Erik Morales and Danny Garcia are the main event on Saturday night in Houston, with HBO televising the Golden Boy double-header, but perhaps more intriguing and more relevant to the current boxing landscape is the co-feature undercard fight between 154-pound contenders James Kirkland and Carlos Molina.
Both Kirkland and Molina are solid action fighters who figure to have an exciting bout, and the winner is truly in the title mix in the junior middleweight division, which at this point is loaded with talent but not seeing much by way of "the best fighting the best." This fight alone changes that somewhat, and with many of the top fighters at the weight wanting to distinguish themselves, it could be the precursor to the floodgates opening in terms of getting matchups between top guys.
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Kirkland (30-1, 27 KO) is coming off of a career-saving effort in November, when he survived a hard first round knockdown to storm back and beat the living hell out of Alfredo Angulo on the road in Mexico. Once Angulo punched himself out later that round, Kirkland took over, and what he did to make Angulo punch himself out may have been the most promising thing about his performance.
As Angulo recklessly unloaded rights and lefts in an effort to finish off the ferocious but highly vulnerable Kirkland, the Austin, Texas, native kept his cool, played some very nice defense, and made Angulo miss a lot more than he connected. It was a moment where it seemed like something really clicked or came together for Kirkland. Rattled and down, less than seven months after his stunning TKO-1 loss to Nobuhiro Ishida, Kirkland had the movie slow-motion moment. It was like everything stopped for him, and he could see Angulo's shots coming. Angulo, of course, isn't tricky even when he's trying to be, and he wasn't trying to be.
But watching Kirkland pick off and avoid those shots is really something on a second or third (or more) viewing of the fight. He took control not when he floored Angulo in response that round, but when he was backed against the ropes and surviving with a cool and calm demeanor, one that wouldn't normally fit a fighter his style, or anyone in the predicament it appeared that he was in.
Seven months earlier, without Ann Wolfe in his corner or preparing him to fight, Kirkland looked a wreck against Ishida. He was off-balance, out of shape, and just not himself. He couldn't avoid punches, couldn't take them, and couldn't do much of anything with a tall, lanky guy he figured to blow through. If Kirkland is impressive tomorrow, that loss to Ishida may have been the best thing that's happened to him in his pro career. He's a limited fighter, but he's always had money upside entirely because he fights the way he does. His fearless all-offense approach, honed by one of the most colorful and interesting characters in all of boxing, comes from a torturous training regimen led by Wolfe.
Nothing summed up the Wolfe-Kirkland partnership and attitude than a quote from Ann in the interim between the Ishida loss and the Angulo win. As Golden Boy set out to softly rebuild their damaged Kirkland brand, Wolfe grew impatient:
"Eventually, he's going to have to fight somebody who's in the top five," Wolfe said. "We're ready now. Show be tell. He's going to be bigger than what he was before he lost. It's truly like, 'We want to kill something,' and they want to give us meat that's already dead. A real predator don't want no cooked meat. You keep feeding a damn lion meat out of the refrigerator, it's gonna lose its predatory instincts. We want something raw, with its eyeballs looking at us, so we can kill it and eat it."
Molina (19-4-2, 6 KO) doesn't have the prettiest record, but anyone who has seen him fight can tell you this: He's a quality pressure fighter, a clever and crafty boxer, and his record does not reflect his ability. This is a very good matchup between two guys with an argument to be in the division's top five (Bad Left Hook as Molina fourth, Kirkland sixth). Both are 28 and in their prime days, but there are some key differences that seem to give one man the edge.
Stylistically, this matchup favors the stronger Kirkland. Molina wins with volume, with accuracy, and by wearing out his opponents. He takes a very good shot, and while Kermit Cintron isn't anything to write home about, Molina effectively ruined his "comeback" attempt with a one-sided beating last July on Showtime. That fight followed his draw in March against Erislandy Lara, which was Molina's first fight in almost two years after promotional issues. Most felt that Molina deserved the win that night. After that, he jumped right back in on April 29, beating Allen Conyers on another edition of Friday Night Fights.
Unfortunately for Carlos, he probably looked "too good" against Cintron, and in retrospect (after Lara was robbed against Paul Williams), against Lara, too. He hasn't fought since beating Cintron so badly that Top Rank cut ties with the Puerto Rican, and eventually had to resort to finding work as a sparring partner just to pay the bills. This is an absurd reality of modern boxing, where Molina isn't hooked up with a glory promoter and thus, we had a top five junior middleweight working as a sparring partner just to get by, because nobody wanted to fight him. Meanwhile, Cintron wound up with a bogus title shot in November, where he predictably was no challenge for Canelo Alvarez.
So here he is, once again an underdog, being used by a major promoter in the hopes that he'll lose to their guy. And even though Molina is very good, this one is a big ask of him. What he's good at could be a problem for Kirkland, and probably would have resulted in a TKO-1 win for Molina if this were the non-Wolfe version of James.
But this is the real James Kirkland again, and while he's vulnerable, he also loves to dig in and fight close, and he just hits a whole lot harder than Molina does.
Maybe we're overestimating Kirkland again, ignoring his flaws in favor of his great and very alluring strengths. Simply put, boxing benefits from fighters like James Kirkland, or at least the James Kirkland of our cloudless daydreams. There is a chance that Molina can hang in there and outbox Kirkland, but even if he can survive Kirkland's power, will he do enough telling work to sway the judges? Kirkland isn't going to get so discouraged that he stops throwing punches. He's not Kermit Cintron. Even when nothing worked against Ishida, he just kept marching back into the trenches and getting put on his ass, because that's how he fights and what he knows.
This is must-win for both. Another loss won't kill Kirkland's career, because he'll still have Golden Boy and his TV-friendly style working for him, but it'll damage him as a top guy and take him out of the potential title scene. A loss for Molina would be a huge blow -- he doesn't have the structure around his career to pick and choose, so he has to take risks like this one, and if he doesn't capitalize on the "opportunity," then he's still going to be too good for most guys to want to fight, and finding another truly good fight could be a huge uphill climb.
As awful as it is to say this already, the best possible result for Molina here might be a debatable loss. Or maybe he'll just take Kirkland apart with well-timed counters that put him down over and over, the way Ishida did. James Kirkland has already taught us to never count anyone out, even James Kirkland. Don't ignore Molina here by any means, but the pick is James Kirkland via TKO-7.