James Kirkland (right) lands left hand against Carlos Molina on March 24, 2012, in Houston, Texas. Kirkland, who struggled en route to a controversial DQ victory, hasn’t fought since.
You would like to think that. So would Kirkland.
Saturday marks a return to the ring for the enigmatic Kirkland (31-1, 27 knockouts) after a nearly 21-month hiatus due to managerial and promotional issues. The relentless veteran southpaw takes on undefeated prospect, Glen Tapia (20-0, 12 KOs), in a 10-round middleweight bout that is part of an HBO tripleheader at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall.
The other TV fight will pit former middleweight title challenger Matthew Macklin (29-5, 20 KOs) against Lamar Russ (14-0, 7 KOs), in another 10-rounder, under the main event bout between RING junior featherweight champion Guillermo Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KOs) and former bantamweight titleholder Joseph Agbeko (29-4, 22 KOs).
But perhaps the most curious fighter of the night will be Kirkland. This is the fourth incarnation of his career. The first came after he shaved off three years early in his career at 19, from 2003 to ’06, serving time for armed robbery (he said he needed the money to feed his family).
The second occurred when he did another two years, from 2009 to 2011, after he pled guilty to gun possession by a convicted felon. That time, he was guilty of stupidity, purchasing a firearm at a gun show and having it exposed on his car seat after he was pulled over on a traffic stop.
His latest “break” was to shake free of a Golden Boy Promotional contract. Kirkland decided to sit out the remainder of his deal after his last fight, on March 24, 2012, when he beat current IBF junior middleweight beltholder Carlos Molina via controversial 10th-round disqualification. Gone with that forgettable fight was any momentum Kirkland had drummed up after upsetting Alfredo Angulo by sixth-round stoppage in November of 2011. Compounding his situation was an arrest for an assault charge in June.
So for the fourth time after more than 20 months out of boxing, Kirkland has returned again. He’s since signed with rapper/promoter impresario 50 Cent. He parted ways with trainer Ann Wolfe for Bob Santos, and decided on welcoming back Wolfe after Santos had a scheduling conflict. So it will be Wolfe in Kirkland’s corner Saturday night.
She’s been with him through almost everything, including a driving force for his most impressive victories, so no one knows Kirkland better than Wolfe.
“The last time James tried coming back, being around him, you had that feeling he wasn’t really about coming back,” Wolfe said. “James did get in his own way a lot. This time, he seems grounded. He seems changed this time. As the years go by, he keeps improving and more focused. That’s the biggest difference. He’s more focused.”
He’d better be. The 29-year-old native of Austin, Texas is close to running out of boxing lives. Some boxing pundits believe Kirkland has already had his last resurrection and favor Tapia, the younger, fresher, bigger fighter.
Although the 23-year-old prospect is untested, many media members like his chances because of his size, recent activity and Kirkland’s vulnerability in the early rounds. Kirkland suffered first-round knockdowns against Angulo and Allen Conyers; he was dropped three times against unheralded Nobuhiro Ishida in 2011, who scored the upset of the year by stopping him in the opening round.
“I know I get knocked down, but I do have a pretty good habit of getting back up,” Kirkland said in his defense. “I know what I’m faced against and what kind of fighter I’m facing in [Tapia]. I was there once myself, young, hungry. You want to prove something. He won’t against me. I’m hungry, too. I have something to prove, too.
“[Tapia] doesn’t have my boxing knowledge. But I’m not overlooking him. Beating me makes his career. I know that. He wants to excite people on HBO. Not against me. I still feel I can beat anybody from 154 pounds to 160. Glen Tapia is not at my level. I’m going to knock his ass out. I’m telling you. I know this is it for me. I know I have to grow up and be a man.”
Tapia, however, doesn’t appear to be shaking in his shoes.
“This is the type of fight that I’ve been waiting for,” Tapia said. “I want to show you guys that I’m more than just a [future] champion, I’m one of the best. I’m here to stay and I’ll show you guys. He has power. He’s a tough guy. He will never quit and I’m the same way. I’ll show you guys why I have a little bit more talent.”
Wolfe, a brutally strict disciplinarian in the gym and during training camp, believes the fight will come down to conditioning.
“I see the kind of shape that he is in,” she said of Kirkland. “Before, I would have to kick his ass to get him in shape. This time, he let me do it. I wasn’t going to commit to him, unless he committed to himself.
“We’ll do eight-mile runs. I tell him let’s go – and he’s like, ‘Let’s go!’ In order to accomplish, you have to suffer. James has done a lot of suffering. After suffering, you become pure and confident. James is a fighter and he’s going to be ready. He understands that this is it. He knows.”
Hopefully, he does this time.
Photos / Bob Levey-Getty Images, Scott Heavey-Getty Images, John Gichigi-Getty Images