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James: The Last Big Chance for a Would-Be Star

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For a man as unruly as Kirkland, Canelo Alvarez is the forbidden fruit.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine a guy like James Kirkland existing in the real world, hard to imagine him occupying a non-violent, pacifistic space with any degree of success. The word throwback is used too often when it comes to boxing, but in Kirkland’s case you get the sense that fighting is all he cares about. It doesn’t appear to be a means to an end for him. Rather, it is simply the end. He’d fight every week if you could get licensed to do so. And probably most days in between.

His nose as flat as the most weather-beaten Easter Island statue, his face betraying almost as little expression, he carries the air of a man whose shoes are always one size too small, who’s perpetually being overlooked for service at a crowded bar. I’m still yet to see him crack a smile, though I have witnessed him roar once or twice. Most notably when he disfigured Alfredo Angulo back in 2011, and again after the touted prospect Glenn Tapia had been reduced to a mumbling wreck, slumped groggily across the shoulder of the referee after a mere 6 rounds.

Perhaps the spectre of intrinsic violence is a theory to which Kirkland himself also subscribes, given the willingness he’s exhibited to throw himself into compromising situations outside the boxing ring. In any case, his return heralds drama, even if he will be as much as a 4/1 underdog when he steps into the ring with Canelo Alvarez on May 9.

A pressure fighter under significant pressure himself, a loss now for Kirkland may finally derail a career that has swerved drastically off course at several junctures. Defeat to the man who likely represents his last big chance would leave him without the standing to turn down second-best offers moving forward. Backed into a corner, the relentless aggressor could find himself in the high risk/low reward hinterland, all without a major promoter by his side

Victory, on the other hand, might finally see him secure that maiden title shot. In a division that feels increasingly like a waiting room, a green mile stocked with shuffling would-be GGG victims, a focussed Kirkland could conceivably go on a tear, just as was originally projected during his breakout season on Boxing After Dark.

But still there is a caveat with the Texan. Both with and without his sister figure Anne Wolfe, he’s been knocked down by almost every level of opponent he faced. From aging journeyman Allen Conyers, to feather-fisted veteran Nobuhiro Ishida, and of course a hard-punching world contender in the guise of the aforementioned Angulo. But he got up every time, and could most certainly have continued against the Japanese when it was waved off after barely two minutes of action.

For a man as unruly as this, Canelo represents the forbidden fruit. He’s the poster boy a fuck up like Kirkland was never meant to defeat, the hero who carries with him the hopes of Mexican fight fans, now more so than ever. If Kirkland does emerge victorious, and it’s not completely out of the question, it will likely have to come via knock out, courtesy of the accumulated punishment that has become a calling card of the man who enters the ring bone dry, before rapidly raising the temperature.

Canelo vs Kirkland

Still there’s a good chance that he won’t, partly thanks to the superior punch selection of the Mexican hero, allied to the recklessness with which Kirkland continuously ploughs forward. Yet ploughing forward is all he’s ever known, a fact attested to by the reels of training footage which make up the bulk of any given promotional push around his career, given he is at best taciturn when it comes to speaking with the media.

The most striking visual showcased in these instances is that of his spiritual confidant, the indomitable Wolfe, driving a rusty tow-truck over endless Texan fallows. She’s pursued as if in some Ballardian nightmare by a grunting Kirkland, swinging endless hooks into the heavy bag as it dangles menacingly from the boom. It’s an unforgettable portrait of a truly unique fighter. And perhaps, when the dust settles on both the field and his career, it will shine brighter than any championship gold.