NEW YORK CITY — Wladimir Klitschko (63-3) defended his title Saturday night entering the ring to a raucous near sold out crowd of 17,056 at Madison Square Garden and staved off a spirited effort by Bryant Jennings (19-0) to defend the lineal heavyweight championship of the world.
Jennings smiled as the bell waited to gong to start the bout but the early going would provide few opportunities for levity. Challenged with finding a way past Klitschko’s difficult height and stiff jab, few opportunities beyond nominally successful body shots presented themselves for the undefeated Philadelphia fighter.
In round 3 Jennings looked to emulate former Philly great Joe Frazier and pushed forward with aggression, high guard and head movement. The effort paid slow dividends as he tried to find a way past Klitschko’s height and defense.
Jennings continued the posture in the 4th round with better success and proved he wasn’t afraid to mix it up with the devastating puncher. Klitschko met his opponent’s added intensity and began to throw with greater authority in an attempt to quell any hope the challenger might be brewing.
Round 5 saw Jennings land a few notable shots and press the champ. The spirited stanza saw Jennings jawing at the champ as he launched leaping salvos and tried to push the action.
The next round started with a sweeping hook to the body by Jennings before Klitschko started to dial in his downhill right counter. Finally getting Jenning’s attention with the stiff counters, the challenger responded with his best punch of the fight thus far, cracking Klitschko in the jaw with a right hook. The champ answered with a volley of his own as the round wound down and the crowd ate it up.
Chants of “USA” punctuated the 7th as Jennings continued to show a tenacity rare in challengers to the Klitschko throne over the last decade. Both men showed a willingness to throw big shots with each tasting the others power.
Early momentum in round 8 slipped away from Jennings as he appeared to lose some steam, while Klitschko remained steady in his output and walked to Jennings with his jab.
An arcing Jennings lead right hand connected in round 9, splattering sweat across those gathered ringside. Klitschko took the shot well, but Jennings continued to chase him around the ring landing to klitstschkos sometimes glass chin. The champ took the shots well, but relied on his trusty jab/right hand follow-up to try and mount a resurgence in the round.
The referee penalized Klitschko one point for excessive holding late in the fight, but Jennings seemed unable to press an advantage to make it a 10-8 round. Klitschko meanwhile did well sticking with his jab and fending off an occasional bum rush that an increasingly tired Jennings seemed resigned to launching more and more only to the body.
Klitschko, meanwhile, closed the show like a champion trying to put leather to Jennings. Final CompuBox stats would show the champ throwing nearly 170 more shots than the challenger, though Jennings had a slight advantage in connect percentage.
The final round saw Jennings moving backward with Klitschko hunting for a late KO and landing straight right-hand shots that seemed powerful but failed to seriously hurt his opponent.
The judges turned in cards of 116-111 twice and 118-109 to award the deserved unanimous decision to Klitschko who remains the division’s long-time top fighter. The decorated victor exited the arena slowly and paused for sometime on his way out to pose with excited fans who were energized by the opportunity to witness the heavyweight champ fighting on American soil after a seven-year absence.
Jennings, gracious in his first defeat, gets credit for an honest effort and makes a name for himself in offering one of the better challenges to the heavyweight crown in recent years.
(Photo of Jennings punching Klitschko by Elsa/Getty Images)