Wladimir Klitschko’s mission to re-conquer America begins Saturday at Madison Square Garden. He will fight Bryant “By-By” Jennings of Philadelphia, a fine cosmetic representative of the heavyweight division, in that he looks like a heavyweight should look. Should Klitschko punch with the oomph he used to eradicate Kubrat Pulev, Jennings will probably fall like a heavyweight should fall, that is to say, hard. The undefeated nine-years-younger Philadelphian is an ideal opponent for Klitschko to make a splashy return against in a country that’s traditionally been hostile to him. Wladimir isn’t the same fragile heavyweight who Lamon Brewster stopped eleven years ago. That much is obvious. The bigger gamble is whether he’s sufficiently violent for American audiences to embrace.
North American fight fans have never fallen for Klitschko (63-3). Because of his three stoppage losses and the humiliating ways in which each occurred, he earned a reputation as a frail big man whose steely fists concealed a glass jaw. It didn’t matter he’d never been truly knocked out (having risen from each splattering), because Klitschko had been made to look pathetic, which subverts the ideal of indomitability a heavyweight champion supposedly epitomizes. Rather unfairly, it took brother Vitali’s six violent rounds with Lennox Lewis to engender some respect for a family that has produced two of the most formidable heavyweights of this era.
Wladimir hasn’t lost since Brewster, a mark he avenged in 2007, but his twenty straight title defenses haven’t impressed those disdainful of his competition. Criticism of his peers is fair but Klitschko shouldn’t be held to account for his generation’s failings. If accusations against him are warranted, they should be directed at his holding and clinching, which marred high profile fights with David Haye and Alexander Povetkin. That was Klitschko at his safest, and thus his most frustrating. It’s a functionally effective, albeit hideous way of boxing and calls to mind watching a stallion slowly plow his way through a ravine of mud rather than chance a leap across.
There has been a much greater reverence for Klitschko in Europe. He is a huge draw in Hamburg, where fans sit through his embellished ring introductions and then exercise further patience as he calmly goes about pulverizing people. There appears to be less of an emphasis on violence in European boxing and more of an appreciation of the sport as a balletic art. This benefits the champion, who turned his career around by avoiding risk and allowing his unstoppable jab-power right combination to find its rhythm.
Given the fine shape of his body and dearth of talent in a division that’s only now improving, it’s unlikely Klitschko will quit anytime soon. His longevity is a question of desire; if he chooses to Klitschko can box for years. The 1-2 approach he employs, which has wasted so many opponents, is beautiful in its simplicity and so mechanically sound that it should remain a potent force even years from now. There are no divisional peers either skilled enough to outbox him or athletic enough to find their away around his jab. This makes his return to America opportune, because his skills are now so advanced that he can maraud here free of serious competition.
Does Jennings pose even a small threat? The Philadelphian is 19-0 with ten stoppages. He got here by earning a split decision win over Mike Perez last summer, which was not without its own controversy when Perez was deducted a point in the twelfth, rather dubiously, for hitting off the break. Jennings is a competent heavyweight but his armory is considerably less stocked than the champion’s, who supports his jab and power right with a ruinous left hook. While age and speed are tilted in Jenning’s favour, in this era of mature heavyweights these traits are subordinate to experience and skill. He is three inches shorter (though equipped with a longer reach) and while a fine combination puncher, Jennings doesn’t hit very hard. So, if you were to evaluate this matchup using basic measures, is it not these two designations—boxing ability and punching power—that matter most? If one man is the better boxer and puncher, in addition to being far more experienced, is it much of a mystery who’ll win?
Jennings may have his moments, but if he mounts any pressure expect Klitschko to lean on “By-By” like he did the similarly-sized Povetkin. This tactic is an aesthetic horror but an effective neutralizer. Klitschko is advantaged when distances are extreme since he can outbox Jennings from the outside and bully him on the inside. It is the space in between where Jennings should seek to claim real estate. But even if he manages this, Klitschko is too weary to let the challenger plant his flag there.
If Klitschko wins ugly, like he did over Alexander Povetkin, his promoter, Tom Loeffler, will surely be displeased. He wants Wlad to provide the same violent excitement as K2 Promotions stablemate Gennady Golovkin. Perhaps as a way of fostering a knockout, a smaller 18’x18′ ring has been ordered for Saturday. Violence will be proportional to proximity. At some point Jennings will have to stand in front of Klitschko, where he’ll absorb the brunt of a right hand that bears all of Midtown’s inertia.
Last November Klitschko annihilated Kubrat Pulev in an unrestrained show of force. He gave us what we’d long clamored for, which was to see his unique blend of skills borne out in complete, a state only possible when aggression overrules caution. Klitschko is too smart not to see the bigger picture and if his aspirations are aligned with those of his team he will repeat his massacre of Pulev. Bryant Jennings is the first stage in his reclamation of the new world. Wladimir already has the money, the (physical) power, and the woman. But riches aren’t the sole objective of his American dream. Higher on his hierarchy is respect.
– Eliott McCormick