James Kirkland has moved back home to Austin, Texas. We’ll see whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
The much-hyped middleweight slugger is coming off the first defeat of his career, an embarrassing first-round knockout against unheralded Nobuhiro Ishida of Japan in April that eliminated him from serious title contention for the time being.
Kirkland also is coming off a stint with trainer Ken Adams in Las Vegas that didn’t work out, leading him back to longtime mentor Ann Wolfe in Austin.
Wolfe says he’s back to being a monster in the gym, as he was before he left for prison in 2009 for violating parole on a previous armed-robbery conviction.
He’s also back in the town in which he found trouble, which his handlers had hoped to avoid when they had him move to Las Vegas. At the same time, advisor Michael Miller says the fighter is ecstatic to be near people he loves.
Alas, everyone seems to be pleased with the new arrangement. Now we’ll see how that translates in the ring: Kirkland fights Dennis Sharpe on Friday in Frisco, Texas, on Telefutura.
“James says he loves being back in Austin,” Miller said. “He gets to see his two kids. His mom lives in Austin. He’s back with Ann. A lot of good things are happening. Sure, the East Austin element is still there. I can't baby him, though. He has to make his own decision.
“If he can't stay away from the bad element in Austin, he can't stay away from it in Vegas.”
Neither side harbors any resentment over the split with Adams, who worked with Kirkland for his three post-prison fights.
Adams, one of the most-respected trainers in the business, said more than anything “it just wasn’t a good match” and wishes Kirkland the best. Miller, who said Adams record speaks for itself, echoed those sentiments.
“I just think Ann is the right fit,” he said.
So what went wrong against Ishida?
Wolfe suggested that Kirkland had lost some of the desperation that comes with living in a dog-eat-dog neighborhood, where only the strongest survive. That mentality, she said, is why he stopped 24 of his first 26 opponents.
She's in the process of reinstalling that attitude into Kirkland’s psyche.
“You don’t want to take the street mentality out of James,” said Wolfe, who indicated that Kirkland didn’t want to speak with reporters this week. “You can be a loving person but, when the bell rings, either you kill them or they kill you. No ifs and or buts.
“When he left me, that wasn’t there. They said, ‘Oh, you’re gonna win. Just work on your right hook.’”
Miller believes the loss to Ishida had a lot to do with conditioning. He said a number of fighters approached him afterward and pointed out that Kirkland had no legs.
Kirkland was able to absorb six rounds of hard punches from powerful Joel Julio, who he stopped in 2009, but he couldn’t take more than a few shots from a light-punching unknown in Ishida. It didn’t make sense to Miller.
“They all said the same thing: If you’re in great shape, you could take punches like that,” Miller said. “He obviously wasn’t in good shape. I don’t think Kenny wants his fighters to leave everything in the gym. James sparred less than 25 rounds for that [Ishida] fight. He spars 25 rounds a week with Ann.
“James was begging for more sparring. He told me if he knew Vegas better, he would’ve gone to another gym on his own to get sparring.”
Adams will push his fighters but, he said, he’s “no babysitter.” In other words, Kirkland apparently needed a trainer who would kick his ass every single day.
Wolfe was happy to oblige. She apparently knows how to push Kirkland’s buttons.
The former fighter, who started working with Kirkland when he was a boy, acknowledged that her protégé needs work on the fundamentals. She said she tells him to move his head more, to move his feet, to throw his jab. “He has an excellent jab,” she said.
Apparently it ain’t gonna happen, at least not consistently. Instead, she has him spar enough rounds that his body becomes immune to the punishment.
“He doesn’t want to move his head,” she said. “He doesn’t want to throw his jab. He wants to go balls to the wall. He doesn’t care if he lasts long. He wants to make a lot of money. So either he’ll knock you out or he’ll get knocked out.
“… People have tried to teach him to box and all this s— and he still got knocked out. So let’s go with what we know. Let’s make as much money as we can.”
Adams more or less said the same thing: "He just wants to bang."
Wolfe said Kirkland had trouble in the first week of camp as he adjusted to the rigors of her training regimen.
However, she said he slowly morphed back into the Kirkland she had known for years. The desperation borne of the streets, the uncommon ferocity, the confidence … it was all coming back.
She says he’s about 80 percent of what he used to be.
“The first week back he got his ass whooped,” she said. “Then slowly I saw him starting to crack ribs, slowly starting to knock people out. One guy came in to spar and he said, ‘What in the hell is this? This isn’t what I saw on TV’
“You’re going to see a different James, a more-intense James. I’m just as curious as anyone to see how he does. I’ve seen him in the gym, though. I’m very confident.”