On April 19, 2009, Kirkland, a convicted felon for a 2003 armed robbery conviction that kept him in prison for a little over two years, was arrested for buying a gun at an Austin gun show. It’s a federal offense for a felon to purchase, much less possess, a firearm. The crime carries a possible ten-year sentence. All was seemingly lost, considering the strict laws in Texas and Kirkland’s past.
Kirkland, 26, pled guilty in July. With moving testimony on his behalf by co-trainer Ann Wolfe, promoter Oscar De La Hoya and co-manager Mike Miller, and considering the six months he had already served, he was sentenced to 18 months in Bastrop Federal Prison in Bastrop, TX. The sentence was a relief and it started Kirkland on a path of personal enlightenment and some serious revelations about the world around him.
I first saw James Kirkland on June 3, 2006 on the undercard of what should have been Diego Corrales and Jose Luis Castillo III. He was the opening bout of the card and he tore across the ring like a combustible mix of Marvelous Marvin Hagler (his favorite fighter) and Mike Tyson. It was his third fight back after returning from prison and he tore through Ray Cuningham in one round like he was an appetizer and Kirkland hadn’t eaten in years. The pace he set was one of a man on fire, absolutely torrid with a relentless fury that spoke to his hunger and desire to not just beat the man in front of him but destroy him.
Every fight after that was the same with Kirkland rushing across the ring in a near-sprint looking to take the head off of his opponent. Approaching from all angles that left him open to counters, Kirkland seemed impervious to pain or punches though it was expected this breakneck approach would be his undoing. Still, he remained under the radar until November 30, 2007 when he took out Allen Conyers in a one-round slugfest on Showtime’s “ShoBox: The New Generation” that saw Kirkland get knocked down for the very first time, only to rise and drop Conyers twice en route to the TKO1 victory.
Soon after, Kirkland soon split with his second promoter, Gary Shaw and signed with Golden Boy who quickly put him in the driver’s seat in a young but burgeoning junior middleweight division.
With the world nearly in the palm of his hand, Kirkland’s crime put all that on hold until about 9 AM, Texas time, September 30, 2010.
“It doesn’t feel real yet,” Kirkland told me just hours after his release Thursday morning, as he drove from Miller’s office in San Antonio, TX to a halfway house in Austin where he will spend, at most, three months of a three-year probation.
There has been much speculation as to why Kirkland did what he did. He had not spoken publicly about the crime until today as he stayed in jail from the time of his arrest until this morning in hopes of taking time off of what his team felt would be a lengthy sentence. Some said Kirkland was merely a thug from East Austin; a street kid who started sparring at age six for $5 a round. Others claimed the life of an on-the-cusp star had gotten to him and that he had spoiled on the vine before he even had the chance to ripen.
For the first time outside of a police or courtroom, James Kirkland gets to tell his side of the story.
“The situation is like this,” he began. “Basically, I had got robbed previous to me buying the gun, so I thought it in my best interest to protect my kids. So I thought about just going to the gun show, buy a gun, even though I already knew I was a felon. I was just like, you know, ‘I’ll get this for protection.’ And even though I tried to get it from a private owner, it all backtracked on me. I signed my name, gave him my ID and just got myself a world of trouble.
“I’d say [the robbery] was a week and a half before the incident,” Kirkland continued. “The reason I didn’t report it was because the person had a mask or something like that on. My knowledge was how can you do anything about it? How can any justice get done by it if I say, ‘Oh, I seen the robber and he just in some car. He had a mask on.’ They going to be like, ‘What color is the car? You don’t know the color of the car.’ And you don’t know the color of the car because you’re so scared, you know? There’s just a logic that goes to it that you know no justice is going to get done behind it.”
The robbery happened just as Kirkland was arriving home. He didn’t even have time to get out of the car when a gunman relieved him of everything he had on him and fled quickly.
In a sense, the perception that success had changed Kirkland is true. But not in the way you think. While James stayed the same, tending to his three children and training in much talked-about sessions with co-trainer/conditioning coach Ann Wolfe and Pops Billingsley, the way he was perceived changed.
