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Canelo vs Kirkland preview: A fight, without the 'mega'

Which James Kirkland will show up on Saturday? It's worth tuning in to find out when he faces Canelo Alvarez.

Scott Christ is the managing editor of Bad Left Hook and has been covering boxing for SB Nation since 2006.

Boxing's "Fight of the Century" is over, and there is a nasty taste in the mouths of a lot of folks -- mostly the "casual fans," of course, or even the non-fans who were suckered into the $100 pay-per-view, but some diehard fans, too, who -- even if foolishly -- expected something more from the greatest two fighters of the generation, particularly after all the hype.

What we got was not what we were sold. In boxing, that is often the case. Where was the violence? The drama? The feeling that something was truly at stake? When boxing works best, it is a visceral experience, one that captivates a viewer as two human beings do things they really shouldn't be doing to one another, showing unreal fortitude, grit, and skill under pressure. Mayweather vs Pacquiao had skill, but it also had the pace of a chess match, and a general feeling that the passion, which is key for a truly great fight, just wasn't there. The fight was business, with a torn rotator cuff.

One week later, the promise of a new day will arrive. On HBO World Championship Boxing from Minute Maid Park in Houston, Canelo Alvarez and James Kirkland will square off in a 12-round junior middleweight main event.

It's hard to tell a casual fan to tune in to another big fight a week after they were burned by Mayweather-Pacquiao. But this is one you want to see. This is one that boxing fans can genuinely recommend as a fight, not just as an must-see sporting and cultural event.

Canelo Alvarez, 24, is the biggest star in Mexican boxing right now, and arguably the third-biggest star in the sport today, behind Mayweather and Pacquiao and right there with Wladimir Klitschko. Alvarez (44-1-1, 31 KO) needs a win on Saturday in the sense that he certainly can't afford to lose. It would cost him a said to be agreed-upon fight with Miguel Cotto later this year, for one thing, and Canelo is also at the stage of his career where he's done some really impressive things, especially given his age, and there's no question he's a very good fighter, but it feels like he needs to do something truly special, particularly if he will be inheriting the throne as boxing's go-to star in the near future.

Canelo Alvarez vs Erislandy Lara, 2014 Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images

It was Alvarez who was the B-side to the last mega-mega-fight, after all, when he and Floyd Mayweather sold 2.2 million PPVs, which placed second all-time until this past weekend, and held the records for PPV revenue and live gate in Nevada, again until this past weekend. That fight was also a dud in terms of entertainment. Alvarez tried to box the master boxer, and the plan failed miserably. He was outclassed and schooled over 12 rounds, never threatening to win the fight despite having youth, power, and size in his favor.

Last year, Alvarez fought twice on Showtime pay-per-view, headlining against Alfredo Angulo and Erislandy Lara. Canelo savaged Angulo in March, and slipped past Lara in July. He's been out of the ring since then, the longest break of his professional career by far.

To Alvarez's credit, he's never avoided taking chances. When Cotto lost to Austin Trout before a proposed Canelo-Cotto fight for 2013, Alvarez demanded to face Trout, against his promoter's advice. Trout had just outfoxed Cotto at Madison Square Garden, and lacking much of a fan base, was seen as high-risk, low-reward. But that was the fight that matched the two guys who were ranked highest at 154, and that's what Canelo wanted.

It's hard to tell a casual fan to tune in to another big fight a week after they were burned by Mayweather-Pacquiao. But this is one you want to see.

After that, he demanded Mayweather, a fight that some felt he was taking on too soon (those people were ultimately proven correct). Last year, after the bounce-back against a shopworn Angulo, he faced Lara, a skilled and tricky Cuban southpaw, exactly the sort of guy that a lot of big-name fighters avoid. Lara had beaten Trout more convincingly than Alvarez did, and was now considered the No. 2 man in the division. Usually when fans or media, who come up with the subjective rankings of fighters in a sport where it's often hard to tell how good someone is versus how well they've been managed, Canelo is a star fighter and an attraction who has gambled more than once already, fighting opponents a lot of guys in his position wouldn't have fought.

This weekend, he faces a known unknown. James Kirkland (32-1, 28 KO) may show up as the vicious mauler that fight fans know and love. He may show up as the unprepared guy who got stopped in a round by unknown, light-hitting Nobuhiro Ishida. There's really no way to know for sure. Kirkland, of course, says he's ready mentally and physically, but without his longtime trainer Ann Wolfe in his corner, the oft-troubled Texan is a big question mark.

