By Alex Dombroff
Michael Jennings isn’t one for trash talk, but forgive him if isn’t worried who his next opponent is. Nothing Miguel Cotto could throw at him could possible compare to the challenges he has already faced. For Jennings (34-1, 16 KOs), a life and career filled with tragedy and roadblocks will culminate Saturday night at Madison Square Garden when he steps in the ring with Cotto for the vacant WBO welterweight title. Cotto (32-1, 26 KOs) will enter the ring a sizeable favorite to defeat the relatively unknown Jennings. He will also have a large support adventage, as a near-capacity crowd, mainly consisting for Puerto Rican fans supporting their native son. However, as the moment approaches, Jennings is taking in all that is good about finally getting his moment in the sun.
“I didn’t know what I’d be feeling, but now that the fight is here, I’m excited,” he said. “I can look back and say I topped a bill at Madison Square Garden. It’s something for my kids to talk about, and their kids to talk about, and their kids to talk about.”
Jennings is a self-proclaimed 600:1 underdog, but the odds were much greater that he’d make it here in the first place. Back in 1983, when he was just five years old, Jennings’ brother Stephen lost a bout with Leukemia. In 2000 another older brother, Raymond, passed away from a drug overdose.
It was Raymond who made Michael a fighter to begin with.
“Raymond made a bit of a name for street fighting,” said Jennings. “And through him I had a bit of a reputation myself at school.”
The tragedy didn’t end there for Jennings. In 2001 he was stabbed outside of a nightclub in Manchester, and just this past year, his best friend was killed when he was hit by a truck.
Jennings visited the graves of three men before leaving for America, and says he will feel their presence on fight night.
“My brothers and lad are on my side,” he said. “They all loved boxing. If they were alive they would be here with me.”
Even today, despite his success in the ring, nothing comes easy for Jennings. He lives in a neighborhood of England nicknamed Little Beiruit due to it’s propencity for violence.
His trainer, Brian Hughes, has been around the fight game for over four decades, yet says he’s never been as proud to be around a fighter as he is Michael Jennings.
“If there’s anything nice you can get out of boxing, it’s someone like Michael Jennings,” said Hughes. “All the kids look up to Michael. He doesn’t swear, he doesn’t meddle about with women. He’s dedicated to boxing. He deserves it. I’ve had 8 world champions. He deserves it more than all of them.”
Hughes believes that everything his fighter has had to endure in his life has been preparing him for a challenge like the one Cotto, in reality an 11:1 favorite, will pose.
“He has momentos of his brothers on either shoe. That means everything to him,” said Hughes. “Nothing can be worse than that. The only thing that can happen to him Saturday is that he gets beat by Miguel Cotto. He has the ability to rise above all that. He isn’t coming here just to collect money. His whole life he’s been kept down, now he’s going to rise to the occasion.”
However, Jennings doesn’t plan on beating Cotto with a sentamental attitude alone. Despite have never taken a fought outside of the United Kingdom until this one, and having fought against much lower level competition, he believes he also holds a skill advtange over Cotto, who will be vying for his third world title to Jennings’ first.
“I don’t think he’s as fast as I am,” said Jennings. “We worked on a lot of things in the gym. We’ve got a couple different plans.”
Hughes is even more convinced that his charge isn’t less talented than Cotto, just less known; a distinction he thinks will be made obvious in the ring.
“Michael is a thinking fighter,” said Hughes. “He’s not just a curageous fighter and a skillful fighter, he’s a thinking fighter. He just hasn’t been promoted at a high level. I still think [Cotto] is a great fighter, but Michael Jennings has something special.”
Whether Jennings really has what it takes to hang with Miguel Cotto remains to be seen. But considering his past, at 11:1 odds, you have to like his chances.