James Kirkland is Still Boxing's Ultimate Tough Guy

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One of the most exciting fighters of the modern era, Kirkland is out to prove he is still boxing's ultimate tough guy when he returns to the ring this Saturday on FOX PBC Fight Night.

James Kirkland

For a moment, James Kirkland couldn’t believe the timing.

Canelo Alvarez is fighting on the same day as me? 

The words hung in the air like a mist. 

Kirkland pondered the irony of sharing a date with Canelo, the symmetry almost too good to be true. 

“That’s something, isn’t it?” 

They were actually fighting a week apart, he was told, but it didn't diminish his excitement. 

Kirkland was still happy to talk about Canelo, and why not? 

It provided an entry point for him to reminisce about a time when he was once the sport’s most terrifying brawler, a heavy-handed aggressor who was almost primal in the way he went after his opponents. 

It wasn’t just his power. No, it was the recklessness with which he fought, the ferocity of his output, the total disregard for his own safety. 

One second he was out on his feet, the next he’s flooring his opponent. There was a supernatural quality to the way he soaked up and meted out punishment. 

Kirkland didn’t just beat his opponents, he exhausted them, damaged them, sucked the life out of them until they could barely hold up their hands.

Even when he lost it was exhilarating. 

Kirkland was nearly ejected from the ring by a right hand from Canelo in the third round of their fight in May of 2015. The punch sent him and his career reeling, and he was missing in action for the next four years. 

Just as he had ripped through the sport, suddenly…he was gone. 

But after resurfacing in August of 2019, Kirkland has won two straight, both by knockout. He is ready to get back on center stage and to reclaim his title as the sport’s resident badass.  

Kirkland (34-2, 30 knockouts) will take the next step in his return on Saturday when he faces Juan Macias Montiel (21-4-2, 21 knockouts) on a FOX PBC Fight Night card (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT) at the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall in Los Angeles. The bout serves as the co-feature for the super middleweight world title bout between undefeated David Morrell Jr. and Mike Gavronski.

“I’m just excited to get back in the ring to show my skills,” Kirkland said by phone last week, sounding relaxed and in good spirits. “Even though I’ve been away, I never stopped working to get back in the ring. I never intended to be out this long, but I’m honored to have this opportunity on a PBC card and look forward to putting on a great performance. I’m here and ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities come my way.”

Kirkland isn’t exactly the waiting type. 

There’s a reason why Kirkland’s name still resonates and why news of his return to TV is like finding a $20 bill in an old pair of jeans. 

When he was warring with the likes of Alfredo Angulo and Glen Tapia earlier in his career, there wasn’t a more fan-friendly fighter than the southpaw from Austin, Texas. 

Kirkland talked and fought like a smaller Mike Tyson, making cringe-worthy statements about his opponents that only burnished his rep as the ultimate tough guy. 

“I’m going to hurt this man like he’s never been hurt before,” Kirkland said on HBO before he stopped Joel Julio in 2009. “I’m going to take something out of him — I don’t care if it’s his lung or his kidney. I’m going to make him feel me.” 

HBO couldn’t get enough of Kirkland, chronicling his rise, detailing his hard-scrabble upbringing, his introduction to boxing when he was only six, his stints in prison, the brutal training he received under Ann Wolfe. It all gave him a mystical, storybook quality, and it's why there remains a curiosity about his latest comeback. 

For all of his accomplishments and setbacks, Kirkland is younger than you may think. He’s still just 36, old enough to know he’s running out of time, young enough to potentially take advantage of this opportunity. 

“I know this is a big chance for me and my career,” he said. “I know what is at stake in this fight.”

Asked where he’s been since his bout with Canelo, Kirkland let out a sigh and said he’s been busy getting a real estate and car-wash business up and running. But he missed the outlet that boxing provided him, the rawness and directness of the sport that was absent in the corporate world. 

