By Jake Donovan
Don’t take it personal if you get an agitated response from James Kirkland on the subject of why longtime trainer Ann Wolfe will not be in his corner this weekend. Nor should you think he’s taking offense to your question.
The only issue at hand for the slugging southpaw from Texas is the fact that he’s being asked any questions at all while training—both his favorite and worst time of the year.
“When it comes to training camp, I train hard,” insists Kirkland (32-1, 28KOs), who’s been deep on the grind in preparation for his May 9 showdown with Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez in Houston, Texas. “Everyone claims they train hard. When I train, I give it my all.
“I ain’t saying that just to spike up a crowd. That ain’t me. I don’t like to talk when I’m training. I don’t want to be your friend or your high-five buddy. I just want train and fight.”
It remains a valid question of why—heading into his biggest fight yet—Kirkland would opt to go at it without the driving force behind the most successful moments of a career that his bridged 15 years. The 31-year old has done his best to remain civil while tackling the subject, one he expected to surface the moment word leaked out that the on-again, off-again fighter-trainer relationship was back in the latter status.
“Ann Wolfe is a good trainer and motivator when it comes to training me,” Kirkland acknowledges. “For this fight, I want to do things my way, taking my boxing ability and movement to another level. I've done that in a positive way. I'm happy in the transition.”
Most recall Kirkland’s lone loss as the worst-case scenario of not having Wolfe’s voice–often screaming, but always with nurturing intentions—and presence in his corner. That moment came just over four years ago, suffering a shocking 1st round knockout at the hands of relatively light-hitting Nobuhiro Ishida, a 17-1 underdog heading into their April ’11 clash.
The bout was his third fight in the span of a month after returning to the ring following a 12-month prison stint on a parole violation, followed by six months spent in a halfway house upon his release in Sept. ‘10. His ring return came with veteran trainer Kenny Adams in his corner for three fights before returning to Wolfe following the knockout loss.
Only five fights have followed, spread out over a 2½ year stretch. Among them were perhaps his two best wins to date, scoring savage knockouts in vicious slugfests with Alfredo Angulo and Glen Tapia.
Kirkland was forced to overcome a disastrous start versus Angulo, floored one minute into a bout that came just seven months after the Ishida debacle. Fans were already writing him off as a could’ve-been without allowing the fight to play out its course.
With a little patience came a remarkable turnaround , flooring Angulo before the end of the round. From there, Kirkland went in full attack mode, tuning out the partisan crowd in Cancun as he beat the crap out of Angulo until the fight was stopped in the 6th round.
A questionable win over Carlos Molina – Kirkland fell behind early but scored a 10th round knockdown and drew a disqualification win when Molina’s corner entered the ring while their fighter was still down – was enough to keep his career on track , with plans for a September ’12 showdown with Alvarez.
The bout fell through after Kirkland suffered a shoulder injury, although other issues kept him out of the ring for a total of 21 months. Gone from the rotation by the time he was ready to return was Golden Boy Promotions, his promoter dating back to his 8th round knockout of Bryan Vera in Nov. ’08.
Kirkland inked a deal with 50 Cent’s SMS Promotions, though with just one fight heading into this weekend. The one bout was a thriller, outslugging Glen Tapia en route to a brutal 6th round knockout in Dec. ’13.
His 2014 was spent entirely outside the ropes. A sought after shot against Gennady Golovkin was in store for last April. The fight fell through after the unbeaten middleweight was forced to withdraw due to the untimely passing of his father. Kirkland was due to face Gabriel Rosado last fall, but withdrew over dissatisfaction with the payday offered.
The move came around the same time Alvarez was in the hunt for his originally scheduled return to HBO last December. Kirkland was never truly in the running for the assignment, though it became a moot point when an injury forced Alvarez to delay his network return to this weekend in Houston.
Alvarez will have been out of the ring for 10 months by the time the opening bell rings, while Kirkland will have been out for 17 months. Still, the all-action southpaw warns viewers – and Alvarez – that the time away from the ring shouldn’t be mistaken for his being entirely away from the sport.
“I'm well prepared for fight,” assures Kirkland. “When I was out of the ring, everyone been claiming, ‘Kirkland out of the gym, he ain’t training.’ That’s not a fact. I'm always working.”
The work has been hard enough to where he simply didn’t want to deal with anyone leading up to fight week. However, the aspiring contender is now in his glory during fight week festivities. The part to which he most looks forward is stepping on the scale, after which any lingering anger can disappear and he has nothing left to focus on but fight night.
It’s a night he’s played over in his head countless times before, envisioning a number of scenarios and the amount of pain that will be inflicted in the ring. He only hopes his more celebrated opponent is prepared to do the same, and not believe the hype that – as the favored fighter – a win is all but guaranteed.
“One thing I do better than anyone I’ve ever fought - I push myself,” Kirkland believes. “You have those deep rounds. I’ll drown myself and take you with me, just to know I can survive those deep waters. It's hard work, You have to rely on yourself.
“This is what I honestly feel - Canelo knows what I bring to the table. I believe he's aware. But does he know what’s coming? Pressure bursts pipes - I don't think that’s been taken into consideration (in this promotion). You forgot James Kirkland does too.”
For those who’ve forgotten or doesn’t believe he can bring enough to the table this weekend, the once-beaten Texan is ready to give a crash course.
“I’m finna’ remind Canelo and the world the hard work I’ve put in for this fight – and it’s going to be a fight! Don’t talk to me about no boxing match. There are plenty of fighters who are hellafied boxers. That ain’t my cup of tea.
“I put myself through hell to get in there and go to war. I don’t need to talk about it, I don’t even want to talk about what I’m going to do (on Saturday). You’ll see what I’ve done in the gym all these months; it’ll show in the ring. I don’t need to say nothing.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox