I thought it was wishful thinking.
A few years ago, James Kirkland was fast becoming one of my favorite fighters. He had impressed me in fights against Eromosele Albert and Brian Vera, and a knockout victory over Columbian slugger Joel Julio had him in line for a break-out fight. But it wasn't just that he won, it was how he did it. Kirkland fought with a raw passion and almost animalistic hunger I have never seen in another contemporary fighter. Some fighters have that look in their eyes like they're there to win a fight. Some fighters have that look that says "I'm going to knock you out". With Kirkland, it was different. His look said "I'm here to inflict pain". It made for a series of brutal, savage, thrilling fights.
Then Kirkland got sent away to prison for a parole violation (possession of a firearm). There are a lot of boxers who are troubled in various ways, but this seemed like a genuine case of just a poor choice -- Kirkland didn't attain the gun surreptitiously or in any context suggesting he had malign intent -- and a lot of folks in the industry backed him up come sentencing.
Still, Kirkland went away to prison, and there was no telling how that might change him. When he got out, he split with long time trainer Ann Wolfe and looked subpar in several comeback performances. Then came the shocker -- a first round knockout loss to unheralded, light-punching Nobuhiro Ishida. It was the sort of outcome that seemed to confirm everyone's worst fears. Kirkland wouldn't be the same after prison. His chin wouldn't hold. His once bright star seemed faded.
Of course, one could try to explain it away. Kirkland just needed to get back together with Wolfe. His chin couldn't be that bad -- after all, he'd beaten some big bangers, such as Julio. But to my ears, as someone who desperately wanted to see the old Kirkland, it rang hollow. You can't train chin. The Ishida loss wasn't on a fluke shot -- Kirkland just looked bad in there.
It felt like wishful thinking.
The match-up against Alfredo Angulo was one that had been on many a fan's wish list before Kirkland went to prison. Both were come-forward brawlers who thrived on pressure and packed a punch. But after Ishida, how much could the fight really promise? Kirkland and Angulo both had pressure and both had power, but only one, it seemed, had a chin. Angulo -- never down as an amateur or a pro -- was known as someone who could take a wallop. It seemed like only a matter of time, and possibly not much of it, before he simply overpowered Kirkland and ended the night.
And at first, it looked exactly like it would follow that script. Both men came out firing at the bell, and the brawl was on. But thirty seconds in, Kirkland was dropped by a rocket right hand that would have ended most men's nights. He beat the count, but proceeded to be on the receiving end of a pounding for the next 1:30, with the referee almost stopping the fight.
Kirkland was barely hanging on, and I was silently pleading Don't stop it. Let me have my war. Kirkland can still come back. There can still be the fight I dreamed of tonight.
With the punches Angulo was landing, it seemed like wishful thinking.
But Angulo finally punches himself out. And Kirkland -- showing incredible recuperative powers -- turned the tables, stunning Angulo and dropping him at the end of the round to even the score. It was the first time Angulo had ever been down, and he was hurt.
Round one was a round of the year candidate. From then on though, the old Kirkland was back.
Angulo was still hurt going into round two, with Kirkland applying monstrous pressure. The fight became a savage affair, but Kirkland's training with Ann Wolfe paid off, as he showed incredible endurance and tenacity as Angulo slowly began to break. After a 10-10 first round, I scored the fight a shutout for Kirkland who -- it must be said -- was still taking plenty of shots that would have been lights-out for many fighters. It was an incredible display.
By round six, Angulo's legs were gone and he had slowed nearly to a crawl. He was showing incredible heart, but it was getting close to the "physical safety" point for him. Finally, trapped against the ropes and eating punches, the referee stepped in. It was a good stoppage, giving James Kirkland a TKO6 victory.
Whenever you turn on the television to watch a boxing match, you dream you'll get to see a fight like this. Most nights, it's just wishful thinking.
Most nights, but not every night. Congratulations, and welcome back, James Kirkland.