“Where I stay in East Austin, they look at you not just as a fan or a friend,” Kirkland explained. “They also look at you as a target because you have access to money. Now you are like a money target. ‘Oh, he’s got the money, man. These boxers making this type of money.’ So they start looking at you as a target instead of looking at you as a friend. You know everybody doesn’t have these opportunities or set their mind frame or goals to try and achieve anything. So they think, ‘The only way I know how to make it is to put that pistol to somebody and rob.’ You know, that’s just the real world where people want to do those types of things. And hey, that’s why I made the decision that after the incident happened, I went ahead and to go buy a firearm and protect myself and my family.”
It was reported by some that Kirkland went to a gun show near Austin, TX and purchased a firearm, left the show, then returned to buy a second firearm. Kirkland explained why that perception came out and why it is wrong.
“That’s nonsense,” he said of the story. “The reason I went back was because a lot of people were telling me, ‘Hey, no. You’re a felon. You’re a felon.’ I said, ‘I know but the dude did a background check on me and he said I was good.’ So my whole mind frame was to go back up there and say, ‘I want to go back to the dude and make sure and ask him, ‘Did you run my name in and I was good?”
James ill-hatched plan was to tell the man he bought the .40-caliber Glock handgun from, that he had gone to someone else to purchase a gun and they had denied him due to a pending domestic violence case which actually was not true. Kirkland tested the man and instead of the man ‘fessing up, the plan backfired horribly.
“So I went back up there and I told him, ‘You know I got a case, this family violence case,” explained Kirkland. “I lied to the dude and said, ‘I had a family violence case pending. I went to another person and tried to buy another firearm,’ which I was lying to try and see if he really ran my name. I said, ‘I went to another dude trying to buy a gun and he said, ‘No, you got a family violence case pending.’ And I said [to the gun dealer], ‘So did you really run my name in?’ I just really told him a story to see what he was going to say as far as running my name in. He said, ‘I wouldn’t have sold you no gun if you a felon.’ I said ‘That’s not what I’m asking. I’m asking did you run my name in?’ And he got all uppity about the situation. I said, ‘Look here now; I did not want the gun. I will give the gun back to you.’ So the guy got a little uppity about it and so I said, ‘I’m going to let you calm down. Meanwhile, when you calm down, I’ll come back and holla at you and he was like, ‘Alright.’”
But it wasn’t “alright” as soon as a couple of undercover agents from the ATF stepped in. Soon “uppity” turned to covering his own behind as the gun dealer threw Kirkland under the bus to cover his lack of a background check on a felon.
“At that time, there was already detectives that was undercover federal agents watching the whole gun show and they happened to went over and asked what the situation was about,” Kirkland continued. “Then it was [the gun dealer saying], ‘This dude is asking about buying a firearm. He bought one earlier today but now he is telling me he has a felony or something.’ And so they looked through the records and saw I signed with my own ID. They didn’t hook and book me right there. They let me leave the gun show and they chased me in the vehicle and then I got stopped and hey, man, that’s when I went to jail about it. I never did buy another gun. I wanted to make sure they ran my name so if he say he didn’t, I didn’t want nothing to do with this gun because I knew this was going to be a federal case and I’ll go to jail for a long amount of time. So I tried to give the gun back but it was already proven that I bought it and so it was already like, ‘Hey, it’s over with.’”
Kirkland left the gun show in his car with the gun still in it. It was only a matter of time before he was pulled over by the feds and arrested.
“When I seen a bunch of agents following me, I didn’t know they was undercover but they just seemed suspicious and shaky so I was like, ‘I just need to go,’” Kirkland said. “’I’m just going to leave.’ And so I tried to just leave and then I seen regular cars driving real fast behind me and hey, it was just like, ‘I need to get out of the situation so I can at least have that fight and it turned out to be a bad, bad thing.
“I never brought the gun to the show,” he continued. “It was inside the vehicle the whole entire time. So that’s why I was like, when he told me that, ‘Well, I don’t want the gun. I’ll just give the gun back to you.’ So I was going to wait around there for the dudes to say, ‘Where’s the gun?’ and ‘Go back to the vehicle and give it back to them,’ but other than that, once I jumped inside the vehicle and tried to leave, the gun was still inside the vehicle. So when they stopped the vehicle, the foul was right there.”
