By Jake Donovan
Some will argue that without the NBC Sports Fight Night series coming along, Bryant Jennings is still an obscure heavyweight in search of a breakthrough opportunity.
There’s also a case to be made that Jennings’ incredible breakthrough has gone a long way in helping establish the series in such a short time.
“What’s not to love about Bryant Jennings,” promoter Kathy Duva rhetorically asks. “He stepped up on the first show and because he had the nerve to do it, he has become a star. He comes back on the next show and takes a fight nobody thought he would win.”
“The fighter meeting question was why such a step up when he fought Siarhai Liakhovich. I mentioned in the meeting that reminded me of Evander Holyfield. People jumped down my throat for saying that. Now they’re saying he’s the best young heavyweight out there.”
Jennings (13-0, 6KO) has a chance to further prove his case as he makes his third straight appearance on the series tonight when he faces Steve Collins (25-1-1, 18KO). The bout serves as the televised opener live from the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey (NBC Sports 9PM ET).
Tonight’s bout is less about Jennings proving himself and more about keeping the Philly fighter active and in the public eye. Collins comes with a glossy record but a paper-thin resume, as well as having never fought past the sixth round or been scheduled for a fight deeper than eight.
After his previous two fights, Jennings is well deserving of a showcase. Regardless of the competition, though, every fight for the 27-year old is another progressive step.
“My first fight on the series was my breakthrough fight,” Jennings recalls of his showdown with then unbeaten Maurice Byarm. The bout came about by accident, made at the last minute after Eddie Chambers was forced to withdraw from his main event with Liakhovich after suffering an injury.
Chambers appears in the headliner tonight, as he takes on Tomasz Adamek. The bout will be his first in well over a year, with plenty of questions swirling. Not so much the case for Jennings, who proved his worth against Byarm and then mopped up for Chambers by dominating Liakhovich in their one-sided brawl this past March.
“That (Liakhovich) fight was proving that I’m ready for the next level,” Jennings states. “Each fight is a step up, to show that I’m getting better with each fight. That’s what fans can expect (tonight).”
There’s no disputing that Jennings has earned the distinction from heavyweight newcomer to red-hot prospect. Yet if you ask the Philly boxer, a title shot isn’t too far off. It stands to reason that his handlers would prefer to take a few more fights before heading in that direction, but it’s understandable why Jennings is anxious to race to the top.
“When it comes down to it, there are only two successful heavyweights today – Wladimir and Vitali Klitscho,” Jennings theorizes. “I want to beat one of them for my first title. Really, I’d like to beat both of them, beat one and then have the other want to try to avenge his brother’s loss.
“What I don’t to happen is for those guys to retire and have the title up for grabs. A lot of guys are scared of them and waiting for them to get out the game. You have to face your fears in order to succeed. You can’t be scared to walk down the streets in your own neighborhood.”
Jennings backed up his words with strong performances in each of his past two fights, adding a new name to the very short list of promising young American heavyweights.
Prior to Jennings’ arrival, all of the talk centered around Seth Mitchell, who is far more celebrated thanks to his strong connections and gaining premium time slots but arguably less accomplished. It stands to reason, though, that both fighters will be deep in any discussion a few years from now when the topic is simply the best heavyweight in the world.
As was the case with Mitchell, the pot of gold at the end of Jennings’ rainbow was aspirations of making it big in the NFL. That dream didn’t pan out for either, though for different reasons. Instead, they’ve both become something of an anomaly – heavyweights who can fight and are fun to watch.
Promoter Kathy Duva is a longtime admirer of the heavyweight division. The old adage is that if there’ a good heavyweight fight to be made, you find an outlet for it. The big boys of boxing have been a dominant part of the NBC Sports Fight Night series to date, drawing rave reviews at a time when everyone else is sour on the division.
The key is simple – find fights that people want to watch, rather than showcases that only benefit those investing in the product.
“The fighters can learn to fight by fighting each other. That’s one of the things about our partnership,” Duva says of her relationship with NBC Sports. “There will be a lot of terrific heavyweight bouts. In 3-5 years, this generation of heavyweights will revitalize the division.”
Jennings believes he will play a major part in the rebirth, which means more to him than simply being along for the ride at a time when the division was thriving.
“I can become something great. I could have made a stance in previous times when boxing was more respected. You still have fans who haven’t given up. When you have hope there is a chance. Once fans lean more towards me, I keep giving them hope. Hope is a wonderful thing.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter: @JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]