By Jake Donovan
Everything about James Kirkland’s 2011 campaign was a comeback.
The year first began as a return to the ring for the first time since 2009, with Kirkland spending time in prison after getting popped on a weapons charge, a violation of the terms of his probation from a prior sentence. Two wins over tomato can-level opposition paved the way for a high profile pay-per-view undercard appearance on a show topped by Marcos Maidana’s gutsy points win over Erik Morales.
About an hour or so before Maidana and Morales would wage war in an event that figures to be mentioned in Fight of the Year discussion, Kirkland found himself on the wrong end of another award “winning” moment. Lightly regarded journeyman Nohubiro Ishida was brought in as cannon fodder, but caught an ill-prepared Kirkland at the right time in the fight and his career, drilling the Texan early en route to a shocking three-knockdown first round stoppage for the first and – to date – only loss of his career.
The bout was Kirkland’s third in the span of just over a month, but it appeared as if the comeback was all but done. Sure there would be work to be found for the 27-year old southpaw, but any discussion surrounding his potentially returning to contention would be dismissed as nonsense.
That was, until Kirkland swallowed his pride and took note of what – and more specifically, who - was missing in his career.
His rise to fame included the presence of Ann Wolfe, the former female pound-for-pound queen who left the game due to a lack of formidable – and lucrative – challenges to become a trainer. Kirkland was her star pupil prior to his second incarceration, but the two didn’t see eye to eye on the direction of his career upon his return, leading to the split.
Leading the comeback tour in her place was Kenny Adams, a highly touted trainer known for his regimented methods. His style is effective, but like any other trainer not necessarily one size fits all. It was a lesson Kirkland was forced to learn the hard way.
“I take nothing away from Kenny Adams but I’m a different fighter than when I was training with him,” Kirkland insisted in reflecting on the training camp heading into that fight. “Anyone can go into camp and drop weight. But to have all of the right tools, you have to be in a camp with the right person. I wasn’t anywhere nearly prepared for that fight.
“People can say ‘Oh he doesn’t have a chin and this and that’ but I know the preparation wasn’t there. I didn’t have the right camp and spar different people with different strategies. My timing was off; nothing was prepared for the fight.”
Kirkland eventually made his way back home, reuniting with Wolfe in hopes of resuscitating his career.
So begins the next comeback.
Two quick wins followed before presented with the opportunity for a longtime fantasy matchup to finally become a reality. Ever since they both appeared on the same Shobox card in 2007, speculation ran wild as to what would occur should Kirkland ever cross paths with Alfredo Angulo.
Talks resurfaced once the Mexican slugger launched his own comeback earlier this year, signing with Golden Boy Promotions – Kirkland’s promoter – to make the process that much easier. One thing stood in the way – Angulo’s immigration status kept him resigned to Mexico, while the terms of Kirkland’s release from prison made it difficult to cross US borders unless for good reason.
A showdown with Angulo was as good a reason as any, at least as far as fight fans were concerned.
Authorities eventually agreed, paving the way for their November clash.
Early in the opening round, Kirkland found himself in a familiar place – on the canvas due to his inability to block a straight punch, Angulo had the Texan down, and subsequently nearly out, a sequence that lent credence to the pre-fight odds favoring the Mexican, whose granite chin was supposed to be the key in surviving such a firefight.
Kirkland rode out the storm – which was more like a hurricane – before mounting a comeback in the very same round. Angulo managed to punch himself out, a recipe for disaster considering his own blatant disregard for defense. The tide dramatically turned by rounds end, as Angulo was floored for the first time in his career.
From that moment on, Kirkland for the first time in more than two years was regarded as a viable threat to any junior middleweight on the planet. It was a point he would emphatically make over the next five rounds before battering Angulo into submission in the sixth round, thus completing his own comeback within a comeback.
Sometime in the first quarter of 2012, Kirkland will return to the very same HBO airwaves on which the highlight moment of his career appeared with the Angulo stoppage. The hulking southpaw was slated to face streaking Carlos Molina on January 28 in Houston – approximately two hours from his Austin hometown – but a fallout in the evening’s headliner (Erik Morales v. Danny Garcia) has postponed the date.
