ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Whether James Kirkland can compete with the best junior middleweights in the world fighting the way he fought Saturday night remains to be seen.
What’s indisputable is that violence-starved fight fans will watch Kirkland’s next fight, no matter the opponent. Kirkland provided plenty of drama in his return to ring and stopped previously unbeaten Glen Tapia in the sixth round of a brutal brawl at Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom.
Kirkland (32-1, 28 KOs), of Austin, Texas, hadn’t fought in 20 months before beating Tapia in the second fight of HBO’s Boxing After Dark tripleheader. The long layoff largely was caused by legal and promotional problems, but Kirkland reclaimed his place as one of the sport’s most fascinating, fan-friendly fighters by topping Tapia.
“I came back and I redeemed myself,” Kirkland, 29, said. “I’ll fight anybody.”
With demanding trainer Ann Wolfe in his corner, the powerful southpaw withstood Tapia’s early onslaught and completely changed the fight when he landed a straight left hand with about 1:10 left in the second round of a scheduled 10-rounder. The courageous Tapia, of Passaic, N.J., survived Kirkland’s attack in the second round, but the fight mostly was one-sided thereafter.
Blair Bergen, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board’s ringside physician, took a close look at Tapia after the fourth round because he was taking a lot of flush punches from Kirkland, seemingly didn’t have his legs under him and wasn’t throwing many punches.
Referee Steve Smoger stopped the fight 38 seconds into the sixth round, but Tapia had absorbed an inordinate amount of punishment by then. Kirkland also landed a devastating left hand to the exhausted Tapia’s head as Smoger stepped in to stop the bout, a punch that appeared to leave Tapia out on his feet.
“The doctor told me he was all right to continue,” Smoger said of Bergen’s visit to Tapia’s corner after the fourth round. “I rely on [the ringside physician]. He was an undefeated fighter, [near his] hometown and you give him every opportunity. I wouldn’t have stopped it without consulting the physician. He said, ‘The next round, anything of magnitude, that was enough.’ ”
Kirkland could land another HBO bout because of his win, but Tapia will need a long rest before his handlers at Bob Arum’s Top Rank Inc. can determine how to proceed with his career. The 23-year-old Tapia stopped then-unbeaten Abie Han (20-1, 13 KOs) in an entertaining ESPN fight July 12 in North Las Vegas, Nev., but he took a significant step backward Saturday night, despite an unbelievably brave performance.
“I don’t want to use that ‘back-to-the-drawing board’ cliché, but the level at which he fights next won’t be at this level,” said Carl Moretti, Top Rank’s vice president of boxing operations. “We’ll assess what he looks like against an average opponent. If he continues to get hit and loses zip on his punches, then it’s a whole other problem. If he shows that the rest helped him, and he just stepped up and fought a tougher guy, then we’ll take it as that.”
In the first bout broadcast by HBO, British middleweight Matthew Macklin (30-5, 20 KOs) out-worked comparatively inexperienced Lamar Russ (14-1, 7 KOs) and won a unanimous 10-round decision.
There weren’t any knockdowns during a mostly uneventful fight. Judge Lynne Carter scored the fight 96-94 for Macklin, while the other two judges — Shafeeq Rashada (97-93) and Alan Rubinstein (98-92) — thought Macklin won by a wider margin.
Regardless, Macklin made a respectable comeback from a devastating third-round knockout defeat to unbeaten WBA middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin (28-0, 25 KOs) on June 29 in Mashantucket, Conn.
“I’m disappointed I didn’t get the knockout,” Macklin said. “But I’m happy to get the rounds in.”
The 31-year-old Macklin, of Birmingham, England, hopes a win in his comeback bout leads to a rematch against newly crowned IBF middleweight champion Felix Sturm. Macklin lost a split decision to Sturm in a June 2011 fight for Sturm’s WBA middleweight championship in Cologne, Germany.
Germany’s Sturm (39-3-2, 18 KOs, 1 NC) dropped England’s Darren Barker (26-2, 16 KOs) twice in the second round and won Barker’s IBF 160-pound championship by second-round TKO on Saturday in Stuttgart, Germany.
“There’s only one fight that makes sense, and that’s Sturm and Macklin,” Lou DiBella, Macklin’s promoter, said after Macklin’s win. “It’s the only fight that makes sense.”
The 26-year-old Russ, of Wilmington, N.C., was a replacement for Cleveland’s Willie Nelson (21-1-1, 12 KOs), who withdrew from his scheduled fight against Macklin last month with an elbow injury that required surgery.
Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record, of Woodland Park, N.J.