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Ann Wolfe on James Kirkland and Her Growing Army of Fighters: Part One

(Photo © Eric Doggett)
(Photo © Eric Doggett)

Last March, trainer Ann Wolfe’s most well-known pupil and close friend James Kirkland was all set for stardom. Recently signed with Golden Boy Promotions, he had just defeated Joel Julio in an HBO showcase bout and was set to appear on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao vs. Ricky Hatton against Michael Walker with a title shot to follow. But then, Kirkland made a terrible decision to purchase a gun at a gun show. Worse was he went back and bought another. Now for any other citizen, this would have been fine but Kirkland is a former felon and as such could not legally purchase a gun. His probation was violated and he was sent to prison where he sits now awaiting his reported October 2nd release date. 


Now to those not in the know, the assumption is that Wolfe is simply waiting for Kirkland to return so she can resume her career which has languished during this waiting period. Nothing could be further than the truth. In fact, Wolfe is building an army. No, not in the way you would think. The former concurrent (Yes, meaning Wolfe simultaneously held titles in four different weight classes) four-division women’s boxing champion from Waco, Texas doesn’t have a cult or religious sect she is putting together in her gym in Cedar Creek, Texas. But rather a gym full of fierce fighters that range from eight-year-old female and male amateurs to budding prospects to Kirkland himself.

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking to Wolfe as she prepared her Wolfe Pack Promotions fighters for an upcoming July 10 card in Austin, Texas. We had not spoken in some time and the subject of James and how hard it has been getting through this period was my first question. I’m not sure if I was surprised at the answer considering the life Ann has led.



At one time, homeless, directionless, and seemingly without options, the single mother, with the help of Pops Billingsley, who co-trains with her at the Ann Wolfe Boxing and Fitness Gym, became an eight-time world champion. She’s known not only as the woman Laila Ali ducked but also as arguably the hardest female puncher of all time. In addition, Ann is the only woman to ever take a male fighter into the top three and the first female trainer to have a fighter in the main event on HBO. Through it all, Ann has remained humble and hungry while never forgetting where she came from.



“My mother died of cancer at age of 42,” she began when asked to describe how tough the last year has been. “My dad was murdered. That’s life. Life is misery and life is awesome. I’ve been through it all. I’ve eaten out of a trash can, not knowing what I was going to feed my child. Now, my daughter was ranked number one in the nation. Right now she is one 1-0. [The situation with James] was not tough at all. A lot of people think it was tough but it wasn’t compared to what I have been through in life.”



The two have been close since shortly after James first walked into the gym at age six, sharing a bond unlike few in the sport. Ann understands his temper, how to get what she needs out of him, when to push and when to tire him a bit to get him to relax. To observe them together is to see two warriors in tune. It’s hard to imagine how either feel being apart during this critical phase of what should be a boxing career. If it’s tough, Ann would never let you know it.



“I talked to him a few times to try and see if he is OK,” she said. “To me he is doing OK. He is being a man. He did something he had no business doing. He served his time so when he gets out, he can say he served his time and learned his lesson and I won’t count that against him. That’s what I did. I did my time and when I got out, I said don’t count that against me.”



The big question with Kirkland when he gets out is not if he will fight or when or even where. The biggest question is where he will live and train. There is a school of thought that if you remove a person from the hard streets he grew up in, that temptation to do something stupid will be removed. There’s another that says wherever you go, there you are. Where James lives and trains will create the most important question of all: Will Ann Wolfe and Pops Billingsley train James? That’s a question Wolfe hopes that she, co-managers Cameron Dunkin and Michael Miller, Golden Boy Promotions, James and Billingsley get to answer together.



“Some people, like me, you can put me anywhere and I can live,” Ann explains. “Some people, maybe James, are influenced by things he maybe shouldn’t be or maybe not. It all depends on what Cameron Dunkin and Golden Boy- and I am not just saying it just to say it…a lot of people say dumb sh*t just to say it…I’m saying it because they moved a kid who had nothing, that was nothing or nobody and when I [brought] James to Michael Miller and Cameron brought him to Golden Boy, all those people who were involved, they helped him. So I think it will take the mind of everybody, not just one person, to say what will be best for James. In the circle of James Kirkland, he is going to need someone who is not selfish. I’m not selfish. If James does not need to be in Austin or he gets in trouble, why would I be selfish and say ‘Oh, let him come back’? No. Let him leave. I can go out there and train James and do what we need to do. A lot of people try to build a boxer. In order to build a good boxer, it’s a difficult thing. I don’t care what nobody says.”



Now, some fighters can switch trainers and be fine. Some even improve with a better fit. But sometimes, as was the case with Naseem Hamed or Mike Tyson, when they dropped their respective original trainers, what makes a fighter unique is lost. Sometimes it’s just the fighter. But sometimes, as I believe in the cases of Hamed and Tyson, the chemistry and understanding that the trainer has of a unique fighter cannot be replaced. And so the fighter becomes lost, unable to get back what he once had.



