By John J. Raspanti
Heavyweight contender Bryant Jennings has engaged in 25 professional fights. He’s lost twice. Once was for the heavyweight championship of the world. Not bad for a guy who took up the sport at 24.
Nine years ago, Jennings, a star athlete in high school, wandered into the ABC Recreation Center in Philadelphia. The goal was to stay in shape. At the time, he was working in the facilities department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. The gig was full-time. He liked the job, thoughts of boxing never entered his mind.
Everything changed the day he laced on some gloves, and began to work.
It was his epiphany.
“My first day” Jennings told the Guardian three years ago. “Since then we knew, this is for me. I felt it.”
A few weeks later, he had his first amateur fight. There was no turning back.
“I was fed a dream, and I just kept eating away at it,” Jennings told Kelsey MCCarson of the bleachereport.com
Jennings boxed and punched his way to 19 straight victories, scoring 12 knockouts, before facing heavy favorite Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight crown in 2015. Klitschko hadn’t lost a fight in 11 years. Many in the media mocked the matchup, but Jennings did well, losing a competitive 12 round decision.
One of those impressed was promoter Bob Arum, who signed Jennings to a promotional contract last year.
"I thought [Jennings] did very well with Klitschko, but more than that, he’s a pleasure to be around," Arum told ESPN.com last year.
Jennings’ opponent this Saturday night at the Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City, NJ., 6-foot- 7-inch, Alexander Dimitrenko of Germany by way of Russia, came to boxing the more traditional way. He began at 14. Four years later, he won World Junior Championship in the super-heavyweight division. The giant was considered a shoo-in by some for heavyweight honors.
Dimitrenko debuted in the pro ranks in 2001. He progressed slowly, capturing the International Boxing Inter-Continental heavyweight belt when he defeated one Andeas Sidon in Altona, Germany. His winning streak was snapped at 29 when he lost a split decision to Eddie Chambers. He rebounded to win three fights, including the European heavyweight title, until being knocked out by Kubrat Pulev.
His career seemingly over, Dimitrenko took a break from the sport. He returned to win a half dozen fights before being knocked out again by Joseph Parker. He surprised many by returning to the ring five months later. He was brought to Sweden as fodder for undefeated fellow giant Adrian Granat. Instead, he knocked out the big favorite in the opening round. He won another bout to position himself for one more big fight.
Enter Jennings, who is desperate for another shot at a title. He respects Dimitrenko.
“Dimitrenko is a big competitive fighter,” said Jennings. “I worked very hard to gain my position in the heavyweight division. Every fight is a risk for me.”
Another victory, and Dimitrenko (41-3, 26 KOs) might get his own shot at a heavyweight strap.
“I am looking forward to this fight, as this is an opportunity to advance in the heavyweight division,” Dimitrenko said. “I want to be great. I’ve never had so much fun in boxing. The fight against Jennings comes at just the right time, and I will take advantage of this opportunity.”
In a sense, this is a crossroads fight. Win and stay relevant. Lose and go home, or accept being a gatekepper.
Look for the more athletic Jennings to send Dimitrenko packing.