Friday, May 08, 2015

Canelo Alvarez vs. James Kirkland: Preview

Ah, to have a big fight on the horizon where the most serious conviction of one of the participants is "just" armed robbery where we can reasonably expect electrifying action. Tomorrow, junior middleweights Saul "Canelo" Alvarez (44-1, 31 KOs) and James Kirkland (32-1, 28 KOs) square off in a bout that could definitively establish the #1 154 pounder not named Floyd Mayweather.

Alvarez is a fighter I respect in spite of myself. For one, I tend not to like fighters who are declared stars before they earn stardom, and Alvarez -- with his boyish charm, matinee good looks, and distinctive red hair -- got the big star push very early in his career. I also tend not to like fighters who get decisions I disagree with, and while Canelo is 3-1 in his last four fights, on my scorecard he'd be 1-3.

So why do I respect him? Simple: He goes after the big fights. He does not duck challenges. And a corollary to my desire for top fighters to face other top fighters is that I don't discount them even if I think they lose, so long as they're competitive. And Alvarez has been competitive in all of his top challenges (save one). His last four fights -- against Austin Trout, Floyd Mayweather, Alfredo Angulo, and Erislandy Lara -- are illustrative.

The Trout fight came about because Canelo actually had his eye on a lucrative match-up with Miguel Cotto. That was derailed when Cotto was upset by the relatively unknown Trout, and rather than seeking out easier money Canelo insisted on fighting Cotto's vanquisher instead. I had Trout narrowly winning that fight, and didn't recall being super-impressed with Canelo's performance. But I admit it was razor thin, and Alvarez still deserves credit for going tooth-and-nail with with a very slick fighter who was widely considered the #1 (non-Mayweather) man in the division.

Alvarez then scored the twin blessing and curse that is a Floyd Mayweather fight. There's no two ways about it: Alvarez was thoroughly outclassed bell-to-bell. His caused was not aided by the unwise decision to try and box with Mayweather, but it hardly mattered. It also hardly matters to me that a 23-year old fighter was soundly defeated by the best fighter on the planet.

Alvarez returned against straight-ahead brawler Alfredo Angulo, and simply had his way with him. Angulo -- who himself had a brutal war with James Kirkland -- was never in the fight and got busted up en route to a 10th round stoppage. That set up yet another high-risk low-reward fight against Cuban slickster Erislandy Lara. Once again, I had Lara winning the fight; once again, it was generally agreed (by me as well) that the fight was exceptionally close. And so the fact is that Alvarez was close and competitive with top fighters that he insisted on facing. Whatever else you can say about him, he is not coasting on stardom. He genuinely wants to earn his place in boxing's elites.

Respect notwithstanding, I'll be rooting against Alvarez tomorrow night. One reason is pragmatic: If Alvarez wins, one boxing star leaves the ring, but if Kirkland wins, two do. Alvarez doesn't need a win to get (or preserve) mainstream popularity, but this is an opportunity for James Kirkland to really burst onto the scene like he seemed destined to do only a few years ago. The other reason is personal: James Kirkland is one of my favorite fighters. He is, and there is no better way to put it, in the hurt business.

To describe James Kirkland as a brawler isn't to do him justice. When I think of brawlers, I think of a crude hack-and-slash approach typified by wide looping shots. What makes Kirkland special is that he's actually relatively technically sound ... on offense. He puts his punches together nicely, and compactly, and has a devastating and varied attack to the head and body. What he shares in common with brawlers is that he is 100% offense. His defense isn't bad so much as it is irrelevant -- he has no objective in the ring but to deliver as much pain as possible in as short an amount of time. Often, this leads to him being knocked down -- indeed, it's rare to see a James Kirkland bout where he isn't at least rattled early in the fight. But he fights through it and eventually breaks nearly all of his opponents down.

The problem with James Kirkland is that he's inconsistent. His one loss is not to the greatest fighter on the planet, it's to entirely unheralded Nobuhiro Ishida, a light puncher who nonetheless dropped Kirkland three times in the very first round of their 2011 fight. Many blamed the loss on Kirkland lacking the presence of long-time trainer Ann Wolfe. After Ishida, he got back together with Wolfe and rattled off 5 straight victories. Two of those were phenomenal action bouts (against Alfredo Angulo and Glen Tapia). One of them has a serious question mark (Carlos Molina, who was beating Kirkland before getting controversially disqualified in what to my eyes was a clear misapplication of Texas rules). But all of them saw the Kirkland/Wolfe team clicking on all cylinders, which made it all the more eye-brow raising that Kirkland and Wolfe again parted ways. This story on ESPN is the first one I've seen where Kirkland actually gives an explanation for his decision to move on, and it's not superficially ludicrous (Wolfe specializes in a particular skill-set of strength and conditioning, but Kirkland felt like he needed to improve his game in other areas). But it remains to be seen whether Kirkland can win at a high level without Ann Wolfe in his camp.

And that is a large part of the drama of this fight. It is the rare fight where I can see any outcome. Canelo Alvarez is far better than Nobuhiro Ishida, and if Kirkland isn't in the right mindset its easy to imagine an early stoppage. I can also see Alvarez simply being better than Kirkland -- too strong, too tough, too versatile -- and either winning a decision or scoring the late KO. But when James Kirkland is on, he has the ability to tear through anyone. It is not inconceivable that he could lay a beating on Alvarez similar to what he did against Tapia or Angula. It's also perfectly plausible that Alvarez -- who has never been down in his career -- can survive the punishment better but simply be busted up over the course of the fight.

If I was a betting man, I still wouldn't put money on this fight because there is so much in the air. The safer money is with Canelo Alvarez, who is more consistent, has fought higher-quality opposition, and is the a-side fighter here. But when things are clicking for James Kirkland he has a spark inside him that I haven't seen in any fighter since Mike Tyson. It makes for brutal action and high drama. And this Saturday, I expect it to make for a very interesting night.

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