Bryant Jennings meets Mike Perez Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York in a bout that will help determine what direction the heavyweight division is heading.
Will American heavyweights such as Jennings be able to catch up with the rest of the world and once again compete at the highest levels of the division? Or is the new normal of fighters from outside the U.S. dominating the upper echelon of the heavyweight division something that will continue on into the future?
Jennings, alongside Deontay Wilder, represents America’s best hope for heavyweight glory. While the latter competed in the 2008 Olympics and came home with a bronze medal, neither man particularly relies on a wealth of amateur experience. In fact, Jennings was just 13-4 as an amateur.
Jennings told me in May before the bout was postponed to July that he knew he was behind the eight ball from the first moment he stepped into the ring as a professional.
“I just keep doing what I have to do. I realized that I had to put in overtime and I had to do a lot of extra things. I had to put in a lot of extra work, and I was dedicated. I knew that’s what I had to do...I knew I had to do it to catch up and get to where I am right now.”
There’s a lot to like about Jennings. He seems to have a sharp wit and a business-minded head on his shoulders. His fighting style is enjoyable to watch. He boxes well from the outside, and does it enough so that he stays upright in front of heavy punchers. But he also fights aggressively and throws combinations to make up for his lack of punching power.
He’ll need all that and more against Perez, a smallish but superbly skilled heavyweight who is hard to beat when he’s at his best. Perez won the World Junior Amateur Championships at light heavyweight in 2004 for Cuba. Since defecting to Ireland in 2007, he has compiled a solid professional record with 20 wins, no losses. In January, Perez fought to a 10-round draw with Carlos Takam in what may have been a lackluster effort spurred on by Perez’s previous win, a tragic encounter with Magomed Abdusalamov.
Though he doesn’t possess the same level of experience of Perez as an amateur, the 29-year-old Jennings is one year his senior.
“I’ve been on earth longer so I have experienced a lot of things, maybe even some things he hasn’t experienced,” said Jennings.
Jennings has his eyes set on Perez at the moment, but he also said the ultimate goal was to dethrone lineal champion Wladimir Klitschko as soon as possible.
“That’s the top. That’s the peak. That’s where it’s at. Anything else? It almost don’t make no sense. You fight so hard to get to that point…I need that. I want that.”
The brass over at HBO thinks Perez has a shot at being an attractive fight for Klitsckho. HBO Sports’ director of programming, Peter Nelson, said the winner of Jennings-Perez will have gone a long way in that regard.
“Perez-Jennings is going to produce a winner that will be recognized as having competed against an elite-level opponent and come out of the other side of that. That’s about as high a level you can attain in the heavyweight division before you take your chance against the best.”
Jennings believes wholeheartedly he can beat Perez and ultimately do the same against Klitschko. Right now, of course, he said his attention was solely on preparing for his fight with Perez.
“I just prepare [by] pushing myself [and] knowing that my best can always beat his best.”
Host of HBO Boxing telecasts Jim Lampley indicated he was looking forward to seeing how the fight shakes out.
“It’s a very interesting matchup because Perez has a deeper amateur background and more technical training at an earlier age than Jennings had.”
Lampley isn’t sold yet on Jennings being a legitimate threat to Klitschko, but said there was a lot to like about Jennings’ approach at this stage of his career.
“Jennings is a little different than most other guys, because he begins with being more technical and a defensive-based approach. Jennings’ idea is not that he’s going to step inside the ring and knock you out with one big right hand...but rather he’s going to outthink you and break you down over a period of rounds.”
Jennings said he hopes to outthink and break down the heavyweight division in its entirety, but in terms of bringing American heavyweight boxing back to where it once was, he indicated he would need some help from his compatriots.
“Trust me. I can’t do it alone. I’m one of the guys. I think that it’s just going to take more than one guy.”
Still, the one guy in the group that fights on Saturday night, Jennings, has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Against Perez, Jennings has a fighting chance to set himself up for a shot at the heavyweight championship of the world.
“I was fed a dream, and I just kept eating away at it. And here I am.”