The window of opportunity for any fighter to become a star player in the boxing game can be very small. The window for someone who fights like James Kirkland, chin down and fists flying, focused eyes dead set on the knockout, is even smaller.
And the window for a fighter with the style of Kirkland who also can't keep himself in the ring consistently becomes downright tiny. Somehow, James Kirkland is still here. And there's still a chance for him to become a money man in an unforgiving profession that has never smiled kindly on those who haven't been able to stay dedicated with their eyes on the prize.
On March 19, 2014, James Kirkland will turn 30. It will be an old 30. The Austin, Texas, native turned pro back in 2001 at age 17. At 19, he was convicted of armed robbery and spent two and a half years in prison. For many fighters, that would have ended their chance at ever being relevant, even given the young age. Though he'd been a good amateur, by the time he went away, he'd only faced club fighters, no real tests. There wasn't even any proof yet that this was a potential name fighter.
He returned in 2006 and picked up where he'd left off, brutalizing overmatched opponents who couldn't handle his blend of speed, power, and savage ferocity. Kirkland started to make a name for himself as an all-action mauler, one of those rare fighters who appears to truly revel in dishing out punishment.
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In November 2007, Kirkland took on Allen Conyers in a ShoBox bout that nearly turned disastrous, and instead gave us a glimpse of what James Kirkland was going to become.
Storming out of the gates like a man possessed, Kirkland smashed Conyers with a left hand almost immediately, hurting the underdog and putting his back to the wall about 10 seconds into the fight. Less than 20 seconds later, though, the wildly aggressive Kirkland walked into a right hand and found himself on the canvas. He bounced up as if nothing had happened, with the same hungry, almost empty look in his eyes, staring through referee Ray Corona's mandatory eight count as he aimed to throw himself right back into the fire.
"We're gonna learn a lot about James Kirkland right now," Showtime analyst and boxing historian Steve Farhood said.
"He's never dealt with adversity in his career," replied play-by-play man Nick Charles, "and he is having his world rocked. Conyers vowed to do this and expose Kirkland. Kirkland's gotta get his wits about him."
Mere seconds later, Kirkland's punch-out-of-trouble approach worked, as a left hand floored Conyers, who was hurt much worse than Kirkland had been. The fight continued, but not for long. Like Kirkland, Conyers tried to punch his way back into it, but he learned quickly that if it's going to be a stand-and-trade brawl, James Kirkland is damn tough to beat. You can hurt him, you can knock him down, but he's got a genuine warrior's mentality. You're going to have to knock him cold out to stop him from fighting back.
Conyers' legs went on him, and during the trades, Kirkland continued to rock Conyers, who got every chance to survive the round until he was floored again. Corona stopped the fight with four seconds remaining in round one, which was filled with so much action it could have been three Guillermo Rigondeaux fights.
Kirkland then moved over to HBO six months later in May 2008, showcased alongside Yuriorkis Gamboa and Alfredo Angulo in what was meant to be a "future stars"-hyping edition of Boxing After Dark. Kirkland and Angulo would cross paths again later, and the seed was planted on that very night. Kirkland stopped Eromosele Albert in 1:06, while Angulo bashed past Richard Gutierrez in five rounds.
After that fight, Kirkland left promoter Gary Shaw to sign with the more powerful Golden Boy Promotions. At that point, it looked like it was all onward and upward for the fighter Two more exciting wins followed, both on HBO. Fellow tough Texan Brian Vera took Kirkland into the eighth round before he was stopped, and former prospect Joel Julio lasted six in San Jose in March 2009.
He had everything going for him. A career that was on the fast track to some big money nights in the ring, a power promoter backing his play, a top-notch manager in Cameron Dunkin, and a fascinating personal story that got fans talking, largely centered on his fascinating bond with trainer Ann Wolfe, herself once one of the world's most destructive fighters.
Kirkland was scheduled to return just two months later against veteran Michael Walker as part of the Pacquiao-Hatton undercard on HBO pay-per-view, a big opportunity to fight in front of a worldwide audience. But in mid-April, he was arrested in Austin on a charge of unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.
Still on probation from the 2003 robbery, Kirkland had decided to buy a Glock after being robbed and losing about $1,800. Still in Austin, the wrong people knew Kirkland and knew that this was a guy who had some money. So he decided he wanted to protect himself. He bought the gun at a gun show. And then he was picked up.
