Bryant Jennings faces Alexander Dimitrenko, eyes title shot in near future

Bryant Jennings, left, is looking for another title opportunity, but first he needs to take care of business against Alexander Dimitrenko on Saturday. Mikey Williams/Top Rank

Heavyweight contender Bryant Jennings has fought for a world title, losing a decision to then-champion Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 but giving him as good of a fight as anyone in years in what turned out to be Klitschko's final title defense before he was upset by Tyson Fury in his next bout.

Jennings, as confident as boxers come, believes he will eventually get another chance to fight for the big prize.

"Yes. That there is simple. It's a simple belief, not a simple task," Jennings said firmly when asked by ESPN this week if he thought he'd get another title shot. "[Titleholders Anthony] Joshua and [Deontay] Wilder are looking pretty good right now. Of course, there are still some holes, but their strengths are pretty good right now. But I definitely believe that the only thing that could get in the way is politics, but I'm with the most consistent promoter (Top Rank) in boxing history, so I would think I'm on the good side right now to not get stopped by obstacles that the politics would set me back on.

"So I think that I'm in a good spot and in a good place with good people, and I just think that my chances to at least fight for another heavyweight championship is definitely in the near future."

Perhaps Jennings will get that chance in the near future, but first he will have to address what is in his immediate future: a 12-round fight with Alexander Dimitrenko.

They will meet Saturday night in the main event of the Top Rank Boxing on ESPN card at Ovation Hall at the newly opened Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The main card on ESPN and ESPN Deportes will begin at 10 p.m. ET; the entire card will stream live on ESPN+ beginning at 7 p.m. ET.

After Jennings fell to Klitschko, he lost a second fight in a row when he suffered a seventh-round knockout to then-undefeated top contender Luis "King Kong" Ortiz. After that fight, Jennings went idle for 20 months, but not because he had lost his talent or zest for combat. It was due to a contract beef with his former promoter.

In mid-2017, Jennings became a free agent and returned after signing with Top Rank, whose chairman, Bob Arum, has had a good relationship for many years with Jennings manager James Prince.

Since returning to the ring, Jennings has won four fights in a row, albeit against lesser opposition, including a lopsided decision against friendly Philly rival Joey Dawejko on April 28.

Despite the layoff and lack of big fights since his return, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Jennings (23-2, 13 KOs), 33, said it has not in any way cooled his desire for boxing.

"If you're not hungry, you don't eat. And if you don't eat, then you starve. If you starve, then you die. And I want to live," Jennings said. "I'm hungry. I didn't eat. I need to eat."

When Arum was planning Jennings' fight on Saturday, it was originally supposed to come against former world titlist Joseph Parker. Arum, Parker's co-promoter, said he had made a deal with co-promoter David Higgins of Duco Events but that Higgins reneged. Higgins denied that, but Parker nonetheless is not fighting Jennings. Parker instead fought contender Dillian Whyte in London on July 28 and lost a 12-round decision in a slugfest.

"If you're not hungry, you don't eat. And if you don't eat, then you starve. If you starve, then you die. And I want to live. I'm hungry. I didn't eat. I need to eat." Bryant Jennings

Jennings, meantime, will face Dimitrenko, who is lower in the heavyweight pecking order than Parker but still a step up in competition for Jennings compared to anyone else he has faced in his comeback.

The 6-foot-7, 255-pound Dimitrenko (41-3, 26 KOs), 36, a Russia native fighting out of Germany, has won three fights in a row since a third-round knockout loss to Parker in October 2016. Dimitrenko, who will be fighting in the United States for the second time, also lost the other two times he stepped up to fight a top-level opponent, both against former world title challengers: an 11th-round knockout to Kubrat Pulev in 2012 and a 12-round majority decision to the much smaller Eddie Chambers in 2009.

Jennings, who owns wins against then-unbeaten contenders Artur Szpilka and Mike Perez as well as former world titleholder Sergey Liakhovich and Andrey Fedosov, said he is not paying attention to Dimitrenko's losses.

"I'm expecting him to come out better than he did in his previous fights. I expect him to have the will to win, wanting to establish his name and his legacy."

Just as Jennings has goals and dreams, so too does Dimitrenko.

"This is a great opportunity for me. I'm here to win this fight," he said. "I'm 36, and I have big plans. I want to win this fight. I look forward to make this fight and to show what I can.

"It is very important for me to be here, to fight live on ESPN against Jennings. I will do anything to win this fight. I am here to win this fight. I prepared myself very well. It's an honor to fight here in America. Everybody watching will get a great show. Saturday night can't come soon enough. I am ready to fight."

Jennings would have preferred to be facing Parker because he has a much bigger reputation than Dimitrenko, but he also knows it was out of his hands.

"I'm here to win this fight. I'm 36, and I have big plans. I want to win this fight. I look forward to make this fight and to show what I can." Alexander Dimitrenko

"It definitely would have been a more meaningful fight, definitely a bigger name and would have put me up a lot higher than what a win Saturday night will put me. So, yes, of course Joseph Parker would have been a better fight, but the fact is that I didn't fight him, and I'm fighting Dimitrenko now, it is what it is," Jennings said.

So even though Jennings is a tremendous favorite against Dimitrenko -- whereas a fight with Parker would have been much closer to a toss-up -- Jennings said he knows he has to win to get where he wants to go and that just winning isn't just enough.

"The fact that Parker stopped him in the third and the fact that Pulev stopped him in the 11th, that doesn't put more pressure on me to make sure I stop him in the second because this game has its ups and downs. Anything can happen," Jennings said. "So the one thing I want to make sure that I do is secure the win and look good doing it."

And if Jennings does that, he figures things will work out for him.

"I'm just grateful for the opportunity, grateful for the consistent fighting schedule. I'm just looking to win and climb the heavyweight ladder," he said. "I let everything fall into place once the results come in."

In the co-feature, Philadelphia super middleweight contender Jesse Hart (24-1, 20 KOs), 29, aiming for a rematch of his only loss to world titlist Gilberto "Zurdo" Ramirez in an action-packed fight last September, will take on Mike Gavronski (24-2-1, 15 KOs), 32, of Tacoma, Washington, in a scheduled 10-round bout. A Ramirez-Hart rematch is a strong possibility for later this year if Hart is victorious.

In the top bout on the ESPN+ stream of the preliminary fights, 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist Shakur Stevenson (7-0, 4 KOs), 21, of Newark, New Jersey, and one of boxing's elite prospects, will have his first professional fight in his home state when he takes on Carlos Ruiz (16-4-2, 6 KOs), 25, of Mexico, in an eight-round featherweight bout.