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HBO World Championship Boxing Preview: Wladimir Klitschko Returns to the USA vs. Bryant Jennings

by Johnny Walker

When World Heavyweight Champion Wladimir Klitschko steps into the ring on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City, it will have been over seven years since his last trip to the Big Apple.

For that fight against WBO heavyweight champion Sultan Ibragimov–and previously for Wlad’s big KO win at MSG over the at-the-time rising American heavyweight Calvin “The Boxing Banker” Brock–the “Q” subway train that takes passengers from South Brooklyn, places like Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, where more Russian and Ukrainian dialects are heard spoken than English, to Manhattan, was full of excited fight fans on their way to “the Mecca of boxing.”

Perhaps the Klitschko Brothers, Wladimir and his older brother (now retired and mayor of Kiev, Ukraine) Vitali, never really achieved mega-fame in the USA, but you wouldn’t know it in South Brooklyn. Here, most people know of the Klitschkos, and they have a guaranteed fanbase who will help fill up the Garden again this coming Saturday night for Wlad’s return to Manhattan and to the HBO network.

That appearance seven years ago, however, didn’t leave a lot of Wlad’s own fans happy, even though he virtually shut out opponent Ibragimov (who then retired from the sport) and took the latter’s WBO world championship belt away with ease.

After tasting Klitschko’s power early, Ibragimov decided it would be a wise move to stay as far away from his opponent as possible, at times leaning so far back out of the ring that one feared he might fall completely out of it. Klitschko was cruising to an easy unanimous decision win, and it wasn’t until the crowd’s boos intensified later in the bout that the fighter and his late trainer Emanuel Steward realized that nothing less than a highlight reel knockout was going to be seen as a success by many on this night.

Alas, Klitschko tried to turn up the heat, but the elusive Ibragimov managed to stay on his feet, take the money, and run, literally, never to be seen in a boxing ring again. It was too little, too late, for a KO. And the boos, which sounded much louder in the arena than they did on TV, rained down on the fighters, especially the bewildered champ, who had just unified the belts and won by a wide UD.

Since then, Wladimir Klitschko has continued his domination of all who stand across from him in the squared circle, much to the annoyance of some of his detractors in the USA, whose criticisms often have the aroma of sour grapes.

With Vitali retired, Wlad how has the heavyweight division to himself. In Wlad’s last fight, he took on the very talented, unbeaten Bulgarian with an excellent amateur pedigree, Kubrat Pulev, who decided, unlike most of Wlad’s opponents (that means you, David Haye), not to run from the champ.

In that fight, Klitschko, who has been accused of having a shaky chin, showed just how far he’s come in that area. Just before Wlad delivered the final knockout blow to his opponent in round five, Pulev snapped Klitschko’s head back hard with left-right combination. It was the kind of wicked shot that might have discombobulated or even dropped an earlier version of Klitschko, but not this time. He recovered almost immediately and knocked Pulev senseless with a left hook, again walking out the winner.

This latter version of Klitschko (63-3-0, 53 KOs) will no doubt have the boos that rang in his ears after the Ibragimov fight, the boos from all of those “Q” train riders from Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay, weighing heavily on his mind as he enters Madison Square Garden this Saturday evening. Lennox Lewis still seems to be stinging from the boos he took in Los Angeles at the Staples Center after what turned out to be his final fight (with Vitali Klitschko, no less). It’s something no fighter likes to hear, or to remember.

This is likely very bad news for Klitschko’s somewhat inexperienced but unbeaten American challenger Bryant “By-By” Jennings (19-0, 10 KOs) of Philadelphia.

Jennings is a good fighter, but a good fighter against one of greatest heavyweights of all time, which Wladimir Klitschko has now become, is not likely to be enough.

Wladimir Klitschko (l) and Bryant Jennings

Unbeaten Jennings has had some shaky outings, one of them coming against Bowie Tupou in 2012, where he was rattled hard, and, had more time been left in the round, might have experienced his first loss. Other scores, such as a wide UD victory over Steve Collins at the Newark Center in New Jersey, were very flattering to Jennings, as Collins in actuality showed that Jennings could be slowed by a good body attack.

Jennings also beat perhaps the biggest name on his resume, former champ Sergei Liakhovich, the fight following a hellacious beating “The White Wolf” took from pre-injury Robert Helenius. More recently, he did well in beating Poland’s Artur Szpilka, who spent the entire fight week flying around the world due to visa issues, and took a split decision over Mike Perez, who understandably hasn’t looked the same since his tragic bout with Magomed Abdusalamov in 2013.

Nothing has really prepared Jennings for what will be coming at him on this Saturday night. In fact, Kubrat Pulev would likely still be favored to beat Jennings, much less Wladimir Klitschko.

As far as a “resurgence of the American heavyweight,” this fight should help settle that issue.

Really, the best American heavyweight is still likely the cagey veteran Tony Thompson, who not only destroyed the world title dreams of the UK’s giant David Price with two stoppages, but also finally rid the division of the overrated Odlanier Solis with two more wins, his most recent by stoppage.

After that, there’s WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder, who beat a clearly sub-par (for whatever reason) Bermane Stiverne over 12 rounds. Other than that win, there is virtually nothing on Wilder’s resume. So for now, this writer still gives the “best American heavyweight” title to good ol’ double T, Tony the Tiger, until someone proves otherwise.

As for this Saturday night in the Garden, expect Wladimir Klitschko to do his best to turn the boos he remembers from the Ibragimov fight into cheers, as he goes after Jennings early and knocks him out by round five, at the latest. Round three might not be a bad bet.

Opening the televised HBO card will be a battle between welterweights Sadam “World Kid” Ali (21-0, 13 KOs) against Francisco “Chia” Santana (22-3, 11 KOs). Ali, whose chin has been questioned, has been rocked hard a few times, even hitting the canvas against Jay Krupp at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2011. Yet he still survived to keep his unbeaten record intact.

Santana’s record doesn’t exactly indicate that he is a power merchant, but nether does it indicate that he’s a slouch. He’s currently riding a 10-fight winning streak, his last loss being to Jermell Charlo back in 2011.

Hopefully, no matter who wins, this welterweight showdown will whet the appetite for the return of the World Heavyweight boxing champion to the Big Apple.

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