By Nat Gottlieb
In the co-featured bout of Saturday night's World Championship Boxing card at 9:30 PM, two unbeaten heavyweight contenders on the verge of a title fight will step into the ring in what should be an all-action affair with much at stake. Bryant Jennings vs. Mike Perez has the potential to be one of the best heavyweight fights in recent memory. But despite their stellar credentials, each fighter brings some heavy-duty question marks with them into the ring. The answers will go a long way toward bringing some clarity as to who will eventually take over the world title that Vitali Klitschko vacated.
Perez, a standout Cuban amateur who defected to Ireland in 2007, seemed to be on the verge of stardom when he took on another unbeaten heavyweight from Russia, Magomed Abdusalamov in November of last year. The fight proved to be thunderous brawl. Although Perez (20-0-1, 12 KOs) won a relatively close unanimous decision, his triumph was dampened when the Russian later was diagnosed with significant brain damage that has left him severely disabled.
Perez was shaken by the outcome, and still refuses to talk about it. From his silence comes speculation that Perez might never be the same boxer again. The speculation only escalated after Perez's next fight, barely two months later. Taking on heavy underdog Carlos Takam at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Perez looked nothing like the wrecking machine he had been in his previous 20 fights, and escaped with a lackluster majority draw.
Longtime boxing writer, William Trillo, who has seen several of Perez's fights, was ringside in Montreal for the Cuban's bout with Takam and says he "looked tentative about letting his punches fly. He wouldn't be the first fighter to go downhill after beating a guy into a comatose state. It's a shame. He was on the verge of superstardom."
The questions surrounding Jennings (18-0, 10 KOs) are of a different nature. He came to boxing relatively late, at the age of 24. Like a lot of late starters, Jennings was involved in other sports. At Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia, he played football, basketball, ran the 200 meters and threw the shot put. After graduation, Jennings took a job as a mechanic at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia to support his fiancé and young son - a job he still works at in between training for fights.
One benefit of his participation in other sports is that Jennings is an unusually athletic heavyweight whose style more resembles fighters from the lower weight divisions. In addition to moving well in the ring, he has excellent hand speed and a strong jab helped by his exceptionally long reach - at 84 inches, it's three inches longer than Wladimir Klitschko's. He is also that less common heavyweight today with a sculpted body (sort of the anti-Chris Arreola).
The downside to his late start is he is still something of a work in progress. His trainer, Fred Jenkins recently said: "People need to know that Bryant Jennings is still learning how to fight. On his skill level, he's at a B working on a B+. Each fight is a learning experience for him."
Jennings' promoter Gary Shaw says he would compare his boxer, who is 6'2", to a certain former heavyweight champion. "He reminds me of Evander Holyfield in terms of his athleticism, although he didn't have the amateur experience Holyfield had," Shaw says. "I consider him a small heavyweight, like Holyfield. But both fight bigger than their size." Worth noting is that while Holyfield was a half inch taller, his reach was just 78 inches, six shorter than Jennings'.
In his last fight, Jennings faced Artur Szpilka, an undefeated Polish boxer who had beaten a mediocre string of opponents. Although he scored a 10th round knockout, Jennings didn't look as sharp and crisp as he usually does - a fact that could be attributed to ring rust.
After a breakout year in 2012, in which he fought five times on national TV, Jennings had just one fight in 2013, due to promotional problems that were resolved when Shaw bought out his contract last year. When he entered the ring against Szpilka, it was just his second fight in two years. "Everybody has ring rust," Shaw says. "This time when he fights I guarantee you he won't be rusty."
But Jennings may face another obstacle. He was originally scheduled to fight Perez on May 24, but the Cuban sustained a shoulder injury while training and the bout had to be postponed until July 26. Jennings has been in the gym since April, could he be affected by overtraining?
Come fight night, there will be answers to those questions, and a new contender for the heavyweight title.