Suppose, however, we do get the version of Kirkland who is near impossible to slow down. If we do, Canelo has a major fight on his hands, and is once again taking a serious risk.

Kirkland, 31, could be lazily described as an enigma, but he's really not. It's quite simple: when James Kirkland is in shape, focused, and totally committed to his savage craft, he is a true force to be reckoned with, a fighter who evokes the spirit of a young Mike Tyson, were Tyson a 154-pound fighter. He has star qualities -- power, recklessness, determination, and a violent spirit. He's likable in interviews, and has an aura of unpredictability that makes him fun to watch. He's vulnerable in the ring at the same time as being a fearsomely destructive brawler.

James Kirkland Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

But he's never been able to hold it together for long enough to build any serious momentum. Kirkland turned pro in 2001, but was convicted of armed robbery in 2003, spending thirty months in prison as a result. He'd amassed a record of 11-0 (9 KO) on the club level, but his career was put on hold. It wouldn't be the last time.

Upon his release and return to the sport, he became a rising star. From 2006-07, Kirkland's name started picking up some traction, and a one-round war on ShoBox against Allen Conyers in November 2007 really cemented him as someone that fight fans needed to remember, a fighter whose raw aggression was worth the price of admission. He moved over to HBO in 2008 with wins over Eromosele Albert (TKO-1) and Bryan Vera (TKO-8), and clearly was being fast-tracked as a new star for not just that network, but the sport in general.

But one month after stopping former hot prospect Joel Julio in six rounds on HBO, Kirkland was arrested in April 2009 and charged with possession of a firearm by a felon. Five months later, he pleaded guilty was sentenced two two years in prison. Once again, his career was on hold, just as it was picking up steam.

Kirkland was released from prison after a year, and returned to the ring in March 2011, two years after his last fight. He had left behind the team that had helped make him who he was, chief among them trainer Ann Wolfe, a former prizefighter whose near-torturous training methods had helped mold James Kirkland such a fearless, ruthless warrior.

Training under the respected veteran Kenny Adams, Kirkland and his team set out on an ambitious plan, hoping to fight constantly in order to get the fighter back into true ring shape, and quickly return him to the upper echelon of the junior middleweight division.

A win on March 18, 2011, over Jhon Berrio, was followed by an April 9 date against Nobuhiro Ishida, part of a second-tier pay-per-view from Golden Boy Promotions. It wound up being a really memorable night of fights, partially due to the fact that the card had great action, and partially due to the fact that James Kirkland, who had once looked like a Terminator for the weight class, was dropped three times and stopped in just one minute, 52 seconds. And it wasn't against some great fighter, or even a top-level guy, or even someone known for punching power. Ishida was booked entirely because he was mildly credible but also seemingly a very safe opponent.

Kirkland and Adams parted ways, and he returned to Ann Wolfe.

James Kirkland and Ann Wolfe Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images

They picked up as if they had never left off. Kirkland shook off the loss and returned to action in June, knocking out Dennis Sharpe in 2:18. In July, he got rid of Alexis Hloros at 0:25 of the second round, after a pair of first round knockdowns. The plan that Kirkland had set in motion without Wolfe was carried out with his teacher by his side, and the loss to Ishida was treated as a stumble, nothing more.

In November of that year, Kirkland went to Cancun, Mexico, to face Alfredo Angulo, a kindred spirit if ever there was one. Like Kirkland, Angulo brought two potent fists and a reckless abandon to the ring every time he fought. The matchup was billed as a must-see war, a fight that couldn't help but be an action-packed, all-out rumble. And it lived up to those expectations. (Full Fight Video: Kirkland vs Angulo, 2011)

With the two punchers coming out and throwing heavy leather right away, Kirkland was caught flush on the chin by a right hand from Angulo, hitting the canvas. But if there were any aftershocks that brought him back to the Ishida fight, they didn't show. As "El Perro" wailed away to Kirkland's head and body, the Austin native stood his ground, blocking shots with his back to the ropes, eating up the malicious, draining effort of Angulo. With referee Johnny Callas threatening to stop the fight if Kirkland didn't show something in return, the fight turned on a dime.

Kirkland cracked Angulo back, and suddenly, he was on the offensive. Before what was happening could really sink in, it was Angulo on the canvas, exhausted and hurt, facing a return fire he wasn't expecting. Once he'd dropped Kirkland, the end seemed near. Now, he was picking himself up off the mat.

