By John DiSanto – PhillyBoxingHistory.com
Photos by Darryl Cobb Jr.
Now that Artur Szpilka’s visa issues have been resolved and he’s successfully entered the United States, Philadelphian Bryant Jennings can fully focus on his upcoming HBO debut. Then again, Jennings barely took notice of his opponent’s problems while preparing for the biggest opportunity of his three-year career. He always keeps his nose to the grindstone.
“I trained,” Jennings, 17-0, 9 KOs, said a few days before it was clear that Szpilka, 16-0, 12 KOs, would be available to fight. “I’m fighting on January 25th. I haven’t even given it a thought.”
The anticipated 10-rounder between the two undefeated rising heavyweights happens at Madison Square Garden Theater on Saturday night, just before the Mikey Garcia vs. Juan Carlos Burgos championship main event. The fight could help to determine a future force in the heavyweight division, or at the very least, clarify the next generation of contenders that could make a run at a title shot.
With Vitali Klitschko apparently retiring and Wladimir possibly following right behind him, the division could crack wide-open in
2014. The winner of the Saturday’s fight could step into a series that determines a new champion, or even land one of the final few precious spots on Wladimir’s championship schedule.
“I would honestly like to have that chance to defeat one of them,” Jennings said of the Klitschko brothers. “Grab it and take that momentum. But it is what it is. These are the cards that are handed, and you got to play them the way they play.”
For now, Jennings will have to settle for Szpilka at Madison Square Garden on arguably boxing’s biggest platform, HBO.
“The opportunity is definitely great,” Jennings said. “I try to keep my feelings under control, but I’m definitely excited. I have to go out there and do my job first. Then all this excitement and celebration can come afterwards. But I’m definitely excited. It’s a step up. It’s progress. It keeps me happy and just moving along. Progress is always good.”
Jennings is best known for the progress he made in 2012, when at just 10-0, he stepped in on short notice for the first main event on NBC Sports Network’s Fight Night boxing series, and started a five-fight roll that would take him from a complete unknown to a Top-5 contender in less than 12 months.
However, that impressive 5-0 streak was followed by a frustrating 2013, when the sudden star only fought once while he made some changes in his career. He started the year with a new manager and ended 2012 with a new promoter. The turmoil hurt his activity. But for Jennings, the changes were necessary to set the stage for what he believes will be the meat of his boxing career.
“It was just doing things the way I wanted to do it,” Jennings said. “This is my life, my career. If I die today or tomorrow, I can honestly say I did it my way. Whatever the outcome, I’m willing to live with it.”
Jennings has always been his own man. He’s had the confidence to step up several times and move his career at the brisk pace that made him a contender after just two years in the pros.
“My motivation is my son, definitely my son,” Jennings said about Mason, his five-year old boy. “I just wanted to do something. Be something. Make something with my time here on Earth.”
Jennings didn’t begin his amateur career until he was 24, extremely late for boxing.
“I always knew I could fight,” Jennings said. “And you know, boxing doesn’t really have an age limit for starting, if you’re a certain type of person. I came into the game with dedication. I came into the game as a runner. I would run endless miles. I came in the game with a whole lot of things. So, I knew I could handle it.”
And now he finds himself on the brink of very big things. Fighting on a major cable network has become a rite of passage for boxers, and most feel they haven’t begun to make it until they’ve been featured on Pay-Per-View, Showtime, or especially, HBO.
And Jennings is ready to make an impression.
“He’s just another fighter,” Jennings said about Szpilka. “He’s just another opponent. He’s my 18th fight. As Forrest Gump says, ‘That’s all I got to say about that’. I don’t take him lightly or underestimate him at all. I actually respect every boxer who gets in the ring. And I definitely respect everybody who gets in the ring with me.”
Jennings’ lack of knowledge about Szpilka is by design. He no longer studies the other fighters in or out of his division. He leaves that to trainer Fred Jenkins.
“He’s the only trainer I ever had,” Jennings said about Jenkins. “He taught me everything I know about boxing. So I would credit all of my ring experience to him. If I’m not at the fights, I really don’t even look at them (other fighters). I only really worry about myself and who’s at the top. And I just try to maneuver my way around to get there. I don’t really compare myself to other guys. I don’t really have time for that.”
Jennings doesn’t have the time because he’s too busy chasing his goal. He wants a shot at the heavyweight title ASAP.
“Within this year,” Jennings predicted his chance would come. “Of course that’s my goal. I would say tomorrow, but definitely within this year, give or take. Some things don’t always work out. So that’s just our expectations. It’s not a promise. It’s not on paper. It’s not a definite. It’s just expectations.”
If Jennings can beat Szpilka impressively, his chance may come sooner than later.
“Now that Vitali has vacated,” Jennings said. “Come on! It better be for something. It’s whatever with whoever.”
So Jennings heads to the Garden for the biggest night of his life.
“The Garden is the Garden,” Jennings said. “I’m just happy for the progress and fighting another fight on a big stage. That’s definitely decent. Many guys don’t even get a chance to do that their whole career. And I’m doing.”
Fewer still get to be heavyweight champion. And one day, Jennings may be doing that as well.
To read more about the Philadelphia fight scene – visit http://www.phillyboxinghistory.com/.