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Boxing: Klitschko defends heavyweight title against Jennings in MSG

By Jeremy Wall

On April 25th, Wladimir Klitschko (64-3, 53KO) made the first defense of his deluge of heavyweight titles within the United States since 2008 when he defeated Bryant Jennings (19-1, 10KO) via unanimous decision at Madison Square Garden. The fight aired on HBO. The scores were 118-109 and 116-111 twice. The fight was much closer than the scores indicated, however, as Klitschko never gained a significant upper hand in any particular round despite that Jennings was not considered a serious contender going into the fight. The bout raises the profile of Jennings as a heavyweight contender and calls into question the longevity of Klitschko, who turned 39 in March.

Klitschko entered the bout having not lost a fight since being stopped by Lamon Brewster in the fifth round in 2004. He later avenged that loss by beating Brewster after six rounds in 2007. Klitschko also has losses to Corrie Sanders via second round TKO in 2003 and Ross Puritty via eleventh round TKO in 1998.

Since Klitschko's loss to Brewster he has won 22 fights in a row, which includes the recent win over Jennings. Klitschko's last decision win came against Alexander Povetkin in 2013, when he beat Povetkin on straight scores of 119-104. The two 116-111 scorecards against Jennings were the closest scores a fighter has come to defeating Klitschko since he beat Samuel Peter via unanimous decision on three straight scores of 114-111 in 2005.

Klitschko looked off for much of the fight. He almost never threw his big right hand, to the point where in the post-fight interview Max Kellerman asked Klitschko if the hand was hurt. Most of the early rounds went the same, with Klitschko winning 10-9 by out landing Jennings, both in volume and in power. Klitschko focused mostly on jabbing with his left, slowly stalking Jennings. There were some early rounds where Jennings threw almost nothing at all.

The match started to turn slightly in Jennings' favour in the middle rounds. Jennings landed a ton of shots to Klitschko's body, as he started to score more volume compared to Klitschko. Jennings would get on the inside and Klitschko would hold constantly. Klitschko received two warnings for holding from referee Michael Griffin, who ended up docking a point from Klitschko for holding in round ten.

Klitschko ended up with a cut on his cheek by the later rounds. Klitschko won the majority of rounds and the scorecards were fair, but each round was fairly close and it looked in the middle of the fight that Jennings might be able to close the distance in points by winning a few rounds. The overall fight stats somewhat favoured Jennings, who landed 110 of 376 (29%) compared to Klitschko’s 144 of 545 (26%). But Jennings never really got close to an upset and Klitschko came back strong with some powerful combinations in the twelfth round to close the fight.

The win was Klitschko's 18th straight title defense. The record for most straight title defenses belongs to Joe Louis at 25, so Klitschko still has a few years to go if he is ever going to approach that number. He is only two title defenses behind Larry Holmes at 20, though, for second place on the list. Klitschko could break that record before the end of next year.

Jennings, 30, went into the fight with an unbeaten record, having only turned pro six years ago. He also had a three inch reach advantage. He had turned down an offer to spar with Klitschko a few years ago, feeling that Klitschko offers sparring opportunities to scout potential opponents and he didn't want to give Klitschko an edge.

Even though Jennings lost the decision by quite a few rounds, it was the sort of loss that greatly raises a fighter's profile. Few knew who Jennings was going into the bout, but being able to go the distance and give Klitschko his toughest fight in years will familiarize fans with Jennings.

"Bryant Jennings is fighting for a lot. He is fighting for his pride, but he is also fighting for a lot of financial assets," Klitschko said before the bout. "It is an opportunity to literally change the life for yourself and your family."

After the bout Klitschko said he felt Jennings would be a star in the heavyweight division. He also said Jennings was his toughest opponent in a long time and when asked why he didn't use his big right hand, said that Jennings never gave him the chance to use it. Klitschko was disinterested in a rematch with Jennings, saying that he wanted to move forward and deal with his future mandatory challengers.

Jennings in his post-fight interview felt that the scores should have been closer based on the fight stats. Roy Jones Jr on commentary astutely observed that Jennings threw almost nothing but small body shots and that judges are going to put more weight on head shots than body shots. Jones said the fact that Jennings doesn't understand that is a display of the inexperience of Jennings.

Klitschko fights primarily in Germany, where he is a major draw, although he has also had bouts in recent years in Switzerland and Russia. The bout against Jennings was the third of Klitschko's last four fights to air on HBO. Between 2009 and September 2013 Klitschko only had one fight appear on HBO, a unanimous decision win over David Haye in 2011.

