If you remove boxing from the equation, the term “City of Champions,” or at least near-champions, has not really applied to Philadelphia since the magical year of 1980, when the Phillies won the World Series over the Kansas City Royals and the other three professional sports franchises all came tantalizingly close to also enjoying the view from the pinnacle of their respective sports’ summit. The Eagles lost to the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XV (played on Jan. 25, 1981), the 76ers lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals and the Flyers lost to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Finals. Having all four teams advance to the championship round in the same calendar year gives 1980 slight municipal bragging rights over 1983, when the Sixers of Julius Erving and Moses Malone dismissed the Lakers for the NBA title and the “Wheeze Kids” Phillies came up short to the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
Now along comes 2018, which could surpass any previous year since Philadelphia was said to have been founded by William Penn on Oct. 27, 1682. The Eagles provided a huge boost to civic pride by winning Super Bowl LII – with a backup quarterback as MVP! – by beating the New England Patriots on Feb. 4 of this year, and the Villanova Wildcats stormed through the NCAA basketball tournament to win their second national championship in three years. Still underway are the NBA playoffs, in which the young Sixers of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are raising havoc, while the even younger Phillies, who as of April 23 had won nine of 10 in the friendly confines of Citizens Bank Park and were just a half-game out of first place in the National League East, are giving every indication that the schedule for their climb back toward contention has been accelerated. Even the Flyers are giving signs of hope for the future, despite being eliminated in the first round of the NHL playoffs by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Somewhat lost in this heady potpourri of team success is that most individual of athletic endeavors, boxing, for which Philly has long been recognized as being the best, most passionate fight town in America. The assembly line of world champions and highly ranked contenders dates back to 19th-century bare-knuckle brawlers Jimmy Weeden and Billy Walker and has continued to more recent examples of ring royalty such as Bernard Hopkins and Danny Garcia.
And while a national ESPN audience will be informed that the main event this Saturday night from the Liacouras Center, on the Temple University campus in North Philadelphia, is the WBO junior featherweight title bout between champion Jessie Magdaleno (25-0, 18 KOs), of Las Vegas, and Ghanian challenger Isaac Dogboe (18-0, 12 KOs), the live event that is generating the most interest locally is the scheduled 10-round matchup of popular Philadelphians Bryant “By-By” Jennings (22-2, 13 KOs) and Joey “The Tank” Dawejko (19-4-4, 11 KOs) for the vacant Pennsylvania heavyweight belt. Hall of Fame promoter J Russell Peltz, who is co-promoting the card along with Top Rank, has described Jennings-Dawejko as “the biggest all-Philly fight in 36 years,” and the long-awaited successor to the March 27, 1982, clash of WBA bantamweight champ Jeff Chandler and his former high school classmate, Johnny Carter. Chandler retained his title with a nationally televised, sellout-crowd-pleasing sixth-round stoppage at the since-razed Civic Center.
“We haven’t had many all-Philly fights since then, for one thing,” Peltz said of a lapsed tradition he hopes is on the verge of being revived. “Anthony Boyle and Frankie Mitchell was a pretty big fight in ’92. (Bryan) `Boogaloo’ Jones-Troy Fletcher was, too, in ’85, and Gabe Rosado-Derek Ennis in 2010, but, really, those were nothing like Chandler-Carter.
“A night like this has been a long time coming, but I guarantee there will be more action in one round of Jennings-Dawejko than there was in 12 rounds of the recent heavyweight unification match between Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker.”
The Liacouras Center, which can seat up to 11,000 for Temple basketball games, has been scaled to a capacity of 5,100 and if the walk-up is anywhere near as encouraging as the early sales, it would not be a surprise if a full house or something close to it is on hand for the first of the three televised fights, in which Jennings and Dawejko reprise a previous clash from when they were amateurs, which Dawejko won although Jennings maintains he did enough to deserve the victory. This time, he insists, he will leave no doubt as to who is the better fighter.
“I’m the one who is world-ranked (No. 7 by the WBO, No. 13 by the WBA and No. 17 by the WBC),” said the 33-year-old and always superbly conditioned Jennings, whose claim to fame is going the distance in dropping a unanimous decision to the great unified champion Wladimir Klitschko before 17,000-plus fans in Madison Square Garden on April 25, 2015. “I’m supposed to win and I will win, but this fight is dangerous because I have everything to lose and (Dawejko) has everything to gain. This fight serves no particular purpose for me, other than what it is supposed to do, which is Philly vs. Philly.”
