Over the last few years, particularly in the United States, the heavyweight division has been the trembling neurotic of prizefighting. Who knows how best to treat it: Primal scream therapy or psychotropic drugs? Nothing seems to work. Even so, HBO takes another chance with the dreadnoughts when Mike “The Rebel” Perez and Bryant “By-By” Jennings face off as the chief support to Golovkin-Geale tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden. Although Perez has been on HBO twice, Jennings, an American, likely has the network brass crossing their fingers on his behalf.
Since Wladimir Klitschko gobsmacks the U.S. viewing public every time his octopus act is broadcast here, there seems to be no real endgame in showcasing a handful of heavyweights every three or four months on premium cable. And with Deontay Wilder part of the Haymon Axis, where do fighters like Jennings and Perez go? A shot at Klitschko seems counterproductive to all involved, from Jennings to Perez—both likely anesthesia victims of “Dr. Steelhammer”—to HBO and, yes, the paying public. With Bermane Stiverne and Alex Povetkin holding two slices of the rotten sanctioning body pie, are HBO and Showtime looking to operate parallel universes within the heavyweight division—the same way they do with the rest of boxing?
Perez and Jennings are ostensibly fighting for the right to face Stiverne, who owns the WBC trinket, but given how whimsical the sanctioning bodies are, there is always the possibility that Perez and Jennings will be bypassed regardless of the fact that this bout has been billed as an “eliminator.” Stiverne, whose first defense is supposedly against heavyweight x-factor Deontay Wilder, has also attracted the covetous eye of Stephen Espinoza at Showtime. (If Don King can hold on to Stiverne, he is unlikely to join a network that does not have a connection to Wladimir Klitschko, who is the International Monetary Fund of boxing in Europe.) Despite the usual press release palaver, in fact, it looks like Stiverne and Wilder are tiptoeing around each other like cat burglars who stumbled across each other after midnight in the same jewelry store. Guarantees are as hard to come by in boxing as they are in a game of three-card Monte. Even if you pick the right card, you will likely get only a block or two with your winnings before you get rolled by a lookout.
On its own, Perez-Jennings ought to be a bruising scrap for as long as it lasts. Like “Rabbit” Angstrom, Jennings, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was a standout athlete in high school, but it takes more than desire and imagination to make a world-class heavyweight. At 29, Jennings has limited experience both as a pro and as an amateur. But Jennings is not Seth Mitchell, who went as far as a chin with more tinkle in it than a glass menagerie could take him, and seems sturdy enough to withstand a thunderous combination. But Jennings has two bad habits that Perez, 28, is likely to exploit tomorrow night: first, he tends to cover up for extended periods in center ring, and, second, he tends to cover up for extended periods along the ropes. Because Perez likes to run off extended sequences of shots, Jennings seems destined to be on the defensive for long stretches during the bout.
Perez, originally from Ciego de Avila but now living in Cork, Ireland, is also busier on the inside, where Jennings is as likely to clinch as he is to throw punches. A straight-up plodder on the perimeter, Perez weaves in the trenches in order to catch fighters between shots, and Jennings is often sloppy with his punches at close range. But with a wingspan as wide as that of some condors, Jennings ought to be able to keep Perez at bay with his jab and then come over the top with a right cross and a clean-up left hook. Perez, 20-0-1 (12), is fairly stationary and compounds this flaw by dropping his hands, especially after pawing with his right. Jennings will have his chances to connect against a fighter who has never fared quite as good as his pedigree suggests he ought to.
After his tragic brawl against Magomed Abdusalamov last November, Perez returned to the ring only two months later and looked jaded in mauling to a draw against Carlos Takam. Perez lacked spark against Takam and speculation that he may have been irrevocably altered by the nightmare result of the Abdusalamov fight began instantaneously. But Abdusalamov was a compromised fighter early against Perez that sad night at The Theater. The fact that Perez “looked good” against him may be the byproduct of injury—one far worse than anyone knew at the time. Although Perez, a southpaw with a busy jab, was a fine amateur in Cuba, his work as a pro has been mediocre. Before making his name last year in New York City, Perez was probably best known for two strange quirks: he fought twice in one night on a card in Limerick in 2010, and he fought three times in one night to win the Prizefighter tournament—one step up from “Thunderbox”—in London. Incredibly, 25 percent of his victories have come in just two days.
Has Jennings learned enough in five short years to fend off a man with a record inferior to his own? Can Perez perform better than he did against Takam? Will Stiverne and Wilder ever actually meet and make this “elimination” fight legitimate? Does everyone need a straitjacket in the heavyweight division?