By Thomas Gerbasi
On the verge of competing in his first bout in 20 months this Saturday, Bryant Jennings admits that the time off did him good. Not that he wanted nearly two years off.
“I didn’t need that a long of a break,” he chuckles, days before he faces Daniel Martz on the Terence Crawford vs. Julius Indongo card in Lincoln, Nebraska. “But I did take advantage of the time that I had to myself and away from boxing to focus on life. I did learn a lot about life, about business, and I got a whole lot more experience.”
Sometimes, the best experience comes outside the ring, and that’s been the case for the Philadelphian, who is coming off back to back losses to Wladimir Klitschko and Luis Ortiz that turned his 19-0 pro record to 19-2.
The defeats were a stark reminder that the fight game can sneak up on you and smack you at any time, and while he acquitted himself well in going the distance with the recently retired Klitschko, the Ortiz fight took back those positive vibes in the space of seven rounds.
So he regrouped, signed with a new promoter in Top Rank, and got back down to business.
“If I were to have won those fights, then who knows how much distraction I would be faced with and who knows what direction I would have been going in,” Jennings said. “I probably never would have learned what I have, and I know I’ve come across situations where I needed what I learned during my absence.”
He also got off the boxing hamster wheel of camp-fight-camp-fight that can suck the life out of anyone’s career. Sure, it wasn’t as bad for Jennings, who didn’t start boxing until he was 24, as it is for those who start boxing as kids, but his talent accelerated the process, and after the Ortiz fight, he had to separate his work life from real life.
“Boxing is a sport and you grow your love for the sport,” he explains. “But when you become a victim of the sport, whether it’s a loss, too much pressure from the fan base or too much criticism, maybe somebody threatening your family or tarnishing you on social media sites, all of those things are definitely things we like to get away from. I look at it as, you can’t box 24/7. We apply things that we learn from boxing to life, but life is something you do 24/7 and you gotta live.”
Some athletes never figure that out, and then when their career is over, they’re left with nothing but past glories to reminisce about. Jennings wasn’t going to be one of those statistics, and starting out in the sport as an adult aided in that process.
“A lot of guys are in this as kids, so they’re blinded as a child about this business they’re devoting their whole life to,” he said. “So when they get older, they’re just old children. They’re just children with a beard. So the respect level and the growth level is simply not there because they still have the mind of the kid.”
It doesn’t take long to spot those athletes. It often just takes a click or two on social media. Sometimes, those athletes make it big. But at what price?
“I can’t become this character, someone that does things for marketing and publicity,” Jennings said. “I can’t be that person because I’m being myself in real life. We have problems being who we are, let alone making it easy to be somebody else just for a dollar or for more viewers. Being myself at all times is more important to me. We all know that when most people do that, they get lost in who they were or who they really are, and people can’t tell the difference.”
Titles or not, Jennings is staying true to himself, something evident over the course of this interview as he visited the dry cleaners to get a patch sewn on his trunks, gave parking instructions to someone who moved a little too close to his car, and greeted someone in the neighborhood who stopped by to chat. Most importantly, though, his eight-year-old son Mason was along for the ride, taking it all in. And that was the point.
“Everything I do is for my son to pay attention to,” Jennings said. “He witnesses everything, and he can say, ‘It can be done because my dad did it. And I know I can do it.’ I have to be a living example.”
At 32, Jennings has only been in the pro game since 2010, but he has seen the good, the bad and the ugly thus far. I ask him what he would say if Mason wanted to box.
“We can go with the training of it,” he said. “But I push him now in different aspects.”
In other words, don’t bet on Dad’s seal of approval.
“We have too many athletes and not enough managers, not enough promoters, not enough business owners, not enough sports agents,” Jennings said. “Most people want to be athletes. I know a million athletes that were good at football and good at basketball. They never made it and that was the only thing they knew how to do. I teach my son both sides, and I’m able to teach him better because I’m learning as I go along.”
And what he learned about the heavyweight division during his absence is that “I didn’t really miss anything.”
He talks about Ortiz and his surprise that the Cuban hasn’t gotten a title shot, the ascension of Anthony Joshua and how England has embraced him and got behind him while United States fighters don’t get that same push at home, and his conclusion is a question.
“What is anybody doing?”
Sounds like a perfect time for someone like Bryant Jennings to return.
“It’s definitely back to business.”