Kirkland punished Angulo for the next four and two-thirds rounds, before Callas finally called a halt to the brutality at 1:58 of round six, giving James Kirkland a big win on the road against a fighter who refused to quit, even as "The Mandingo Warrior" threw everything in his arsenal at him. It was a marquee win for James Kirkland. He was truly back in the mix. And once again, right when everything looked like it was going his way, things took a turn for the worse.

Four months after beating Angulo, Kirkland was matched with scrappy Carlos Molina, a light-punching but resourceful fighter who could be glowingly described as a pest. Hard to hit clean and hard to keep under pressure, Molina flustered Kirkland through nine rounds, and led on two judges' scorecards, 88-83 and 87-84. (The third judge, Gale Van Hoy, had Kirkland up 86-85, but Van Hoy has been a walking meme as a boxing judge for years.)

In the 10th round, Kirkland went into the reserve tanks to try and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. He dropped Molina at the very end of the round, and Molina was disqualified when his corner entered the ring after the bell, but during referee Jon Schorle's count. The call was seen as incredibly controversial, and Wolfe even told Molina in the ring, "You were winning," before giving him a sympathetic hug. "Always something in Texas," HBO's Jim Lampley said on the air.

Before he could return to the ring, Kirkland then entered into a drawn-out dispute where he was suing just about everyone he could: Golden Boy Promotions, Wolfe, co-trainer Pops Billingsley, and managers Mike Miller and Cameron Dunkin. Miller, on behalf of himself, Dunkin, Wolfe, and Billingsley, also sued Kirkland, claiming their deal with the fighter was valid. He claimed that his promoters, managers, and trainers did not have his best interests at heart.

Whatever the issue was that time was never made totally clear. Kirkland was being targeted to face Canelo Alvarez in September 2012 before filing the lawsuit, and once again, his career was put on ice.

Canelo Alvarez Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Three years later, we've got that fight. Kirkland last fought in December 2013, when he appeared on a Top Rank-promoted card on HBO, beating up on Glen Tapia and looking much like his old self again in a sixth-round stoppage victory. He was promoted that night by Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson's SMS Promotions, and is still with the company, which has to date failed to make any serious impact in the boxing world.

Even though he's not old, James Kirkland's future prospects may be riding on the outcome of this fight. He doesn't even have to win, necessarily, but show up, look like the James Kirkland that made people take notice eight years ago, and at least give Alvarez a run for his money. If he can provide entertainment in defeat, and appear to be a determined, dangerous fighter still, his stock will go up. And if he wins? Then he's going to be a star, at least in the short term.

So why is Kirkland once again training without Ann Wolfe? Wolfe doesn't know. "I was waiting for him to call me to train. Somebody said he was in San Antonio, he's gonna get somebody else to train. I wasn't given a reason at all," she told HBO recently.

And Kirkland doesn't feel like answering. "You keep asking about Ann it's kinda frustrating the shit out of me, I don't wanna get upset about it," he said to the HBO cameras, cutting off the question.

This is not an opponent that Alvarez can afford to overlook, but the good news there is that Canelo doesn't seem to overlook any opponents. He takes tough fights, he prepares for them, and outside of his belly flop game plan against Floyd Mayweather, he's shown he's got the goods that back up the adulation and the hype.

Earlier this week, knowing that fight fans had just had their balloon deflated by the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, Kirkland told the media, "You wanted a combat fight. You wanted a fight with aggression. You wanted a fight where both men may be bleeding. You wanted a fight where people get battered and bruised. This is what you're gonna get May 9th."

James Kirkland is not a fighter who merely promises action. But we can confidently speculate that Canelo Alvarez will be 100% ready. The question is, will Kirkland?

"When James has his mind set on doing something, he's dangerous. Especially if he has somebody who knows how to get that dog out of him," his former trainer Wolfe says. For Kirkland's sake, he better hope new trainer Rick Morones Jr and strength and conditioning coach Bremond "Bay Bay" McClinton have been up to the task in truly preparing him for the biggest fight of his career, and that on fight night, Morones doesn't prove overmatched.

Nothing in boxing is ever for sure, and with James Kirkland's turbulent career, that is taken to an extreme. But given what he can do in the ring when he's at his best, this is a gamble worth taking as a viewer. If last weekend you were left yearning for ferocity and fireworks, Canelo-Kirkland might be what you need.

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