The sum of all those poor decisions is something James was quick to acknowledge and take responsibility for.
“I thought that I made the most terrible mistake in my life and everything sort of shattered my whole dream,” he said. “That’s what I really had in mind. But if you just, you know, keep faith in God and keep on praying, anything is possible. That’s what I did. I want to tell the fans I am very, very sorry for making this mistake. Even though I felt at the time it was the right thing to do, by law it was the wrong thing to do.”
You would think that if Kirkland was a target outside of prison, he’d be an even bigger one inside of one. It was, in fact, quite the opposite.
“It really made it easier,” he explained. “My status on the outside because a lot of people, if they are in jail, they do their time by seeing someone achieve something, seeing someone making it that they know. So on the inside, they were like, ‘Hey, he doin’ his thing, man.’ They like to read different things, pick things up and read and think, “Oh, hey, he’s really boxing and he’s doing a good job.’ They do their time by seeing people achieve things and move up the ladder so it made it easier.”
What he found beyond fellow inmates living vicariously through him was support. Kirkland spoke about this as well as his feelings regarding some strict and, in his opinion, unnecessarily long sentences he had witnessed.
“[The inmates] didn’t criticize me for making the mistake that I did,” Kirkland said. “They were just like, ‘This is a setback for you. God has blessed you with a second opportunity.’ A lot of people in there, they’re in jail for 20-plus years and they are going to stay in there for 85% of their time. And I just think it’s just not really right for a person to be gone for a little amount of dope or a little bit of this and they give people 30, 40 years. And they got to do 85% of that time. It doesn’t seem real. They don’t give a person a chance to get a second chance. Their first mistake is their last mistake, you know? It is very brutal. A lot of people, they don’t know the law. They jump out and commit a crime but they don’t know the real consequences. They might get a year, maybe two, maybe five years then you might do 30% of my time to get put on paper. The federal system, any time that you do in there, you are going to do 85% of your time no matter what. If they give you 100 years, you’ve got to do 85% of 100 years.”
Another thing prison showed Kirkland was who his real inner circle was comprised of. He spoke with great gratitude about all the people who visited him as well as the testimony on his behalf by Miller, Wolfe and De La Hoya.
“When they came and they showed that they had a lot of love and tried to come and show me a lot of support, it meant a lot to me because in the meantime when I was incarcerated, it was like everyone faded away,” Kirkland explained. “Like all friends all faded away. But my family, my mom stayed down there [near the prison]; a lot of people kept me motivated and stayed behind me. They pushed me to do the right thing. And they were the ones that have been staying with me the whole entire time. There’s only a few people that I can say actually showed me a lot of favor, you know?”
During the last half of his stay in prison, the relationship that seemed to be his closest, that with Ann Wolfe, reportedly deteriorated. While neither co-manager Cameron Dunkin nor Mike Miller would comment, Kirkland himself only shed partial light on the situation.
Ann and James have a special bond. You can just see it when they are together in the corner or after a fight or while training for one. From the outside, it resembled the kind where not much speaking has to be done. Having worked with Ann since he was just a boy of around nine, Kirkland was understandably respectful of their privacy.
“That wasn’t really a rumor because like I said, Ann Wolfe is an excellent trainer,” Kirkland said of the reported rift that was so deep, it was speculated he would replace her in his corner, “but as far as the situation of me being in jail and loyalty, as far as being that person not just as far as motivating, I know she took the stand and I thank her that. She was a good person through the first part of my stretch, then towards the end, there’s really a lot of questions that need to be answered on my part that I need to have some type of comfort in my heart to know what took place when I first got locked up, you know? There’s a lot of things that I still need answers to. There’s really no hard feelings but I don’t know as far as Ann Wolfe being my trainer at this time.”
What Kirkland described was that communication between them had broken down. While Wolfe, in a two-part interview with Maxboxing.com earlier this year, Wolfe expressed a desire to remain with James, she also allowed that what is best for him is what she will honor. For now, Kirkland who would go back and forth just a bit regarding their future, elaborated on their issue while seemingly leaning toward a new direction.
