6 November 2003: James Kirkland smashes an overmatched Russell Jordan in a round, improving to 11-0. The 19 year old former National Golden Gloves finalist is considered a great talent and one to keep an eye on.
Later in 2003: James Kirkland is arrested for his participation in an armed robbery and is sentenced to jail time. His boxing career is put on hold for two and a half years.
7 March 2009: James Kirkland blasts his way through gatekeeper Joel Julio, forcing him to quit in six rounds to set up a seemingly inevitable title shot. Since returning to boxing in 2006, Kirkland is 14-0 with 13 stoppages. Promoted by Golden Boy he has been heavily featured on TV and is one of the names to watch in boxing.
23 September 2009: James Kirkland is sentenced to two years in prison following an April arrest for possession of a firearm when a convicted felon.
5 March 2011: James Kirkland returns to boxing, flattening Ahsandi Gibbs in a single round. With a new trainer and team around him Golden Boy intend to keep James Kirkland busy on his way to a title shot.
5 November 2011: Having won a couple of keep busy bouts in the interim, James Kirkland is selected as an opponent for Alfredo Angulo and his return to boxing. Travelling to Mexico few give Kirkland a chance but with his old trainer back in his corner he comes back from a first round knockdown to score one of his own (part of a clear round of the year candidate) and proceeds to give Angulo a beating before stopping him in six rounds. Kirkland follows this win by beating spoiler Carlos Molina in an awkward bout to keep his hopes of a title shot alive.
17 August 2012: James Kirkland accuses his team of drugging him prior to the Molina bout. He then threatens to sue Golden Boy, his trainer and his management and puts the first steps into motion of doing so. His career stalls for 18 months. In that time he is also arrested for assault.
7 December 2013: James Kirkland returns to boxing once again, brutalising the fairly well regarded Glen Tapia to a sixth round stoppage.
154lbs hasn’t really been a division to really get excited about for a while. Having a list of recent title holders which includes Daniel Santos, Yuri Foreman, Verno Phillips, Cory Spinks, Cornelius Bundrage, Ishe Smith Carlos Molina, Sergiy Dzinziruk and Zaurbek Baysangurov doesn’t help. Neither does the fact the division sometimes feels like a retirement home for past their best welterweights: Cotto post-Pacquiao, Margarito post-Mosely, Cintron post-Margarito, Clottey post-Pacquiao. It’s a division stuck between two of the premier weight classes and while the likes of Austin Trout, Saul Alvarez and Erislandy Lara have brought some interest and glamour to it, it still sits there like a run-down shack between two mansions.
James Kirkland was meant to change that.
Here was a fresh, exciting talent. He was extremely limited, extremely crude and extremely unskilled but what he did have was earth shattering power, terrifying ferocity and a relentless will to win. In their rundown gym Anne Wolfe… not a woman famed for her subtly as either a boxer or a trainer… trained Kirkland physically and mentally till he was a beast in the ring. No, it might not have been technically beautiful and yes, some of her methods were strange (almost verging on the cruel… and at times almost to the point of parody) but she was exactly what Kirkland needed. Because what did it matter if his balance was off or his hands were a little too low when he could swing the sledgehammers that he called fists for 12 rounds? What did it matter than his defence was flawed when no-one could find a way to get past the firestorm that was his offence?
Kirkland may not have ever been the best… the true elite would have been able to exploit those flaws… but he could have come damn close and been incredibly exciting doing it. Instead he shot himself in the foot every time.
He lost two years off his career right at the start. Then with the boxing world at his feet Kirkland, a convicted felon who can’t legally own a firearm, buys a gun at a gunshow. Then he gets stopped for a traffic violation with the firearm in his car. Back to prison he goes. During his time in prison he fires Wolfe and hires a new trainer to work on his technical skills. Yet he shows little improvement and killed his body by making weight three times in a month, being dead to the world before Ishida stops him. He fights his way back into contention by first upsetting Angulo (who could have a very similar article written about him) and then digging in to secure a somewhat controversial come from behind victory over Molina. And then he accuses everyone around him of wanting him to lose and doping him.
At every turn, Kirkland finds a way to damage his career.
By now Kirkland should have been a world champion…. and likely an established one. The 154lbs division in 2009 when he beat Julio was ripe for the picking. In early-2012 when he beat Molina the division was still open. Now, it’s nearly 2014 and the division is no longer quite so open. Carlos Molina remains an awkward opponent who few would relish facing. Demetrius Andrade is a young talent who is still improving despite a slow start to professional life. Lara, the exceptional amateur, holds one of the remaining sanctioning body titles and Mayweather is never going to face Kirkland. Over that group also looms Saul Alavrez, the superstar Mexican who Kirkland actually turned down a bout against earlier in his career. That is a fairly tough group for Kirkland to break into.
And this is his last chance.
Kirkland’s actions are the actions of a man-child, full of petulance and a refusal to think of the consequences. But Kirkland is not a child. He is 29 years old, in his physical prime. And Kirkland’s ultra-aggressive all-action style doesn’t age well. Once his body can no longer take the punishment Wolfe puts it through to bring it into fighting shape, Kirkland does not have technique or skill to fall back on. Kirkland succeeds as a boxer because he can hide his limitations behind his strengths… once those strengths start to slip, those limitations will become more and more apparent in every bout.
But for me Kirkland is almost hypnotic, both in the ring and out of it. In the ring it’s the sheer intensity and fury he brings to every bout. Out of the ring it’s the combination of the over-the-top nature of Wolfe’s training and Kirkland’s own self-destructive tendencies. I’m not sure I want Kirkland to succeed… but I do know I want to watch him try.
This is it for Kirkland. He’s thrown away his career twice, broken and mended more bridges than the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and generally done everything possible to sabotage himself. Yet he’s still here, still in contention, still a threat.
I don’t know how it will end. I don’t know how I want it to end.
But it will be entertaining to watch.