Chorley’s Michael Jennings, 28-0 (13), climbed off the canvas to successfully defend his classic British Welterweight title in an absorbing, punishing contest with Newbridge entertainer Bradley Pryce, 20-6 (13).
Played out in front of a vociferous and partisan champion’s crowd, Jennings entered the ring grimfaced and glistening with confidence. The challenger look relaxed, fit and more complete following a recent return to the disciplined guidance of Enzo Calzaghe after a year or two in the wilderness.
Pryce, who has an uncanny knack of turning every fight into a brawl, adopted a serious and focused game plan in the opener, fizzing out the jab and capitalising on his rangy frame and reach advantage. Established at centre ring, Pryce looked poised and controlled. It couldn’t last. And it didn’t. A minute in, the first thunderous exchange was finished by a left hook-right cross that rocked the champion. The challenger, on whom odds as long as 8-1 were available earlier in the day, made a mockery of his underdog status as he smashed home a right hand and forced the unbeaten champion to the floor.
Jennings was quickly up and assured his corner he was ok as the third man completed the eight-count, but Pryce poured on the pressure with more than a minute to go; Jennings was in desperate trouble. The Preston Guild Hall crowd drew a collective breath. Legs gone, eyes glazed and the strength sapped from his arms. Jennings head jolted from a lead jab. He clung on desperately. Pryce landed more; to arms, head, body, chest anything he could put leather on. The champion’s gloves appeared to touch down again but referee Ian John-Lewis didn’t call it and Jennings staggered back to his corner and temporary salvation.
Commentator’s John Rawling and Duke McKenzie had been as frenzied as the opening round, audibly invigorated by the three minutes of pulsating action. Stop the presses! A fight had broken out on ITV.
The unbeaten champion, clearly still stunned as the second round began and continuing to both absorb and parry Pryce’s rangy jab, slowly regained his senses and closed the gap to better effect. Stylistically, Jennings clearly had to depart from his preferred tactic of boxing at distance. Against Pryce, he needed to get under his lead and negate the Welshmen’s natural advantages. Jennings was busier with hooks to the body but Pryce continued to score with isolated power shots.
In third the first signs of a change in momentum became apparent, Pryce sacrificing centre ring, probably still ruing the missed opportunity in the opener. Jennings marched forward and enjoyed success with uppercuts and one straight right that particularly troubled the challenger. The fight was simmering into a classic brawl; Pryce was absorbing more blows and seemed happy to join Jennings in the proverbial phone booth. A right hook was Pryce’s best moment. But the pendulum had certainly swung back to the champion.
Rounds four and five followed a similar script, heated exchanges in which both landed full blooded hooks and straights but Jennings began to add subtle feints to his repertoire and began to capitalise on Pryce’s tiring lunges. It had become a punishing contest and didn’t seem destined to trouble the three scoring judges. Surely, this pace couldn’t be maintained?
The champion continued to substantiate his dominance through the middle rounds. Physically he was beginning to bully Pryce, pushing him with the left shoulder, positioning him for short hooks and uppercuts on the inside. Pryce was struggling to breath and repeatedly dabbed at his nose. As early as the seventh the dye appeared cast, the feeling Pryce needed a big shot just to regain a foothold in the fight became stronger. His shots were looping and lacked their earlier intent.
Jennings forced Pryce to a corner and unloaded shots, pouring on the pressure. Pryce looked increasingly forlorn and was stiffened by a left hook. By the end of the eighth, Jennings was three or four rounds up and in full control. Though Pryce appeared the puncher in the fight, fatigue engulfed him and a stoppage defeat loomed for the gutsy Welsh champion.
In the ninth, implored by his corner to rediscover his jab Pryce tried to rally and he enjoyed success as Jennings relented as if conscious that he was about to venture in to uncharted territory.
Pryce worked hard from the bell, landing pitter-patter combinations on the inside, his back to the ropes and with Jennings burrowing forward. Jennings landed the more meaningful blows but was clearly tiring. He leaned more and was less active. His aggression and accurate power shots stole the round for him but Pryce seemed to be buoyed by the notion Jennings was about to enter the first eleventh round of his career and could probably feel the champion begin to wilt.
Entering the final two sessions it was obvious that despite the drama of the opener, the Welshman would need a knockout to win or a knockdown to even countenance a points victory, such had been Jennings’ mid-fight dominance. The gutsy, erratic challenger came close to delivering the improbable in the final round.
A huge right hand sagged the knees of the champion who’d continued to engage Pryce toe-to-toe despite already being handsomely placed to preserve his title. Perhaps driven on by his adoring public, or perhaps more accurately, his love of a fight, it was a poor tactic as Pryce loomed large, throwing hooks and uppercuts as he chased the one finishing blow that would have stunned the home crowd and provided British boxing with arguably its greatest turnaround in recent history.
But he couldn’t find that last punch, and Jennings ended the fight as he had begun it, out on his feet and clinging on to his crown. As with all boxing contests of this intensity, the two protagonists hugged and nodded mutual respect after the final bell. If only all fights were this enthralling, but as the champion added later from the comfort of the ring apron and on the happy side of the verdict; “It’s not the sort of fight you want every night, I’d rather box and not get hurt. But sometimes you get caught and have to take good shots, overcome them and comeback. Fair play to him, it was a hard fight.”
The pair hugged again and the Preston public drew breath and disappeared into the night. But after entertainment like this, they’ll be back.