“Exactly. We really weren’t touching base,” Kirkland answered when asked if it was a communication issue. “We weren’t communicating at all. Like I say, she’s a good trainer, a good person in the heart. But as far as her being my trainer still? I’m really iffy on it. It’s not even like I will stay in that same position but she’s a good trainer though. Excellent trainer but I just think that the right thing to do is to move on and try and get some other trainer and take the things that she worked with me with and push it on and try and better myself physically, mentally, and spiritually, the whole nine.”
Despite his apparent decision, Kirkland seemed to agree that Ann, with her unorthodox methods of having James spar two men at once at full speed or running in the hot Texas heat chasing or running backwards from a truck with heavy bags attached on either end, is someone who knows how to get the very best out of him.
“Me, I’m an outgoing person. And the things that a person tells me to do, I’m willing to do because I know the things that they tell me to do are only to better myself,” he explained when asked if another trainer could do for him what she had. “So as far as a person being able to train me the way that Ann do, I think they will be scared to try and push me to my limit like she will. She’ll tell me to go out there, run and do this. Then finish up and go do that. It’s a whole different type of training that she does that I think she is the best at doing. But I believe the stuff that I have in mind and being with her for so long, as far as training, I have my own willpower, my own strength that says, ‘What is the next thing to be different going to do? What’s his drive? What’s his motivation? And push him. And am I going to be able to push him into a worse mind position or a worse mind frame to be able to overcome this fighter?’ So I promise myself and that’s the only thing, just give it all I got. But I feel that Ann is going to make you really give it all you got into that training and it shows in your performance.”
So did Kirkland miss boxing?
“Man, you sleep boxing,” he said with a laugh. “You dream boxing. You wake up think of boxing. You can’t stop moving boxing. Any time a smell comes through that smells like a boxing gym, boxing be on your mind 24/7 because that is all that you know and you put all your time and effort into the gym. So that’s what I thought about was boxing and my family, you know? And the people really that have stayed down [near the prison] while I been down.”
But missing the sport did not change the fact that his career was on hold. What brought that further home was an edict from the guards.
“The guards told me that if I threw any punches that I was going to get locked down,” Kirkland explained. “They didn’t want me practicing no punches, showing a person a punch. They didn’t want me moving like I was going to punch. They told me no punching. And me, I followed the structure because I wanted to get close to my family, get back to my career.”
No punching aside, Kirkland, a workout machine to the extreme who left prison today an in-shape “172-173” pounds, found a way to work out in the limited confines of prison life.
“As far as punching, that’s out of the question,” he explained. “As far as roadwork, running, exercising, and trying to get motivated in there, you do because you want to come back in the world. You want to come back in the world as soon as possible, get back to being that leader that everyone looks toward you being. But you don’t get that real good motivation, you know? You think about boxing and they say ‘Chow time’ and you’re right in the middle of getting into your work and they cut you off. Every time they do that, you really don’t just give it your all, you know what I’m saying? That’s where I was at.”
Boxing career on hold or not, Kirkland claimed the hardest part of the ordeal was being away from his family, particularly his kids who he feels he let down.
“Being away from my family was the hardest because boxing, I feel, that I love the sport. It’s something I’ve been connected with since I was six years old. So it’s hard to be away from boxing for the amount of time that I was. But being away from your kids, the ones you want to raise up the right way and teach a certain type of way of not winding up in jail but you’re in jail. You know, you want to be able to show them a different type of path than what you went through. It’s hard when you want to be able to have your kids achieve something totally different than the path you took at the beginning of your career and the way you grew up. It’s hard. You’re like, I feel that I disappointed my kids as far as being their leader. So that’s the main part that hurts as far as not being there for them.”
Kirkland was slated to be released on September 17. Unfortunately, a week before his release, Mike Miller received an email from Kirkland that he was being further detained for an unknown reason. In the process he lost his bed at the halfway house.