“I was trying to start some businesses and trying to do a lot of different things for my kid’s sake, and I was in charge of everything and it was cool and I was having fun,” he said. “But for me, the way I have fun is in the ring, and I want to be able to put my hands on someone. In the business world, when you get frustrated, you can’t put your hands on your employees,” he said with a laugh. “You have to talk things out. So, I think it’s only right that I return to the ring.”

“I haven’t fallen off. I’ve stayed in the ring and worked on my craft." Middleweight Contender - James Kirkland

Kirkland said he’s added a little finesse to his foundation to avoid taking any unnecessary punishment. 

“I haven’t fallen off,” he said. “I’ve stayed in the ring and worked on my craft and my skills and on my balance. I’ve learned that you don’t have to go hard all the time. It’s also about being smart about it, so it’s just great to be back and to make another run at a title. That’s the goal.”

There wasn’t much room for tact in his earlier fights. 

The bell sounded and Kirkland made a beeline to his opponent, a 154-pound bowling ball that didn’t know how to back up. 

Anyone searching for a classic Kirkland performance can look no further than his bout with Tapia. A highly-regarded prospect at the time, Tapia was 20-0 when he entered the ring in Atlantic City in 2013. The bout was supposed to be a coming out party, a showcase for Tapia on HBO. And what happened? Kirkland, in his first bout under the promotional banner of hip hop star Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, devoured Tapia like a cocktail snack.   

No matter what Tapia did, Kirkland kept coming, walking through punches to land his own. Kirkland’s destruction was so complete, it left observers begging for the fight to be stopped, which it finally was in the sixth round. “This is a dangerous and a difficult fight to watch,” the HBO commentator Jim Lampley said before the start of the final round. “It’s brutal.”

Instead of capitalizing on that performance, Kirkland remained on the shelf for 18 months, parting ways with trainer Ann Wolfe and reportedly dealing with legal and management issues, until he faced Canelo in May of 2015. 

Tracing the contours of his career involves following the twists and turns, the stops and starts of his life outside of the ring.  

In 2009, Kirkland was stopped for a traffic violation and a gun was reportedly found in his car. After serving 30 months for armed robbery in 2003, Kirkland was charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and was sentenced to 24 months in prison, scuttling plans for him to fight on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton later that year.  

After his release from prison in 2010 and subsequent time at a halfway house, Kirkland was given another chance with a slot on the undercard of Erik Morales-Marcos Maidana in 2011. 

But Kirkland was dropped by Nobuhiro Ishida three times and stopped in one round, the final knockdown causing referee Joe Cortez to waive off the fight and to kneel on Kirkland, who was fighting to get up and continue. 

Two months later he was back in the ring with a first-round knockout of Dennis Sharpe, and it was as if the loss to Ishida never happened. He won two straight to secure a high-profile match with Angulo in 2011, stopping him in six frenzied rounds after he was nearly stopped himself in the first round. 

Kirkland was initially penciled in to face Canelo in 2012 after Paull Williams withdrew after he was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. But Kirkland dropped out, citing an injured shoulder and the assignment went to another brawler, Josesito Lopez. 

Kirkland was also supposed to face Miguel Cotto back in 2017 at the new training facility of the Dallas Cowboys in Frisco, Texas but a nose injury that Kirkland suffered in training scuttled that bout.  

While the dream of a rematch with Canelo is remote, Kirkland is coming along at a time when there’s renewed interest in yesterday’s leading stars, when Mike Tyson’s exhibition with Roy Jones Jr. in November garnered well over a million pay-per-view buys and where Floyd Mayweather Jr. can still produce tremors with news of an exhibition against Logan Paul. Kirkland is inspired by the assertiveness of these veterans, believing there’s an appetite to see former stars with big names back in the ring.

If they can do it, he reasons, why not him? 

“I feel like when I was away, people were saying, ‘Where’s Kirkland?’ They missed me in the sport,” he said. “They miss a come-forward, educated fighter. They want to see someone who’s willing to let it all hang out. It’s great to be back and to show everyone that I’m still here and why they missed this guy. And if these guys can do it, come back into the game after being out of it for so long, then why not me?”

For a closer look at Morrell vs Gavronski, check out our fight night page. 

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