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James Kirkland: “It’s more than a blessing”

(James Kirkland)
(James Kirkland)

The long ring walk was nothing compared to how long it took to get back here for junior middleweight James Kirkland. You could see it in the way he moved- bounced, even- toward the ring, eager to get at the man waiting for him there. Wearing a simple red sweatshirt to go with red and black trunks, the southpaw Austin, TX native bounded into the ring for the first time in two years before a growing crowd at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA two weeks ago. Another opening bout once again on another fighter’s showcase card. When Kirkland went back to prison two years ago for buying a gun (though already a felon), many felt this moment would never come. However, Kirkland never doubted he’d return and as he bounced in the corner during the introductions, the readiness for this moment oozing off of him, you could see the frustration and pent-up aggression ready to be unleashed.


“It’s more than a blessing,” Kirkland would tell me afterward. “First and foremost, I want to give thanks to God because without him, none of this would be possible. As far as me being able to come back and to get back in a boxing ring and do what I know how to do best, it’s a blessing. I give thanks to Kenny Adams and Coach Chris for getting me ready in the gym every day. And Pops [Billingsley] for giving me all of the knowledge of boxing and teaching me and staying with me for so long. He continues to stay with me and help me with my boxing. It’s really a privilege to have good people around me like [co-managers] Michael Miller and Cameron Dunkin, [promoter Oscar] De La Hoya, the list goes on and on as far as people who stayed down for me when the separation came from me and boxing and me going to jail.”

One name missing from that list of thank-yous is former co-trainer Anne Wolfe. Kirkland and Wolfe had been together since James first started boxing as a nine-year-old back in Austin. Since he’s been in and out of prison, there has been a rift, one which James still will not talk about.  


“No I haven’t talked to Ann,” said Kirkland, 26-0 (23). “We talked for the first few months I was in jail but for the majority of my time, we didn’t communicate at all. And since I been out, I haven’t talked to her at all.”


Kirkland was polite and complimentary of Wolfe, speaking of how well she conditioned him for ring war. But in the end, he said that it was time to move forward in his career and left the details of what transpired unsaid. It is a story only to be told between them.


Moving forward for Kirkland includes a move to Las Vegas to work with veteran trainer Kenny Adams, who trained Al Cole, Diego Corrales, Frankie Liles, Freddie Norwood, Ray Mercer, Vince Philips and Edwin Valero. Adams is known as a disciplinarian and a technician. While it has been easy to get Kirkland to work out, straightening out his punches, fixing his balance and adding a missing weapon were keys for Adams.


While his opponent, Ashandi Gibbs, a six-round fighter coming off two losses, was clearly there as a sacrificial lamb, there were subtle differences in Kirkland’s game. The punches came from close to his center near his chin and returned just as close. Before, Kirkland’s hands would go all over the place as he stormed forward in full-out attack mode, caution be damned. This is how he got dropped by Allan Conyers in the first round of their fight in November 2007. The result of Adams’ and Kirkland’s new union was brief- 34 seconds to be exact- but the work they are doing together is evident.


“What I was pleased with more than anything else was that James didn’t primarily have a hook before so we’ve been working on that,” explained Adams. “So that was one thing that he threw that I was very pleased about. But you know, James has got all the other tools anyway. But the big key for him, he’s such a dedicated, hard-working guy so things can never get but a lot better for him. That’s how it’s going to happen. Things are going to get much better.”


“My plan coming into the fight was ‘Redeem myself.’ Be the same person that I was. Show everybody that I haven’t lost nothing,” said Kirkland. “The only thing I lost was time that I can’t get back. I lost time being with my kids and my family. As far as the boxing, I wanted to leave a mark and show everyone that I am still ready. I am still willing. I’m fired up and I am still ready to win.”


Adams is man known to not just work with anyone. He is not a celebrity hired gun but a man who values his time and putting his reputation on the line with a fighter. Knowing that Kirkland has a solid work ethic was important to Adams. Though to speak to them both, their definition of hard work may differ.


“That was very important because I was listening to people who said as much and then I got to see for myself,” said Adams. “You have to slow him down really. He just wants to get in there and work hard, hard, hard. You have to cut that off because sometimes you can get over-trained.”


“They may want to train me hard but I train hard hard,” said Kirkland. “They may want me to train this way or that way but I train hard hard. I have to show them how strong and how hard I train. A lot of people don’t train their fighters the way I train. So they like, ‘That’s unheard of.’ When I show them, they’re like, ‘Oh, sh*t.” Like it’s just different methods that I do when it comes to training, as far as how much adrenaline, how much energy do I put into the gym. It messes with them. ‘He can’t possibly be really that good or that focused.’ And that is where my mind frame is at, staying focused and giving thanks to God. I have this second, third, opportunity to come back and show the world I can be great.”


One thing that was apparent was Kirkland’s balance was better. Sure, it was a super-short fight but you could tell his center of gravity was different. He was lower to the ground with his hips under him and more compact in general, a wrecking ball as opposed to an out-of-control storm.