“As of June, we had word that James would be released as long as he behaved himself, if you will,” explained Miller. “So we’d been working towards that [September 17] release date for three months. About the first part of September, I get an email from James saying, ‘They’ve now jerked my release date and given up my bed at the halfway house because I’m told that there is a detainer or a hold on me.’ I emailed him and asked, ‘How the hell did you get a detainer if you’ve been in prison?’ A detainer is something you get if the court finds out you are somewhere you shouldn’t be and you violated some type of probation or parole and the court finds out about it and puts a hold on you. I thought, ‘How in the world did they put a detainer on him if he has been in prison system since September of last year?’ So I kind of smelled a rat right there. So I called his case manager and his case manager wouldn’t call back. So I knew he would just sit there until somebody talked to me. I put in my application to go see him and it was approved. The case manager wouldn’t meet with me but his boss did. And she came in and I asked for an explanation for why his release date had been pulled and why his bed had been released at the halfway house. She said the computer said they had a detainer on him. I asked how in the world he could have a detainer since he had been under your care since last September and prior to that since April in the state prison system? No way could he have a detainer.”
Miller cut to the chase and found out what he needed to confirm that there was no need for a detainer. Miller was told to get two letters, one from the first judge who sentenced him back in 2003 and the new judge who had sentenced him last speaking on James’ behalf and confirming Miller’s story. Miller produced the letters and then the process of waiting to get another bed at the halfway house began, ending this past week. No explanation was ever given for the mystery detainer.
What this did was not only hold up Kirkland’s release date but push back his return to the ring to December instead of the planned November date. It also nearly dashed James’ hopes of ever returning to his life outside the prison walls.
“That messed up everything,” Kirkland said. “As far as your motivation, you’ve been down for a minute; you’ve been locked up for a minute so you’re like, ‘I’m supposed to leave on the 17th of September.’ It’s like someone telling you, ‘Man, here’s a piece of cake,’ and they never give to you. And you’re like, ‘Sh*t, man, you’re trying to give me something but you’re not giving it to me,’ you know? It bothered me in terms of my training. It bothered me mentally. It messed me up where it kept me down. It made me stress like, ‘Am I really going to get out or are they going to keep me another three or four months? What are they going to do? Are they going to release me?’ So it just messed up bad as far as that setback.”
Kirkland is expected to return to the ring on either December 4 or December 18, starting off at middleweight or just above as he slowly tests the waters and gets back down to 154 pounds, where the waters are ripe for his return. After a week of mandatory orientation in his new halfway house residence, during which he cannot leave, he will begin training nearby. While he is slated to reside there for three months, much like in prison, Kirkland could be eligible to leave that house in as little as a month’s time should he 1) show good behavior and 2) be able to pay for his bed at the halfway house for the remaining months of his term per state law. Overall, he will be on probation for three years, though that as well could be reduced.
Kirkland answered candidly when I asked him if prison time made it easier to face a man toe-to-toe in the ring.
“No. To me, I think as far as being locked up, it teaches about people, as far as your so-called friends,” he responded. “It teaches you about your so-called family; the people that you favored, the people that you supported while you were out there. And then you get locked up. It makes it where you can take any type of pain or any type of punishment that a person gives you. It shows the worst of these people that fell off on you; these people that didn’t care about you that you were helping out with bills or financials. But they turn on you at the end. So you can take any type of punishment that a person can give you. So that’s really why I feel so strong. I got to gain a relationship with God and am able to talk to him and pray to him every day. And I just feel that right now, God is more like a friend. He gives me anything I need and takes care of me. So I just got to give thanks to God. He looked out for me and got me a blessing for two years and I feel good about the situation. I’m glad that I got to experience this incident because it just made me a totally different person, you know?”
I know. Before this, even though we had spoken often over the years, Kirkland always seemed a bit reserved, almost shy at times. On this day, however, Kirkland was energized, jubilant even. The mood was two-fold, he explained.
“It’s probably because I’m out but at the same time, like I say, God has helped me out a lot, man,” Kirkland said. “I feel good about the situation. I know about as far as friends, as far as trust-wise, you can’t trust everybody, you know? You can’t put a lot of love and support behind a bunch of people. You got to really stay to your beliefs and if you have a negative person that’s in your life, you’ve got to leave that area. I just know what I’ve got to do now if I want to be a different person or if I want to be able to achieve something and move forward, I got to change for the better of me and my family.”
Kirkland credits not only a stronger tie to God as part of the change in him but also a newfound mission he has discovered while inside, taking classes and bettering his mind along with his spirit and body.
