Joseph Santoliquito

Kirkland turns anger into success

James Kirkland celebrates after stopping Eromosele Albert in one round in May. Photo / Chris Cozzone

James Kirkland grew up in an area of Austin, Texas known as the “2-4,” named after the final two digits of the 78224 zip code he was from. Picture the worst urban blight — corner drug dealers, prostitution, high unemployment, homelessness — and you have the idea. Trouble was always lurking, hunting down new prey. It was inescapable.

Kirkland would often look at his surroundings and feel trapped, frustrated and vulnerable. Winter mornings were particularly vicious, as the cold crept through the woodwork of his tiny apartment, with little or no money for heat to fend it off. Then there were the times he didn¹t have a home at all, when he, his two brothers and his mother resorted to living in abandoned buildings. It all spawned a rage in Kirkland so intense that fans today can feel it burn right through the TV screen during his televised fights.

What the 5-foot-9 southpaw junior middleweight has been able to do is channel that anger into a positive, fan-friendly, attacking style that’s forged a 23-0 (20 knockouts) record. Kirkland, 24, never seems to stop throwing punches. He wants to knock out his opponents from the first punch he throws.

It’s earned him some attention on ESPN2’s Friday Night Fights and Showtime's ShoBox series.

“I saw Kirkland fight three or four times live before he came on ShoBox, and I couldn¹t wait to get him on the air,” Showtime ringside analyst Steve Farhood said. “The guy is seething when he gets into the ring; he's an angry young man. Very, very few fighters use anger as a positive. That’s because anger can zap you. But Roberto Duran used anger, as did Mike Tyson and Fernando Vargas. They were able to use their anger because they used proper technique. Knowing when to throw and where to throw punches, you’re less likely to get fatigued.

“Kirkland fights pissed off. He possesses this rare combination of anger and confidence.”

Kirkland also has a managerial infrastructure that seems to portend big things in the next two years. Cameron Dunkin and Michael Miller, a San Antonio, Texas-based attorney who’s managed Jesse James Leija and Golden Johnson, co-manage Kirkland. Gary Shaw is Kirkland’s promoter; Pops Billingsley and Ann Wolfe, one of the best female fighters in the world, train him.

The only one who could stop Kirkland from succeeding could be Kirkland himself.

He did over a year in prison for robbery after he built a professional record of 11-0, fighting under a contract he signed with Duva Boxing when he was 17. But the Duvas dropped him when Kirkland was found guilty of robbing a man coming out of a convenience store in 2003. Eventually, the money woes and the incessant miasma of the 2-4 swallowed him. It pained him to see his mother, Paula, pawning personal possessions to pay bills.

“I needed money to live; when you don’t have anything, you get desperate,” said Kirkland, who began boxing at 6 years old and had a 134-12 amateur record. “I saw my mother struggling and I had to do what I had to do. When you're down to that type of stress and you¹re angry, you do those things. I lived in trouble. I tried to stay away.”

But he couldn¹t.

“I couldn¹t get any jobs that paid, and my boxing wasn¹t jumping off,” Kirkland said. “I started robbing people and started doing stuff like gambling. I did whatever it took to get money. I wouldn¹t jack old ladies or stuff like that. The lifestyle wasn’t for me. I used to question why I would do certain things. I couldn’t help myself. I didn¹t have any money.”

Then something happened that changed his life. His girlfriend, Vanessa Walls, gave birth to Kirkland’s son, James Jr. Kirkland never knew his father. Never even saw a picture of him. Kirkland vowed that he would break that cycle.

But 18 days after James Jr. was born, Kirkland was taken to jail. He missed his son’s first birthday. He missed seeing his son and Vanessa on a regular basis.

“I’m not a jail person,” Kirkland said laughing. “I made people in there think that I was doing life, because I’d tell them, ‘I didn¹t care about anything.’ I was challenged in there. There was one gang that tried me, a whole group of guys, and I told them I’d take them on one by one, right in front of my bunk. They backed down. I’m never going back. I just learned one thing in there: If you hang around drug dealers, killers, robbers, gamblers, that’s what you¹re going to be. That’s why I stay as far from the 2-4 as I can. Someone is going to need four tanks of gas to reach me now.”

Kirkland has won seven straight, all within the distance, since he was released on September 18, 2005.

“Everyone knew the Duvas dropped James because of all of his troubles; they tried to keep him busy,” Miller said. “James was young, but he¹s matured a lot since the birth of his son. The second conversation I had with James I told him I wouldn’t hold his past against him. What Team Kirkland is going to be concerned with is what he does from now on. James had some doubts about himself. But trust began to build between us. It’s about giving James a second start.

“James had experienced so much already in his life by his late-teens. He had to live on the street. Most of his money came from robbing and gambling. Here was a kid with all the talent in the world. He just needed direction.”

Wolfe has been another very valuable presence in Kirkland¹s life. She led the same type of life as Kirkland, doing three years in jail for dealing drugs and aggravated assault. Wolfe and her two daughters once had to live in abandoned cars in an Austin park. She’s known Kirkland since he was 12.

Wolfe and Billingsley are among the few Kirkland will listen to — and the few he trusts. Wolfe says that no one has seen close to 100 percent of Kirkland yet.

“Everyone thinks we’re blood related, like we’re brother and sister,” Wolfe said. “If he gets himself together all of the way, he can be a world champion. He could throw more focus into his training. His past still follows him a little. He should be fighting once a month because he needs that. James has changed a lot, but he has to be busier. He’s a throwback, like a Tyson, in more ways than one. The only one who can beat James is James.

“James Kirkland in the best shape of his life, he can beat anyone in the world. I really believe that.”

Miller and Dunkin, with the backing of Shaw, Billingsley, and Wolfe, see a title shot for Kirkland — if he can control himself every time he hears the roll of dice — within the next 18 months. Kirkland’s own personal motivation is trying to give his son what he never had as a child.

“Right now, what I experienced in prison is the best thing to happen to me,” Kirkland said. “I just try to stay out of the way of everyone; I’m not that crazy about people anyway. I like my fans and the way they support me though. And I have to control of my temper. That only comes out in the ring, because I don’t want go back (to prison) for a ticket, spittin’ on the ground or littering.

“This time next year, I’m taking belts.”

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