Title shot at stake in Jennings-Perez

Pair of unbeaten heavyweights square off in Saturday's showdown in New York

Originally Published: July 11, 2014
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

Undefeated heavyweight contenders Mike Perez and Bryant Jennings were just two weeks away from their world title elimination fight scheduled for May 24 in Corpus Christi, Texas, when Perez injured his left shoulder in a sparring session.

Perez was forced to withdraw, the card was canceled and nobody quite knew when it would be rescheduled. Perez, of course, was injured and disappointed. Jennings, through no fault of his own, had seen his biggest opportunity become delayed for an unknown length of time.

"That's where my mental strength kicked in because, like I say, I could've broke down," Jennings said. "We had used money for training and I was away from my son for two months. It almost seemed like it was for nothing. It definitely was a letdown, but I really didn't dwell on it because, obviously, I'm still alive, I'm still here and the cancellation didn't come at my expense.

"In other words, I wasn't the one that was hurt or injured or whatever, so it didn't come at my expense so that's pressure that I didn't have to deal with. I was like, hey, it's life. Learn how to deal with it. I got over it real fast. I stayed in shape and just waited patiently and put faith in my team that they'd come up with something and they came up with something fast."

That's exactly what happened. Perez's injury was not severe and the fight was quickly rescheduled for Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York.

"Thank God I feel better," Perez said. "There will be no problem there, so it's 100 percent. I can't wait to fight."

Middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin (29-0, 26 KOs) of Kazakhstan will make his 11th defense when he squares off with former unified titlist Daniel Geale (30-2, 16 KOs) of Australia in the main event, but there is nearly as much at stake in the heavyweight fight.

The winner of the fight is guaranteed a mandatory shot at the winner of the bout between world titleholder Bermane Stiverne and current mandatory challenger Deontay Wilder. They are likely to meet in the fall with the winner obligated to face the Perez-Jennings victor next.

Both Jennings and Perez have come a long way in a relatively short period of time to be on the doorstep of challenging for a world title.

The 29-year-old Jennings (18-0, 10 KOs), of Philadelphia, has been a pro for only five years and had a limited amateur career. But he's an excellent athlete and had a breakout year in 2012 when he fought five fights on national television against a series of solid opponents, which gave him valuable experience and helped him gain a bit of a following.

Although a change of promoters made for a disappointing 2013 -- Jennings had just one fight -- he began 2014 with a bang, making his HBO debut with an impressive 10th-round knockout of previously undefeated Artur Szpilka.

Now Jennings, who continues to hold a day job (although he took a leave of absence to train), is one win away from fighting for a world title. He said he is not allowing himself to think ahead.

"Well, I'm not even looking at that," Jennings said. "Knowing this boxing game nowadays, anything could happen, and I'm almost certain that something [will].

[+] EnlargeMike Perez
Will Hart/K2 PromotionsHeavyweight Mike Perez is looking to put the aftermath of his November bout with Magomed Abdusalamov behind him once and for all.

"They could come up with something and say, well, we've got to squeeze this person in or you've got to fight this person first before you do that so I've just literally focused on this fight. This fight here is the fight to win in order to even think about the long wait or any other thing, and that Wilder and Stiverne fight."

Perez (20-0-1, 12 KOs), a 28-year-old southpaw, was a standout amateur in Cuba before fleeing on a speedboat to Mexico and eventually settling in Ireland. He had his first major fight in November, when he made his HBO debut against fellow undefeated opponent Magomed Abdusalamov.

It was a rock 'em, sock 'em slugfest in which both men took a lot of punishment. While Perez won the grueling 10-round decision, he didn't have much time to savor it. Abdusalamov suffered a severe brain injury, spent a month in a coma and is now in a rehabilitation center. While he is making progress, he will never be the same and still is unable to walk or talk.

Abdusalamov's injury strongly affected Perez, but he and his handlers thought the best thing for him was to get back into the ring as quickly as possible to try to put that fight behind him. He returned a little over two months later to face Carlos Takam in Montreal. After dedicating the fight to Abdusalamov, Perez and Takam battled to a 10-round draw in what was a disappointing performance from Perez, who didn't look anything like the ferocious fighter who had faced Abdusalamov.

Understandably, Perez does not like to talk about the fight with Abdusalamov, especially with Saturday's fight being in the same venue, although he will fight Jennings in the Garden main arena and the Abdusalamov bout took place in the Garden's smaller Theater.

"I'm just concentrating on this fight," Perez said. "This is the fight that's going to change my life, this one moment that I'm working for. What happened with the [Abdusalamov] fight, it happened. I appreciate it if nobody asks any questions because I don't want to talk about that. Mago's doing good and I've been asking about him. That's in the past.

"I just concentrate on the fight with Jennings and this is what I worry about, to go out and do my thing, and that's it. Please, I don't want to talk about the Magomed fight. That happened and that's it."

One thing Perez and his promoter, K2 Promotions' Tom Loeffler, believe is that Perez fought too quickly after the tragedy.

"I don't think there was enough time [between fights]," Perez said. "I just fight like 80 days, 70 days [later]. I just fight in November and then I fight in January again. So this is what I think of that. I think that I mentally was not ready for that."

[+] EnlargeBryant Jennings
Will Hart/K2 PromotionsDespite picking up the sport late, Bryant Jennings has used his athleticism and toughness to become arguably the best young American heavyweight.

Added Loeffler, "I agree with Mike. In hindsight, it was probably too quick to bring him back. I was anxious to put him back on HBO as quickly as possible, and it seemed prior to the fight everything was fine, but you could see probably in the performance he was a little bit slack. Now that he has had some time off and he has worked with [new trainer] Adam [Booth] for a number of months now, I think you'll see a different Mike Perez coming in [Saturday]."

Jennings, like Perez, will be aiming to secure the elusive world title shot.

"Look, the only fight that counts right now is this fight," said Gary Shaw, Jennings' co-promoter. "And anybody looking past this fight is a foolish person and that goes for the promoters and the fighters and the trainers. They need to win this fight, obviously.

"After this fight, the winner will then have the opportunity to worry about what's next, whether it's the winner of Stiverne and Wilder or one of them pulls out with an injury, whether it be real or fake. There's a lot going on, but nothing counts other than [Saturday]."

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