and seems like a man who doesn’t go into any situation, boxing or otherwise, without a plan. He said he knows his late start, in what is probably the most difficult sport to play catch-up in, put him at a disadvantage, and it’s something he’s had to work exceedingly hard at to overcome:
“I just take it one day at a time. I thank God for my position and where I am right now. I just keep doing what I have to do. I realized that I had to put in overtime and I had to do a lot of extra things. I had to put in a lot of extra work, and I was dedicated. I knew that’s what I had to do...I knew I had to do it to catch up and get to where I am right now.”
It’s paid off. Jennings is now in the enviable position of being an American heavyweight with real promise, something fight fans have been longing for since Evander Holyfield aged out as a championship-level fighter over a decade ago.
HBO Sports’ director of programming, Peter Nelson, said Jennings fits into the 2014 heavyweight picture nicely.
“The old adage that as the heavyweight division goes, so goes boxing, is one that has increasingly diminished in value, as the lighter weights have taken more and more of the spotlight off the heavyweight division in America,” said Nelson.
“Obviously, Wladimir Klitschko remains a commanding force in Europe and he is universally recognized as the reigning heavyweight champion to beat. But I think that after a lull period in America, in terms of the heavyweight division, it seems as if there’s growing interest, intrigue and compelling fights to be made.”
According to Nelson, Jennings-Perez fits the bill:
“I think that Jennings figures into that mosaic, and this fight is exactly what fans want to see out of young, hungry prospects, where their skill sets are put to the test in a 50-50 fight, Mike Perez being in the exact same boat.”
Don’t tell Jennings that. While he agrees Perez has more experience as an amateur, Jennings said he feels he has more life experience than Perez, something he expects to pay dividends come fight night.
“I’ve been on earth longer so I have experienced a lot of things, maybe even some things he hasn’t experienced,” said Jennings. “I just prepare pushing myself knowing that my best can always beat his best.”
Perez is 28, one year younger than Jennings.
But Jennings wouldn’t offer up any predictions about the fight, other than to say he’d win. He said he doesn’t focus on any one thing when it comes to his fights, whether it be knocking his opponents out or picking up rounds.
Jennings just wants to win.
“You’re gonna get 100 percent from me regardless,” said Jennings.
Still, Jennings’ ascent to the top of the heavyweight mountain wouldn’t end with a win over Perez. In order to become the heavyweight American fight fans have been hoping for, he’d need to face and defeat world heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.
“That’s the top. That’s the peak. That’s where it’s at,” said Jennings. “Anything else? It almost don’t make no sense. You fight so hard to get to that point. That point is in arm’s reach. I need that. I want that.”
Klitschko has not lost a fight since 2004. Since then, the gigantic heavyweight with fast hands and nimble feet has put together one of the more remarkable championship runs in heavyweight history.
So is Jennings the guy to dethrone him? Is he the guy to bring the title back to the United States? Will he be the guy to bring American heavyweight boxing back from the doldrums?
“I think so,” said Jennings. “But I can’t do it alone. Trust me. I can’t do it alone. I’m one of the guys. I think that it’s just going to take more than one guy.”
Jennings said he and fellow undefeated prospect Deontay Wilder were probably the two most exciting heavyweights in America right now, to go along with the United Kingdom’s Tyson Fury. He said a group of guys like that, which might include other fighters who have yet to emerge, could make the heavyweight division real exciting.
But Jennings knows all roads lead to Klitschko, and Nelson said Jennings’ bout against Perez will help him in that pursuit:
“I think the Perez experience...he’ll learn from [it] even if he ends up being able to coast through it, because he’s still learning and putting everything together. I think that he’s close to attaining elite-level stature in the division, but attaining that stature to merit the opportunity against Wladimir, and then to prove your mettle against him, has been a widening gap for some time. Who can defy the expectation we have of challengers to Wladimir? That remains to be seen.”
Nelson gave high praise to Klitschko, a fighter whose excellence has not equated to many fans on this side of the ocean.
“Wladimir is the signature heavyweight talent of this generation, and perhaps even the one preceding it as well,” said Nelson. “And his longevity speaks to a complete skill set that I think Bryant, coming in with only 17 amateur fights, is still honing. I think that he’d readily admit that it’s a learning process for him as he discovers his arsenal of weaponry and what works for him.”
Host of HBO Boxing telecasts Jim Lampley shared similar sentiments:
“I think the division is definitely Wladimir and then everybody else...Wladimir is immaculate. He’s a very good defender. It’s very hard to get close to him, and whoever is going to beat him will have to have spirited offensive aggression and dangerous enough weapons necessary to break that facade.”
But is that Jennings’ game? While he’s been impressive in his own right, he’s doesn’t seem the erratic and murderous puncher Lampley describes. Where some guys butcher with a cleaver, Jennings seems to take his time with a knife. He wins fights with activity and gets most of his knockouts by putting his punches together over time.
“Jennings is a little different than most other guys because he begins with being more technical and a defensive-based approach,” said Lampley. “Jennings’ idea is not that he’s going to step inside the ring and knock you out with one big right hand...but rather he’s going to outthink you and break you down over a period of rounds.”
That kind of approach could work against Perez. Lampley said Jennings would be the bigger and stronger man in that fight, but would something like that work against Klitschko?
“I don’t think so,” said Lampley. “You’d have to give the thought-process advantage to Klitschko because of his vast experience and all the different ways he’s won fights in his career. Jennings is still somewhere short of that in terms of development, and the trouble with development in the heavyweight division is that it’s really hard to prepare yourself for a fight with Wladimir Klitschko where there is only one Wladimir Klitschko.”
Regardless, Jennings’ development could conceivably get him to a point where he could challenge Klitschko someday, who at age 38 is closer to the end of the road now than the beginning.
Before all that, of course, Jennings will need to defeat Perez.
“It’s a very interesting matchup, because Perez has a...deeper amateur background and more technical training at an earlier age than Jennings had,” said Lampley.
Nelson said the fight with Perez is coming at exactly the right time for everyone: Jennings, Perez and fight fans who are ready for some meaningful heavyweight action.
“Perez-Jennings is going to produce a winner that will be recognized as having competed against an elite-level opponent and come out of the other side of that,” said Nelson. “That’s about as high a level you can attain in the heavyweight division before you take your chance against the best.”
And when Jennings’ chance does finally come against the best? What happens then? Nelson couldn’t say for sure how he thought a Jennings-Klitschko bout might go.
“There are certain things about Bryant’s ability, his mental acuity in the ring, that could present certain difficulties,” said Nelson. “I think that his team is going to have to measure when that opportunity, if that opportunity arises, when the opportune time is to take it. He’s risen to every challenge put in front of him [so far].”
Jennings was far more confident in his analysis. After Perez, he wants Klitschko. In fact, apparently he’s been saying he wants Klitschko for a while now.
“Yes. Yes, please. I’ve being saying it,” said Jennings. “I don’t know if people think I’m playing or that I was playing before, or if they think I’m more serious now because I’m at a greater level, but I’ve been serious. I’ve been serious from the time I said it.”
And what’s it like being in the position as maybe the next great American heavyweight? Is he the man to bring glory back to boxing’s more prestigious and glamorous division? Is he feeling any pressure?
“Everything is going good so far,” said Jennings quite confidently. “I look forward to bringing that to life.”
Kelsey McCarson regularly contributes to Bleacher Report, The Sweet Science and Boxing Channel. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.