“Oh man, I did these different interviews and business classes. I want to be more of a business person that people can look up to,” he explained. “A leader that can give back to the kids and talk to kids that are down and neglected or kids that are been troubled a bunch and really show them a different type of path and give them a brighter look at life. Give them a goal and let them know they can achieve anything. I just want to give back and at the same time, be able to help my family financially. And just show them that a person that has been all that I’ve been through, you can actually achieve something.”
So has he learned his lesson? I asked James if he would ever go back to prison.
“I will never go back,” he said without hesitation. “I will never go back. I won’t say ‘unless’ or none of that. There’s no way in the world that I am going to let anything jeopardize me losing contact with my kids, lose contact with my mother and the people who put a lot of heart, soul and training into me getting to the place I was before I got locked up. I’ll never want this jail be the reason or the outcome of any situation that I get myself into. If I am in an area that seems like something’s bad, I got to leave that area or never have those types of people around my area. If they do come to my area, I got to go. It’s a different type of thinking that I’m on and a different type of goal that I am looking forward to. My goal was looking to be able to get to the top and to be able to say, ‘I’m the most respected type of fighter.’ But now my goal is to be able to take care of my family and be able to achieve anything and get world titles and just move on to promote something or to achieve anything I put my heart and soul into.”
There is talk of Kirkland possibly relocating to Las Vegas or California once his three months in the halfway house are up. Miller told me that it is very possible to transfer him to another state where he will have to check in with a parole officer from time to time during his probation. So for now, Kirkland will train in Austin while he sorts out life on the outside and puts his team back together or makes it over entirely.
“Pops, that’s my really my only coach as far as boxing and training me. Ann is a conditioning coach. Pops is my boxing coach,” James explained. “I’ll probably still have him in my corner. He is 70+ years-old. His birthday just recently passed. I’ll still be training with him. He had a minor stroke while I was locked up but they say he’s better than ever, which is a blessing. So I am looking forward to still working the mitts with him. Basically just keep the same people in my corner as far as Pops. I really don’t know about the outcome of Ann Wolfe. Like I said, I have a lot of unanswered questions that I need to get after. But I really am looking forward to working with a new trainer and just starting over fresh.
“As far as boxing career,” he continued, “where I see myself, as far as what do I have left or do I think I can still be world champion, I feel like the game’s just begun. I’m back and ready. I’m still hungry. So, this made me even stronger so I’m still willing to do whatever it takes to be a world champion. The only concern I have is who is going to my trainer. That’s my biggest concern. But as far as boxing and wanting to train and wanting to get back to where I was, it’s not a question to be asked. It’s already said and done. I’m ready.”
Kirkland truly believes he will be able to pick up where he left off though he is mindful of how long the road back might be and the process of getting back to championship form.
“Man, you just got to see it to believe it,” he said when I asked him how hungry he was. “To me, it’s just going to be more of a blessing. As far as eager to get back to the top, I’m so ready to get to that position. They just have to put those fighters in front of me so I can be able to get out there and get it. I would like to start at a nice pace, whoever I fight, but eventually, next two or three fights, if I can jump right back to the top so I can take back where I belong. Take my place.”
Some might say its lip service from a man just released. The general attitude toward a repeat offender ex-con is skepticism. But as James said, seeing is believing. In my case, hearing was believing. Everything about him seemed different on this day. He was neither guarded nor short with his answers, as was the case before. The joy in his voice at the thought of seeing his children soon, being reunited with his friends and family, the end of this long ordeal and the excitement of the future to come was as palpable as anything I have ever experienced.
His return to the ring will tell part of the tale and time will tell the rest but for now, James Kirkland is back and he is ready to do what he does best.
“I just want to apologize to the fans and let them know that I will be back out there and continue to do what I do best, man,” Kirkland said in closing. “That is…destroy, you know?”
And with a laugh, a “God bless you,” and a happy farewell for now, James Kirkland got off the phone and continued his journey toward what we can all only hope is a very bright future.
Mr. Montoya would like to thank Mike Miller, Cameron Dunkin, Steve Kim and of course, James Kirkland, for making this interview possible.
You can email Gabriel at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him on each Monday’s episode of “The Next Round” with Steve Kim or tune into hear him live on Thursdays at 5-8 PM PST when he co-hosts the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com. Gabriel is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.