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Out to be best, spar none

Jennings on fast track in heavyweight division

JUST ABOUT A year ago what many fighters would consider a golden opportunity presented itself to North Philadelphia heavyweight Bryant Jennings and his manager-trainer, Fred Jenkins.

And they passed.

"I got a phone call asking if we had passports and would be interested in going to Europe so Bryant could be a sparring partner for one of the Klitschkos, I can't remember which one," Jenkins was saying recently at the Athletic Recreation Center at 26th and Master, the gritty city-run facility in North Philly where Jennings, the IBF's fifth-ranked heavyweight, trains.

"It was something that would have paid very well and, I won't kid you, we could have used the money. But Bryant and I talked it over and we agreed that we didn't want to go over there to be anybody's sparring partner. We want to fight those guys for real, with a world championship on the line."

Jennings (15-0, 7 KOs), who swaps punches with Bowie Tupou (22-2, 16 KOs) in the NBC Sports Network-televised main event on Saturday at Pearson/McGonigle Hall on the Temple campus, confirmed that he didn't want to help another fighter, even a Klitschko, get in practice for a bout with someone else.

"America hasn't had a legitimate heavyweight contender in a long time," said Bryant, 28, the former three-sport standout at Ben Franklin High who gravitated toward boxing, almost by accident, at the advanced age of 24.

"Everybody knows that the Klitschkos [older brother Vitali, 41, is the WBC champ; Wladimir, 36, reigns in the IBF, WBA, WBO and IBO] aren't going to be around forever. A lot of ranked heavyweights seem content to wait until they're gone before they try to scoop up one of the vacant titles. But what will people say then? 'Well, you have a belt, but you didn't beat a Klitschko. You didn't even want to try to beat a Klitschko.'

"My feeling was, and still is, that if I ever get the chance to fight one of those guys, I'd fight them hard. And I wouldn't go in there expecting to lose. To be great, you have to dare to be great."

Such audacity would be semi-outrageous coming from someone with a far more extensive and accomplished boxing background. Coming as it does, though, from a relative neophyte who as recently as December 2008 hadn't had even one amateur fight, and was a virtual unknown in the pro ranks at the time Jenkins fielded that telephone call from Europe, it is an almost incomprehensible display of confidence. Just who is Bryant "Bye Bye" Jennings, and how did he go from being just another wannabe to the "best American heavyweight prospect," as judged by no less an authority than five-time trainer of the year Freddie Roach, at something akin to warp speed?

Well, a fortuitous string of dominoes had to fall just right for Jennings. And they have. Don't think for a second that the 6-3, 225-pounder with the chiseled six-pack abs isn't cognizant of the fact that he is holding a lottery ticket that keeps getting cashed.

"You do think about the what-ifs," Jennings said. "What if I hadn't gotten that fight against [Maurice] Byarm on national TV? Or the one against [former WBO heavyweight titlist Sergei] Liakhovich? Maybe I'd still get to where I am now, but the process would have taken a lot longer. I know I've been very fortunate."

Fortunate? It must not have seemed that way back in 2002, when Jennings, a Daily News third-team All-City defensive lineman as a senior, said that for a variety of reasons he didn't receive recruiting materal from Division I teams.

As Jennings tells it, his mother and then his father had "left the scene," leaving him, unbeknownst to Ben Franklin officials, to fend for himself. With his actual home address not on file, inquiries from college football programs fell through the cracks.

"I think everything happens for a reason," Jennings said. "There's no point in dwelling on the things in the past. Yesterday is gone. All you have is today, and the hope of a better tomorrow. But I will say this: If I had gone on to play football in college, I believe I'd be in the NFL right now."

Jennings toiled at real-world jobs - he still has one, as a mechanic - until Dec. 28, 2008, when, for the second time, he stuck his head inside the door of Jenkins' gym. His first experience there, as a sixth-grader, hadn't gone well, Jennings having decided after a week that boxing wasn't his thing.

But as a mature 24-year-old, Jennings exhibited traits that Jenkins immediately recognized could stamp him as something special.

"I told him to give me one [round] on every bag," Jenkins said. "I got 16 to 18 bags in here. I figured there was no way he'd make it all the way through. But an hour later, he was still at it. I said, 'I told you to do one round on every bag. Shouldn't you be done by now?' He said, 'Coach, I decided to do two rounds on each. Besides, I'm not tired yet.'

"It's not often you get someone with that kind of raw talent and inexhaustible energy. You hardly ever see that in a heavyweight."

Jennings' first big break came when Eddie Chambers, who was to have fought Liakhovich in the first NBC Sports Network "Fight Night" main event last Jan. 21, withdrew after fracturing two ribs during training. In the reconstituted marquee bout, after Liahkhovich dropped out, Jennings - stepping in on short notice - scored a 10-round unanimous decision over Byarm for the vacant Pennsylvania heavyweight championship. That led to another NBC Sports Network shot on March 24 against Liakhovich, whom Jennings stopped in nine rounds. He has since added two more impressive victories, against Steve Collins (for the vacant USBA heavyweight title) and Chris Koval, and his USBA belt will be on the line against the dangerous Tupou, from Los Angeles by way of his native Tonga.

Further down the road, who knows? Maybe it'll be a dream shot at a Klitschko.

"This kid punches like Joe Louis, throws a left hook like Joe Frazier and moves like Muhammad Ali," Jenkins said. "I think he can be the best heavyweight ever to come out of Philadelphia.

"From their standpoint, the Klitschkos should try to fight Bryant sooner rather than later. My guy is still learning. No one is going to want to fight him once he really masters his craft."