Golden Boy went to bat for Kirkland, sticking their neck out to hopefully save a promising fighter's career, as Kirkland was facing a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The judge gave him two years, six months of which could be spent in a halfway house.
It was another blow to his momentum, but he was back again two years later.
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When he returned, he was a different man. Unfortunately, he quickly became a different fighter. Moving to Las Vegas and no longer working with Wolfe, he was trained by Kenny Adams, renowned as one of the sport's great teachers. Adams tried to tame Kirkland's raw aggression and develop his boxing skill, hoping to elongate his career as much as possible.
"You can't take an abundance of shots and continue on in the boxing world," Adams told USA Today in 2011. "If I can teach him defense and to have patience, I'll feel like I've really done something to help him have a longer career. When a guy takes a lot of shots like that, their careers are shot somewhat."
But even Adams, who had seen a lot training top amateurs and professionals, was somewhat in awe of Kirkland's power.
"This kid, let me tell you, he can punch so (expletive) hard, he could knock guys out, cold, with a punch that goes just six, eight inches," the trainer told Yahoo! Sports. "When he does the right technique, man, let me tell you, he can knock anybody out at any time."
Those comments and the accompanying redemption-themed feature pieces came just days before Kirkland's third fight under Adams' care, and his third fight in the month since he'd been back in the ring. James was set to face Nobuhiro Ishida in a showcase bout on the Morales-Maidana pay-per-view, a second-tier event being sold as a package guaranteeing excitement. (To be fair, excitement was delivered throughout the show, though few actually put down the money to watch it.)
A Japanese veteran and no more than an average fighter with no punching power, Ishida was supposed to just be another little tune-up for Kirkland, who had smashed Ahsandi Gibbs and Jhon Berrio in 34 seconds and two rounds, respectively, on March 5 and 18. But on April 9, Kirkland's career took another hit, as he was shockingly floored three times in the first round and stopped by Ishida, who was able to parlay that win into two world title shots, both of which he lost decisively to Dmitry Pirog and Gennady Golovkin in 2012 and 2013.
It was a truly stunning turn of events. Ishida, in fact, was not better than advertised. It's just that for the first time, Kirkland's outside the ring problems had truly caught up with him professionally. It was a fluky loss of sorts, but it happened because Kirkland was still not in proper fighting condition, was still terribly rusty from his second long stint away from the sport, didn't have his trainer, and just wasn't himself. Maybe the second prison stay didn't directly lead to James Kirkland losing to Nobuhiro Ishida, but the factors behind that loss could all be traced back to the same place.
Kirkland lost to a guy he shouldn't have because he wasn't ready to fight. He needed Wolfe's grueling and even inhumane training camps. He needed to be pushed like that to be the James Kirkland of old. Damn the technique and the defense, James Kirkland was built to seek and destroy. So he went back to Wolfe, who had him back in the ring in June and July, where he smashed Dennis Sharpe and Alexis Hloros as easily as he should have.
Seven months after his shocking loss to Ishida, it was time for a real test.
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It says a lot about the type of fighter James Kirkland is, that he'd travel to Mexico to face Alfredo Angulo due to Angulo being legally unable to enter the United States. The two former Shaw fighters, now both with Golden Boy, were in need of a special night to get into the race at 154 pounds. Beloved by diehard fans, they shared the same "always attack" mindset, and the fight was an instant classic on paper.
Kirkland could have taken a lot of fights for about the same money and gotten the TV spot, and he wouldn't have had to go to someone else's turf to do it. But Angulo was the right fight, and it got done. Angulo came in hot on a five-fight win streak after his own surprising upset loss in 2009 to Kermit Cintron, a former welterweight titleholder who outboxed the rugged Mexican over 12 rounds and exposed Angulo's limitations.
As expected, both men came out firing, with Kirkland pushing Angulo back to start. But it took all of 30 seconds before it appeared as though history would repeat itself, as a short counter right hand from Angulo caught Kirkland square and put him on the canvas.
Not two minutes later, having survived a big onslaught from the heavy-hitting Angulo, Kirkland charged back into the fight, attacking a weary Angulo and showing his resolve and his will to win. Angulo was down and hurt, worn flat out by his own attempts to finish off Kirkland, who refused to die this time, and couldn't be deterred.