Ann Wolfe does not train like any other trainer. She has them- all of them- from young to old, fight two people at the same time on a regular basis. Her fighters spar every day, not the usual three times a week of most gyms. They run 14 miles a day in the Texas heat, chasing or running from a truck with heavy bags on both sides that they punch at the same time. They carry boulders and get gang-tackled. As far as this writer can tell, Ann Wolfe’s gym is the closest you’re going to get to Sparta, short of re-watching 300. Wolfe’s training methods have been called crazy or over-the-top. For her, it’s just life. It’s preparing for the coming chaos by learning how to become chaos and be able to react in that space. We may see. But is hers the only to train James?



“I don’t know that. But that’s the way I train. That’s the way I fought,” says Wolfe. “That’s the way my daughter fights. That’s the way everybody in my gym fights. It’s why I go to a tournament with 14 fighters and 12 come back with gold medals. Because everybody in my camp is tenacious. Because that is the only way I know how to train. I don’t know any other way of training. So if somebody else out there can get that out of him …because I give myself a “B-” as a trainer. I give myself an “excellent” as a motivator. Excellent to get a fighter into that fight or flight. I know how to get a fighter to fight. My whole life has been fight or flight. So I know how to get you into that to where you are no longer boxing. You’re fighting. You’re no longer fighting. You are destroying a person from bell to bell. I know how to get that out of fighters.”



So now we have wait until October 2 to see about the return of James Kirkland. That’s the bad news for writers and fans. The good news is that according to Wolfe, there’s more where he comes from. A small army of children born from the hard streets of East Austin. Lost, forgotten, abandoned children now growing into young adults who, like Wolfe, will never forget where they came from and will fight like hell to never go back.



“I have other fighters in the gym that is going to come up and be the same way as James. I motivate them to the fight or flight. I train them to the fight or flight,” Wolfe said. “I train them because the majority of the kids I get don’t have nothing to win and everything to lose. [They say] ‘I’m hungry, somebody molested me. I’m thirsty. I want to eat. I want some money.’ The majority that come to me have been hurt, abused, and generally treated like sh*t. So that’s what I deal with because I want them to get out. I want to build a man first or a woman first and then a fighter. My daughter fights like it’s the last thing on Earth that she ever wants to do. And most train- I’m not saying all- they train very well. But how do you beat a fighter who knows, ‘I have to destroy you’ unless you been through a tough, tough time? You just gotta know how to do it.”



A big part of what Wolfe teaches is understanding and remembering the hardest parts of life and then taking them out on the other fighter in the ring. That, to rule the roost, you have to be willing to go to that dark place no else will.



“I know, as a coach, I know how to prepare a fighter to look deep into their soul,” she continues. “Their very soul. You don’t keep nothing in this world. You’re going to pass through this world; you’re gonna make some money and then you gonna die. We’re only going to be on this world for so long. Now what we do in between living and dying, that’s all we got. As long as you get on top, you come down. You name me one fighter that didn’t come down. He was on the top of the mountain and he came down. When you on top, you reign as long as you on top. When you are on top, you are either the predator or the prey. Predators kill. Predators eat and they have no mercy on no one. When you get in that ring, that is how I teach. No mercy. No mercy on no one. When you get out of the ring, you’re a man, a prophet, a martyr; you can be whatever you want to be. But as long as you in that ring…it’s the only thing that you can do in this world that you don’t go to jail. You get to punch another grown man with your fists.”



The thing with James Kirkland is this: in the ring, the man is chaos. Ann understands this. Outside, he’s a pretty funny guy, actually. Shy almost, when we spoke on the phone over the years. But in the squared circle, the bell rings and he tears out across the ring, dressed all in black and looking to kill you for three minutes of every round. It’s not pretty. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, in the Mayweather sense of the word. But it’s entertaining and brutally effective and it takes a special kind of trainer and bond to bring that out. For Wolfe and her fighters, that bond starts the day a kid walks off the streets out of some terrible situation and into her care, where she turns victims into self-respecting ring predators.



“If someone says that they can bring that out of Kirkland and make it to where he is calm enough to do it for three minutes, 12 times, then I will say, ‘That’s good that they can do that’,” said Wolfe. “But I know that I can do it because it’s all I do every day, all day, eight hours a day. I look into the souls of children. I don’t just train fighters two, three years. I have this one fighter; he is 12 years old. He was molested. I met this fighter and he was hungry and he didn’t know nothing to do. If you gave him a piece of bread, he would eat your ass out the frame. So I tell him, ‘You want to go back to where you was eating out the garbage? Where a grown man laid over the top of you and molested you? Do you want to go back to where you was hungry? Or do you want to fight? You have two choices: either fight or you go back to where you were at.’ He’s hungry.



“That’s what they don’t know,” she continues. “Wait ‘til you see my daughter. Wait ‘til you see my little girl. She’s 19. She was ranked number one. My daughter fights like a real boy. No woman, like they say, ‘Oh, she fights like a boy.’ Oh, bullsh*t. Most women do not fight like boys. My daughter…I turn the heat up to 110 degrees. I bring out the devil in you. What comes in my gym is the raggediest, drugged-out, abused. That’s why they have something to fight for. Boxing evolved around something to fight for. It evolved around, ‘I don’t want to be poor.’ It’s a poor man’s sport. This is my way out. Football, basketball, track, golf, you have to do what in order to be a professional. You have to go to college. In boxing, you don’t have to do nothing but have ten knuckles.”



In Part Two, we will delve further into Wolfe Pack Promotions’ roster of fighters and what it will take to bring James Kirkland back to form. 


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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