Remember everything you’ve forgotten about James Kirkland.
He was a snarling, menacing whirlwind of a junior middleweight, with an equally intimidating trainer and a penchant for producing thrilling – if not exactly fundamental – fights.
The “Mandingo Warrior” was last seen by a significant audience five years ago, looking up at the lights at Houston’s Minute Maid Park after a highlight-reel KO by Canelo Alvarez.
In his previous three fights, though, he’d gotten off the deck to stop Alfredo Angulo, rallied from the brink of scorecard defeat to drop Carlos Molina and brutalized then-unbeaten Glen Tapia to a point where more than a few HBO viewers feared for the beaten man’s safety.
Now, go ahead and forget everything you remembered.
Because the persona offered by Kirkland 2.0 – just 16 days before birthday No. 36 – bears such little resemblance to its version from half a decade past that it’s hard to believe he could be the same guy whose lengthy legal history includes a prison stint for armed robbery.
The bully is gone, apparently replaced by a contented father anxious to acknowledge past misdeeds while promising to correct the decision-making flaws that prompted them.
Most of all, he wants you to know he’s happy. And comfortable in his own skin.
“A lot of times when you get older you start learning you don’t have to be the bad guy all the time. You don’t have to have a negative energy,” he said. “You don’t have to be what everybody tries to make you out to be. If you’re a humble person, be humble. Be happy for being humble. Be happy for being happy.
“I like to laugh. I have a great time when I get around people that continue to keep that spirit alive.
“I am truly happy about a lot of things that I have in my life at this particular time. All I’m doing is continuing to move forward.”
Still, lest anyone think Kirkland has gone completely the way of a new-age guru, think again.
He’s preparing for the third step in an incremental ring return, this time a scheduled 10-rounder with 20-something middleweight Marcos Hernandez, whose resume includes 14 wins in 18 fights – a tangible uptick from the 13-14 and 10-7-2 fodder that Kirkland was fed in comeback steps one and two.
Those fights lasted a combined 8 minutes, 44 seconds. This one, which will be featured atop an FS1 broadcast from the MGM National Harbor just outside Washington, D.C.
Kirkland continues the trek without the training services of Ann Wolfe, who was alongside him for the peak moments before the two parted ways prior to the devastating loss to Alvarez.
Some outlets have reported an imminent working reunion for the two, but the fighter said it hasn’t happened and likely won’t – though he refused to place Wolfe in the permanent ex category just yet.
“There’s always a chance. We’re always looking forward and going forward,” he said. “We’ve already got a relationship as friends. We’ll never change that. But beyond that, anything can happen.”
But, without Wolfe and without the apparent lust for chaos, can Kirkland still be, well … Kirkland?
He says yes.
“I can see where people would have that theory or that thinking, because a lot of fighters who’ve been put down and been knocked down, they don’t have that pizazz anymore the way they used to,” he said. “But for me, nothing’s truly changed. I took the time off and elevated everything in my life besides boxing. I’d never really taken a break from boxing since I was 6 years old.
“I put the work in and the work will speak for itself.”
And as for work outside the ring – in the life skills department – he’s hoping it’ll have an impact far beyond his career’s final bell, as he balances regret with perspective as a parent.
“Certain decisions that I made were only based on what I felt like doing at the time. It doesn’t mean it was right. It doesn’t mean it was completely wrong. OK, a lot of what I did was wrong,” he said. “I look back on my decisions and say ‘Why did I make that move?’ I could’ve found a way better way.
“I could’ve done things in a way that wouldn’t have caused me to go to jail.
“But a lot of the things that I wish I wouldn’t have done, with having kids I can bring it to the table and say this is the way you don’t do something and these are the things you don’t want to get involved with because these are the consequences that come behind it.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBA minimum title – Nakhon Sawan, Thailand
Thammanoon Niyomtrong (champion/No. 1 IWBR) vs. Norihito Tanaka (No. 10 WBA/No. 14 IWBR)
Niyomtrong (20-0, 7 KO): Eighth title defense; One KO/TKO in eight title fights, six in 12 non-title bouts
Tanaka (19-7, 10 KO): First title fight; Two wins in four fights scheduled beyond eight rounds (2-2, 1 KO)
Fitzbitz says: The challenger is 35, with zero experience on the championship level and only middling success against fighters one tier down. Sounds like an easy title defense. Niyomtrong by decision (99/1)
Last week's picks: 2-0 (WIN: Gonzalez, Martinez)
2020 picks record: 13-3 (81.3 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,129-368 (75.4 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.