Since signing a promotional deal with Top Rank, Jennings has strung together three wins inside the distance against second-tier opponents Akhror Muralimov, Don Haynesworth and Daniel Matz. Some might consider the stumpy Dawejko to be another low hurdle to clear for a man with legitimate hopes of again fighting for a world championship, but the presumed outcome might not so obvious once the bell rings and Jennings finds himself in against a more skilled fighter than his record indicates. The 5-10 Dawejko, a father of four daughters, admits that he too often has been his own worst enemy and has squandered his potential by sometimes entering the ring overweight and under-prepared. The aptly nicknamed “Tank,” 27, said that won’t be the case this time because, well, he is fresh out of excuses for performing at anything less than his very best. He insists he really is the fittest he has ever been in his pro career, and as such is a threat to anyone rated in the top 10 to 15, an exclusive group he hopes to enter by taking down the favored Jennings.
“My professional career didn’t start out the way I wanted it to,” Dawejko continued. “I had bad contracts with different managers (his current one is Mark Cipparone) and promoters (he’s now with Greg Cohen) and I took fights on short notice I had no business taking. I didn’t train properly. I lost a couple of fights I shouldn’t have lost, had to settle for draws in a couple of other fights.”
If Saturday’s all-Philly feast were a beauty contest, Jennings need only to take off his robe and flex his muscles to get the nod. He is 6-foot-2 with the sculpted frame of a pugilistic Adonis. No matter how much time Dawejko, 27, puts into training, he is always going to be a closer physical approximation of his fleshy role model, James Toney, or maybe a fireplug of yesteryear, “Two-Ton” Tony Galento, who famously uttered “I’ll moider da bum” before a fight with Joe Louis and actually did send the “Brown Bomber” to the canvas before the all-time great heavyweight champion arose and soon after added Galento to his long list of victims.
“I’ve dealt with (snide remarks) my entire life,” Dawejko said of the physique bequeathed to him by family genetics. “I’ve always been the short, chubby white kid. I just hope that (Bryant) looks at me that way. People see me and think I’m a pushover. Then I go in there and beat them up.
“I know I’ll never have an Evander Holyfield-type body. I’ll never have six-pack abs. I wasn’t made that way. But that doesn’t mean that I still can’t accomplish all my goals in boxing.”
In addition to Jennings-Dawejko, the middle of the three fights on ESPN features another highly regarded Philadelphian, super middleweight contender Jesse Hart (23-1, 19 KOs), who squares off against Demond Nicholson (18-2-1, 17 KOs), of Laurel, Md., in a scheduled 10-rounder. Like Bryant, Hart – son of 1970s middleweight icon Eugene “Cyclone” Hart – is trying to work himself back into position for a second crack at a world title, having dropped a 12-round unanimous decision to WBO 168-pound champion Gilberto Ramirez on Sept 22 of last year in Tucson, Ariz.
“It’s a smorgasbord of Philly boxing,” a beaming Jesse Hart said of the 10-bout card, which also features off-TV matchups involving local prospects Christian Carto (14-0, 11 KOs), who takes on Puerto Rico’s Edwin Rodriguez (8-4-1, 4 KOs) in a scheduled eight-round bantamweight bout, and welterweight Marcel Rivers (4-0, 3 KOs), who swaps punches with Ronald Logan (0-2), of New York City, in a scheduled four-rounder. “The heavyweight fight is going to be great, but, no disrespect to Magdaleno and Dogboe, after my fight that place is going to empty out fast
“All our teams are doing wonderful. Why not boxing, too? This is the time to embrace all things involving Philly sports, including the fighters on this card. We were born and bred here. We live here. And we’re upholding the unmatched legacy of Philly boxing. Our town is still the Mecca.”
Peltz hopes Hart’s bubbly confidence is justified. He was the director of Spectrum Boxing from 1973 to 1980, when crowds of 10,000 regularly flocked to South Philly to see some of the all-Philly turf wars he so cherishes, interspersed by the appearance of such world-class visitors as Marvin Hagler and Billy “Dynamite” Douglas. But the Spectrum was torn down in increments between November 2010 and May 2011, and the city’s hallowed club-fight site, the Blue Horizon, located just a few blocks down North Broad Street from the Liacouras Center, has been shuttered since June 2010. Many of the better boxers to come out of Philly’s still-flowing pipeline have had to seek their fortunes elsewhere once they grow beyond the small venues to which the sport too often is relegated within city limits.
“Philly boxing needs these kind of fights to get us out of the catering halls and the warehouses and the tiny casino rooms and into bigger arenas, where we should be,” Peltz, who has promoted fight cards in the city since 1969, said of why Jennings-Dawejko is a touchstone for what was and might be again. “You can’t say that Philly is a great boxing town and have it confined to 1,500-seat venues. It just doesn’t calculate.”
Artwork by Jim Meehan
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