One of the best heavyweights in the world climbs the rickety stairs at Main Street Boxing Gym in downtown Houston, Texas on a fair-weathered winter’s day in February. He carries his own bags up the narrow, wooden pathway to the second-story workout room where he intends to wrap his own hands and work out alongside two other fighters who are already up there shadowboxing.
He and the other two men will not speak. They are only connected by their vocations and their movements around the carpeted gym floor. The heavyweight who just entered the room is notieacably larger than the other two fighters. He stands six-feet, three-inches tall and all of it, too. His biceps look like cannonballs, and he appears to have been born for his lot in life.
Bryant Jennings (above, in Rachel McCarson photo) is a 30-year-old undefeated heavyweight boxer from Philadelphia. He’s traveled to Houston for his last three fight camps because he feels like it helps him focus on the task ahead of him. He says he loves Philly with a passion but he considers Houston his second home.
“Houston is my go-to spot,” Jennings says as he quietly begins to unravel the necessary amount of tape required to wrap his overly large fists.
Jennings has already been training for a few weeks now. He says he comes to camp earlier than most to get his mind right. He says his primary focus has been developing his fight strategy and focusing his mind on the road that lies ahead.
“I started way ahead of time. It’s nothing strenuous. I’m just walking through a lot of things, getting focused.”
Jennings will be in the fight of his life soon. He faces Wladimir Klitschko on April 25 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Klitschko is one of the better heavyweight champions in history. He has not lost a fight since 2004, almost six years before the late-starting Jennings competed in his very first professional prizefight. Moreover, Klitschko is one of the few men in the world with greater physical dimensions than Jennings. Klitschko is six-feet, six-inches of chiseled heavyweight athleticism and dominance. Even at age 38, it’s seems hardly fathomable that he could be beat. He’s just that good.
Jennings says most of fighting is mental.
“A lot of it is mental. The whole preparation during a training camp and even after the fight is mental. You have to prepare yourself for the next step. That’s why when some people have a loss they have to heal themselves so they can go out and try again. Some people will never heal and that’s when you see their career go downhill. It’s mental all the way around. Life is mental.”
A fighter must tell himself all sorts of things to be ready for fight night. Jennings has convinced himself that most people in the world are against him. He says despite being one of America’s few glimmering hopes in the heavyweight division, people don’t believe in him and don’t want to root for him to succeed.
Whether it’s true or not doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the personal psychology behind it, how Jennings uses the idea to foster his own enthusiasm for training. In short, it fuels him.
“It’s a very huge moment, and some people don’t even understand it, you know? I’m doubted by a lot of people, whether it’s Klitschko fans or just people who don’t necessarily believe in me, I say listen: this is the opportunity of a lifetime! They don’t understand what’s at stake here? You know? When we mention other names [like] Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Sonny Liston, Jack Johnson, all these guys were heavyweight champions. And these are guys that are all remembered, guys like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko…you get my drift?”
Jennings doesn’t just appreciate history. He wants to make it.
“These guys don’t understand what I’m up against. These are the legacies I’m chasing. My name needs to be amongst all those great heavyweights. So the only way my name can be mentioned alongside those is if I beat Klitschko. Fighting for and winning a vacant heavyweight title doesn’t really hold nothing. My legacy here has a chance to start off by defeating a legend.”
Jennings continues to methodically wrap his hands.
“Why not me?”
Truthfully, it’s an easy question to answer. Klitschko is bigger than Jennings. He’s more skilled. He hits harder. He has one of the best jabs in the history of boxing, and the considerable amount of athleticism he possesses for a man his size makes him extremely hard to beat.
But Jennings won’t hear it.
“I’m a really good athlete as well, and I’m pretty tall. I’m not as tall as him, but my arms are longer so the two or three inches of length on the arms is like what he has me on the height. So it’s almost like the same thing.”
Astoundingly, Jennings is correct. Klitschko’s reach of 81 inches is great, but Jennings’ absurd 84-inch wingspan is even longer, meaning he won’t necessarily be at a disadvantage from the outside against Klitschko by default like most would-be contenders.
“I’m very capable of [boxing him] from the outside.”
Jennings says he’ll put Klitschko through a test he’s never faced before, or at least one he hasn’t taken in an extremely long time. He says when the bell rings on fight night, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world will find himself in the ring with someone who will fight hard the whole night and come on strong as the later rounds approach.
Even better, Jennings promises to deliver action. He admits he has his hands full because Klitschko likes to throw punches from a distance, but also says he’ll bring the fight to him. Klitschko will not have to chase him. Jennings is coming to fight.
“Sooner or later, we’re gonna be fighting. I know the type of punch that he has. I’ve seen it. I’m not going to say I don’t respect it, but I’m in there with him so I’ll have to find a way around it. I ain’t gonna be playing with him, but he ain’t gonna be playing with me. As soon as he feels my power, he’s going to know he’s got to do what he do. He’s going to have to do something.”
Jennings expects to win. He says April 25 will be the inauguration ceremony of his heavyweight championship reign.
“I’m setting myself up to be great. I believed this would happen since the moment I started boxing. I observed the state of the heavyweight division, and I saw what it needed. I just went after it, and right now I think I’m one of the most marketable fighters out there. I’m from America. I’m well spoken, and I’m a heavyweight. It’s what America needs.”
America could stand a few more like him. Outside the ring, he’s intelligent, hardworking, thoughtful and extremely polite. Inside the ring, he’s a highly skilled boxer, a powerful puncher and he’s ready and willing to engage in whatever is necessary to get the job done.
Jennings is on the precipice of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. There is nothing more important to the health of the sport in America than that. Say what you want about Deontay Wilder winning the WBC title against Berman Stiverne earlier in the year, Jennings is fighting for the lineal heavyweight championship, the real one.
Better yet? He knows it.
“I consider this the real road. I really fought people. This here is the real deal.”
America has pined for a heavyweight to root for since Evander Holyfield fell out of a favor due to old age and eventually retired. Jennings believes he can be the one who brings American heavyweight boxing back. He says it with his dedication to the sport. He says it with his great appreciation of history. He says it with how carefully and thoughtfully he finishes wrapping up his hands before rising to his feet.
I also asked him if he’d be the one.
“For sure,” Jennings says with a smile on his face as he begins this day’s training session in the dark anonymity he chooses for himself in this old, musky gym in Houston. Soon, he’s drifted away from us. He’s punching air inside the boxing ring with a faraway look in his eye. He’s not chasing ghosts. He’s prepping for the real thing.
The writer and the photographer leave him there. He is alone with his thoughts now. His focus is singular and superb. Jennings wants to defeat Klitschko for the world heavyweight championship. He’s dreamed about it his whole fighting life. It isn’t just another payday. It isn’t just another fight. He needs it.
Maybe we do, too.