James Kirkland has, to put it lightly, faced greater adversity in his life than losing a boxing match. But that doesn't mean that Friday's comeback from a first pro loss is going to be easy.
The 27-year-old "Mandingo Warrior" from Austin, Tex., had been one of the most hyped, publicized, televised and loved of boxing's prospects during a thunderous, all-action rise through the middle ranks from 2007-2009. He turned pro initially in 2001, but lost 2004 and 2005 to a prison stint. He went back just as his star was about to get a chance to shine on the big stages, missing most of 2009 and all of 2010.
Kirkland came back on March 5 of this year, knocking out Ahsandi Gibbs in 34 seconds on the Saul Alvarez vs Matthew Hatton card in California. He returned two weeks later, stopping Jhon Berrio in the second round. And he was penciled in to feature on Golden Boy and HBO's "Action Heroes" pay-per-view card on April 9, where he would face light-punching Japanese veteran Nobuhiro Ishida.
Ishida was a no-hoper. Nobody thought he'd win -- hell, most probably expected he wouldn't last long at all. A rail thin 6'2" with all of seven stoppage wins in 30 career fights, Ishida was, as HBO's Max Kellerman put it, brought in to be cannon fodder for Kirkland. Why? Because Ishida can't punch, and even if Kirkland were still rusty, his raw power would push him through in exciting fashion.
Hell, by the end of the year, we figured Kirkland would be back in contention at either 154 or 160 pounds. His power, style, ferocity, killer closing abilities, and natural charisma would ensure that. What happened against top fighters would be another question, but Ishida was just Win #28 in trunks.
Instead, Ishida so thoroughly outclassed Kirkland in technique and skill that even without power, he was able to floor the Texan three times en route to a shocking stoppage in just 1 minute, 52 seconds.
Kirkland has been quiet since, and though he felt he wasn't hurt enough to be stopped, he didn't protest too much. What he did was go to the trainer that had helped him become a star-in-the-making, and who had also not returned to his corner after the recent prison stint.
But no matter if Ann Wolfe is back or not, it's on James Kirkland now. His chin is going to be a serious question for a long time, and if he's got a bad chin, he's got a bad chin -- period. You can protect it and defend yourself better, but that works if you're Wladimir Klitschko or Amir Khan. James Kirkland doesn't have an Olympic pedigree. James Kirkland is not a boxer first -- he's a fighter first still.
With Wolfe at his side, Kirkland returns this Friday night on Solo Boxeo Tecate, taking on veteran Dennis Sharpe (17-7-3, 4 KO), who returned to the ring this year after a four-year absence to drop fights to Peter Quillin and Deandre Latimore. Now 36, Sharpe hasn't won a fight since 2004, and since 2005 has lost to a steady stream of names who have either shut him out or knocked him out.
Sharpe isn't going to answer our questions about Kirkland. But James has to find his confidence again, and the first step is the first step. In some ways, Kirkland is right back at square one, and it will take something special to erase the memory of the night the no-punch Japanese guy obliterated him in 112 seconds. If he can find his old rhythm with Wolfe, and find his old hunger, he just might be able to do it.