Talks have surfaced of the show being rescheduled for late February or early March. While uncertainty surrounds the exact date of his next ring appearance, one constant he will enjoy is that whenever he climbs the steps into the ring for the fight, he will do so having led a 2011 campaign that warrants recognition as Comeback of the Year.
RUNNER UP – ERIK MORALES
Few if any comebacks within a year begin with a loss and feature only one win. Far be it from Morales, though, to follow the lead of anyone else in the industry.
While the rest of the division was looking elsewhere when Marcos Maidana sought a challenger on the heels of barely losing to Amir Khan, Morales actually demanded that Golden Boy arrange the fight. So came their war in April, in which the legendary Mexican fought nearly the entire fight with one eye closed, rallying back hard only to lose a closely contested majority decision.
A win would’ve given him a title (albeit a manufactured one) in four categories, never before accomplished by any Mexican fighter – the very premise for Morales’ comeback, along with a long overdue showdown with Juan Manuel Marquez. He sought to kill two birds with one stone, planning a summer clash with his countryman and a vacant belt at stake, only for Marquez to withdraw and instead campaign for a third showdown with Manny Pacquiao.
Marquez became the first of four scheduled opponents to face Morales next. Jorge Barrios was lined up, but withdrawn from their September bout and replaced with Top 10 contender Lucas Matthysse. The hard-nosed Argentinean dropped out after suffering an injury the week before their vacant title bout, which led to unbeaten prospect Pablo Cano stepping in on late notice.
It nearly proved disastrous for Morales, who looked every bit his 35 years of age early on before assuming control and eventually battering his countryman into submission in the 10th round.
The win gave Morales a long sought-after title in a fourth weight class, even if the means for that tile becoming available were absurd and bordering on corrupt. But the fight itself perfectly encapsulated Morales’ career. The last man to officially hang a loss on Manny Pacquiao twice walked through hell in order to reach his goal, at an improbable stage in his career.
HONORABLE MENTION (IN ORDER OF VOTES RECEIVED)
Brian Viloria – His career has been the boxing equivalent of a yo-yo, enough to where Viloria is a frequent visitor of this category. The latest tour comes a year after suffering a shocking knockout loss to Carlos Tamara, as the last man standing from the 2000 U.S. Olympic boxing squad scored a title win over Julio Cesar Miranda and a career-defining knockout win over granite-chinned lineal junior flyweight king Giovani Segura, laying a beating on the visiting pound-for-pound entrant in forcing a stoppage seconds into the eighth round of their one-sided December brawl.
Jorge Arce – The 32-year old picked up two titles in the span of less than seven months and also avenged an earlier defeat in between. His year began with a dramatic upset 12th round knockout win of previously unbeaten Wilfredo Vazquez Jr. this past May, then avenging his own loss as well as that of his brother Francisco Arce in scoring a 4th round stoppage of Simphiwe Nongqayi. The year ended with a repeat win over Angky Angkota, moving back down in weight to bantamweight and picking up a vacant (albeit paper) title in the process.
Lamont Peterson – The D.C. native failed to secure wins in the biggest two fights of his career, suffering a lopsided loss to Tim Bradley in Dec. ’09 and overcoming two knockdowns to fight a draw with Victor Ortiz last November. All of that changed in 2011, scoring a narrow points win over Amir Khan five months after scoring a last-round stoppage over Top 10 contender Victor Cayo.
Delvin Rodriguez – The stars finally aligned for hard-luck Dominican, who was just 1-3-1 in his previous five fights heading into '11, a stretch where he could’ve just as easily been 5-0. Victory once again eluded him in his 10-round draw with Pawel Wolak in their instant classic this past July, before emphatically winning their rematch five months later in Madison Square Garden to put himself in prime position for a title shot and big money fight in 2012.
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of Boxingscene.com. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/JakeNDaBox or submit questions/comments to [email protected]