NEW YORK -- The heavyweight championship of the world made its triumphant return to the United States on Saturday night at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Here are five things we learned from Wladimir Klitschko’s unanimous decision victory over Bryant Jennings.
1. A heavyweight title fight at MSG is still a big deal
“The World’s Most Famous Arena” and the prize that for years was called the biggest in all of sports reunited and it felt so good. Klitschko’s first fight since 2008 in both the United States and Madison Square Garden brought with it that big-time fight atmosphere. Considering the storied marriage between the sweet science and the arena at the intersection of Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street, Saturday’s title fight fit right in perfectly. It had all the pageantry a major fight could want during the ring walks and national anthems. And both fighters fought hard in a tough, tactical fight.
2. New York City welcomed Klitschko with open arms
Klitschko had been playing exclusively to large and adoring crowds throughout Europe for the past seven years. But his return to MSG was exciting and demonstrative enough to erase any lingering memories from his sleep-inducing 2008 title unification bout against Sultan Ibragimov. More importantly, Klitschko proved that he can still draw a huge crowd in the U.S. by selling out the big room at MSG, which is no small feat. The Garden was filled with Ukrainian flags and was rocking from the moment Klitschko entered the arena to his customary track of “Can’t Stop” by Red Hot Chili Peppers to the final bell. Despite facing an unbeaten American, Klitschko was treated by the MSG faithful as the home fighter.
3. Jennings impressed in just about every category
Despite Jennings’ unbeaten record coming in and his reputation as a Philadelphia fighter, one would have been hard-pressed to find any experts predicting he would have lasted the distance, let alone given Klitschko the legitimately hard push he was able to. But full credit to Jennings for not providing Klitschko any open lanes to park his monster right hand. Jennings’ greatest skill on this night may have been his motor, which mixed with his strong defensive effort, meant he was going to be a problem for Klitschko for the entire 12 rounds. Jennings’ constant pressure late lowered Klitschko’s output and made it a competitive fight.
4. ... and he did so by being different
The majority of Klitschko’s recent opponents did nothing to prepare him for Jennings, who brought the kind of athleticism that the heavyweight champion simply doesn’t often see. Jennings was awkward and raw enough to keep Klitschko honest and quick enough to close the gap with well-timed rushes. But if not for his defense and the confidence with which he executed his game plan, Jennings never would have seen the final bell. This was a far cry from the version of Jennings who escaped with a shaky split-decision win over Mike Perez in his previous fight. Jennings took full advantage of his opportunity and elevated himself in the process.
5. Sadam Ali added toughness to his skill set
We knew the unbeaten welterweight had the flashy footwork and quick hands. He even showed us during his breakthrough stoppage victory over Luis Carlos Abregu last November that he’s got some sneaky pop, too. But Ali was forced to showcase his backbone in a hard-fought unanimous decision win over a determined Francisco Santana. Despite the scores being wider (100-90, 97-93 twice) than most ringside observers believed, Ali stood strong amid constant pressure. Ali’s chin stood up well from being rocked by a flurry of Santana hooks during a brief firefight in Round 8. And the Brooklyn native proved his class as a rising contender by landing the cleaner shots throughout, hurting Santana in the final round and utilizing movement to stay out of trouble.