The bout against Jennings drew 17,056 to Madison Square Garden. Many in attendance were Ukranian-Americans who turned MSG into a hometown advantage for Klitschko, loudly chanting his name throughout the fight, although there were competing “USA” chants. This was also Klitschko's first fight to air live in prime time in the United States in many years, really since he became a major star.

"Madison Square Garden arena wants to see a Klitschko fight and that was supported by the fans because of ticket sales," Wladimir said before the bout. "I'm sure we're going to be sold out the day of the fight. Also, from television, in this case HBO, the demand is so big that it made me, forced me to come here and fight in the States."

The show went head-to-head with UFC 186, which took place just across the border at the Bell Centre in Montreal. HBO boxing went live at 10pm ET, the same time that the UFC pay per view broadcast began. HBO went off the air at 12:15am ET, while UFC was still on.

HBO's biggest fights usually drew at least 1 million viewers. Last week's bout between Lucas Matthyse and Ruslan Provodnikov drew 1.243 million, peaking at 1.38 million. Last year's most watched fight on HBO was Kovalev-Hopkins, which drew 1.328 million and peaked at 1.397 million.

Ratings should be good being that it was Klitschko's highest profile fight on American television in years. Ratings don't vary that much for major HBO fights because people who watch HBO boxing pay to subscribe to the channel for the purpose of watching boxing, so they aren't going to miss many major fights. Klitschko's bout against Povetkin from Moscow in October 2013 drew 534,000 viewers for its live broadcast on a Saturday afternoon and another 705,000 for its prime time replay. His fight against Kubrat Pulev in November 2014 also aired on a Saturday afternoon and drew 620,000 viewers.

After Klitschko's performance against Jennings, many will start to question how much gas Klitschko has left in the tank. He turns 40 next year. Brother Vitali is 43, retired in 2012, and is now the mayor of Kiev. In his post-fight interview Klitschko seemed to acknowledge that there isn't much time left in his career when he said that Jennings will be a future star.

The biggest fight that can be made before Klitschko retires, whenever that may happen, is against the WBC Heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder. Wilder became the first American heavyweight champion in years by defeating Bermaine Stiverne in January, although no one takes the WBC Heavyweight title too seriously right now. Wilder, a former sparring partner for Klitschko, was at ringside for Klitschko-Jennings on Saturday night.

"I believe Deontay is an extremely gifted athlete," said Klitschko before the fight against Jennings. "We've sparred enough that we know each other well. I believe a unification fight is something the public wants."

Wilder is a Haymon fighter and will be debuting on Premier Boxing this year. He's marketable. Besides being skilled and American, he is unbeaten and tremendously charismatic. He has the charisma you look for in guys that have the potential to become a box office draw.

Yet, potential only indicates a possible future and not a certain one. If Wilder were to have an actual chance at becoming a real star, he would need to fight and defeat Klitschko. Even if that fight were to happen, and there are political roadblocks in the way mainly because Wilder fights for Haymon and Klitschko does not, Wilder has never faced a fighter as good as Klitschko and would go in as a serious underdog. But a charismatic American underdog beating Klitschko to win all the heavyweight titles would get a lot of attention and would possibly give Al Haymon a drawing card at heavyweight, plus control over the perceived real heavyweight champion. With Klitschko’s mediocre performance against Jennings, Wilder may have a better chance of winning than many suspect.

The HBO broadcast also included an opening bout that featured two prospects as Sadam Ali (22-0, 13KO) beat Francisco Santana (22-4-1, 11KO) via unanimous decision after ten rounds. The fight took place at welterweight. Before the bout HBO did a personality piece on Ali, 26, who is from Brooklyn and had the hometown advantage fighting in New York. He was also a 2008 Olympian.

Scores for the fight were 97-93 twice and 100-90. Santana would stalk Ali throughout the fight, keeping his hands high and pressing forward. But Ali was much faster and would land more. Santana began to tire as the bout wore on, barely winning a round. Ali looked like a real prospect and someone to keep an eye on in the welterweight division.

"I'm thrilled with my victory," said Ali. "It's a dream come true to fight here at Madison Square Garden. I'd like to fight a top ten contender in my next fight. He was a tough fighter. He hits very hard, but I was able to take his punches."

Next weekend is the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, on May 2nd. We'll have a preview of the fight sometime this week and will have coverage of the fight.