It took five more rounds of increasingly one-sided punishment, but James Kirkland left Mexico with a career-best win, battering a fellow badass into submission. As usual with Kirkland, the shine wore off sooner than later.
Four months after the war with Angulo, Kirkland was being outboxed by the tricky Carlos Molina in Houston when referee Jon Schorle called for a DQ due to Molina's corner entering the ring before round 10 was over. Kirkland was clearly losing that fight, though he had floored Molina in that last round, and was going to go out swinging if he was indeed going out. We didn't get to discover if he'd rally for the comeback win, as he was given a victory he might not have ultimately earned.
"You were winning the fight," Ann Wolfe told Molina after the bout. Nobody was happy with how things played out that night, but once again, it was just the start of the setbacks for James Kirkland.
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Five months after the Molina fight, Kirkland was back in the news. Having turned down a big money fight with Canelo Alvarez, then accepting it, then backing out again, Kirkland decided to split away from Golden Boy, Ann Wolfe and Pops Daniels, Cameron Dunkin, and his attorney Mike Miller. Represented by Sekou Gary, the lawyer who got Yuriorkis Gamboa out of his Top Rank contract via buyout.
It was speculated at the time that Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, who was making a move to get into the boxing game, might have been involved in the move. In the long-term, it was a risky move. In the short-term, it simply meant that Kirkland was back on the sidelines, watching the boxing world go on without him. He wasn't behind bars this time, but he wasn't fighting, either.
In June of this year, Kirkland was again arrested, this time charged with assault and held on $5,000 bail. Shortly after, his latest comeback was put into motion. He signed with Jackson as his new promoter, and decided to work with trainer Bob Santos. Santos had to back out due to a scheduling conflict, however, and Kirkland went with Wolfe once more, which was probably the right idea anyway. Nobody knows Kirkland the way Wolfe does, and nobody can push him the way that she can. To have a chance at being the James Kirkland that James Kirkland can be, he needs Ann Wolfe.
On December 7, Kirkland returned to HBO airwaves for the first time in 21 months, and it was like nothing had changed. He went toe-to-toe with undefeated prospect Glen Tapia in an outrageous war of attrition, stopping the younger man in the sixth round. The two of them stole the show. Once again, James Kirkland was back.
"In order to accomplish, you have to suffer. James has done a lot of suffering," Wolfe told RingTV.com two days before the fight. "After suffering, you become pure and confident. James is a fighter and he's going to be ready.
"He understands that this is it. He knows."
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The first step was successful, but with James Kirkland, you just never know. It could be another arrest. It could be another sudden desire to part ways with Wolfe, find a new manager, find a new promoter. He's got everything going for him in terms of marketability and star quality. But James Kirkland is an enigma. Just when it seems like his career is on track, something always gets in the way.
And every time he has another setback that halts his career's momentum, the time remaining for him to cash in dwindles, and the days when he'll be cashed out grow nearer. His style isn't meant for fighting into his forties, or perhaps even his mid-thirties.
Kirkland will get opportunities as long as he's able to get in the ring and take them. He'll get chances for a little while longer because of his upside, and soon enough, the glory days (or woulda-been glory days) will have passed him by, and he'll get "chances" because he'll be something of a name still, testing prospects and hoping that a win on the pre-TV undercard stream will get back him out there when the fans are actually in the building.
Eventually, his "chances" will come when he's just a worn-out old fighter who's easy to hit but can still punch some. Better fighters than James Kirkland become sad-eyed shadows of their former selves all the time, marching down the same aisles they once walked confidently before victory, now a slow trudge into certain defeat, where the eye of the tiger may flicker for a couple of rounds, extinguished when the reality of the situation begins to take hold.
This is the last chance Kirkland may get to be a star fighter. If it doesn't work this time, where's he going to go? He's burned bridges. He's a known quantity, high-risk and at this point, purely hypothetical reward that hinges on his staying straight and dedicated to his craft. Everyone loves watching James Kirkland fight. But if he can't capitalize on what he's got going for him this time, it's hard to imagine him ever breaking through that wall. We're talking about a 30-year-old fighter who has been on major TV broadcasts for over five years now, and he's not only never won a world title, he's never even fought for one.
Kirkland is lucky to be here. He's got the physical gifts and the mental fortitude to be the star that so many have pegged him to be so many times over. It's now entirely up to him. The window is still open.