“[Adams has] been showing me all the new tricks,” explained Kirkland. “How to sit down on punches, how to hold your balance down. There are a lot of tricks of the trade that he knows that he is giving to me. [Balance] and being able, when I make a certain move, to know how to adjust and be able to fly with a bunch of power while making that move.”


“That was one of the things we were working on, getting his balance better,” said Adams. “We’ve been together about four weeks now. It is going to work itself out. I know a lot of people are wanting to jump in and do a lot of fighting for him but I hope they give him an opportunity to kind of work with it. Although knowing him, he wants to fight, fight, fight. He wanted another fight tonight after this one. He wanted us to put him in again.”


“I would have,” agreed Kirkland. “If they gave me the opportunity to do it again, I would have done it. No problem. I would like to fight every month-and-a-half every time. It would keep me busy, keep me focused, but I just see myself getting three more fights and then fighting for the title.”


[Editor’s note: as of press time , Kirkland is slated to face Jhon Berrio, 15-8 (11), on Friday night at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, California]


Bold words but at the same time, Adams seemed to agree on the timetable before Kirkland could be stepped up to contention fights, as did Kirkland’s co-manager, Cameron Dunkin.  


“Two or three fights,” said Adams. “He showed me today. We warmed up very well and he went in very fluid and wasn’t wild. The punches were compact and they were locked down real good.”


The question is, at what weight does Kirkland potentially chase a title? He’s promoted by Golden Boy, who has just gotten Saul Alvarez his WBC belt at 154 pounds, Kirkland’s former division. It’s hard to believe they would put this man in with that kid any time soon, especially considering that James was merely the opening bout on a card Alvarez headlined to the tune of 11,000 tickets sold.


“We were at 162 for this fight but we didn’t make a big, big push to make weight until the final weight so [Kirkland] can probably [make 154],” said Adams, “although 160 could probably be a good weight for him because he probably can be much stronger at 160. Maybe, maybe not because the way this guy works is just amazing, you know? I’m amazed at how hard he works because I have had guys that work really hard and he really pushes it.”


Adams has high hopes for his young charge. When he guested on radio show later in the week, Adams made a bold prediction for Kirkland. “I believe he can be the best of his era,” Adams said. “Even better than Manny Pacquiao.”


Cue angry emails now.


“The sky is the limit,” Adams said at ringside after the fight, “as long as he can stay healthy. He is the future of boxing. I really believe so because of what he brings to the game. He brings attitude, civility, all those things you need in boxing. And he has a great heart. He saw three young kids at the fitness center over here across the street. He started talking to them. He loves kids. He has three himself. He asked ‘Ya’ll want to come to the fight?’ And they said, ‘Yeah,’ so he got them three tickets.”


Another key for Kirkland will be staying out of trouble. He has already had two run-ins with the parole board since he got out last September.


“That was because I went to go run five miles,” Kirkland explained. “They gave me permission to run five miles but then the head people, they say, ‘Hey, he’s not supposed to even be running. That’s not part of the job.’ So now they want to blame me like I never got permission but I got permission. So we went over to the head people at the prison and told them about the situation. The people got in trouble at the halfway house and they sent me back because of that. The other time was because I went to go get my mouthpiece.”


Kirkland explained that once you’re in the penal system and in the eye of the law, getting back on track is a very hard thing to do. Still, he said he loves his home state even if he had to leave it to begin again.


“Don’t get me wrong. Texas is a beautiful place. If you want to raise kids and get involved in a good amount of great things, Texas is a great place. But when it comes to the laws in Texas, it’s kind of crazy. Drug laws and gun laws, different things seem out of the ordinary. Come to Vegas, Cali, everyone got their different little laws. When it comes to Texas, once you commit crimes and hang around with bad people and bad influences, you’re hooked but they don’t play down there. When they say, ‘Don’t mess with Texas,’ they mean, ‘Don’t mess with Texas.’


Kirkland’s managers felt it was a good idea to move him to Las Vegas to work with Adams, away from the temptations of old habits in East Austin. Perhaps in a new environment, a new beginning can occur. Perhaps the old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are” will reveal itself to be true again. Time will tell.


While he didn’t mention who he wanted to fight specifically, knowing Kirkland, he doesn’t care. “Line them up and I will knock them down” has always been his attitude. Whether or not he can refine his boxing skills while maintaining his identity and aggression in the ring will be another story.


“I am just trying use boxing skills but at the same time, I want to be able to press and give what I know how to do until somebody can bring it to me to make me bring out more of my boxing skills,” said Kirkland.


Watching him look for that specific name fighter and seeing what happens when he finds him is going to be one exciting ride, whether it lasts only another 34 seconds or results in a long, illustrious career. 


You can email Gabriel at, follow him on Twitter at and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim or tune into him live on Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST when he co-hosts the BlogTalk radio show Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

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