Get Ready for James Kirkland
INTERVIEW by Gabriel Montoya (June 1, 2007) Doghouse Boxing
To see James Kirkland fight is to gain a favorite fighter. He fights with a fierce intensity that brings to mind Hagler and he throws punches in combination at a pace that screams Tyson. Like both those fighters before him, every hook, jab and cross is thrown with the cruelest and deadliest of intentions. Watching Kirkland explode out of his corner and onto his opponent, always upping the violent ante every round, I have to wonder if he can keep up the energy not just from round to round but fight to fight. “Every kid we deal with fights the same way. High gear, non-stop. You gotta fight for real. You gotta fight with a passion to fight.
You gotta fight!” explains Ann Wolfe, co-trainer of Kirkland. ”I consider myself a throwback. They [old time fighters] trained hard and they fought hard. That’s how I fight and that’s how I train. I have a team of about 25 kids and they may not all win but they all fight.”

One of my favorite aspects of boxing is the nickname. It does many things for fighters and fans alike. It can amuse and inform. Confuse and alarm. Marvelous. The Executioner. Popo. The Motor City Cobra. Some fit like gloves while men who wear them should never use others. When I first heard James ‘Mandingo’ Kirkland, 18-0 (16), announced, I was thrown a bit. I got the reference but wasn’t sure why the name was given to Kirkland. Then I saw him fight. “Pops gave him that name when he was six years old. They are a big, muscular people. My people are from that tribe,” says Wolfe from the gym where she and Donald ‘Pops’ Billingsley train a gym full of fierce, young hopefuls. “They were fighters. When they tried to enslave them, they were the hardest tribe to capture. They would rather you kill them than capture them. [Kirkland] has the perfect Mandingo warrior spirit because he’d rather you kill him than you beat him.”

Wolfe and Kirkland have known each other all of their boxing lives. Training in the same gym in Austin, Texas, the two have not only forged a close bond but a similar mentality born out the hard lessons they learned from Billingsley and that Wolfe now employs. “We didn’t learn in a 16 or 18 foot ring. Ours was a ten foot, homemade ring.”

Wolfe continues, ”We are fighting you from the time we put on a pair of gloves. What we do here is learn to fight for 15 seconds. Then 30 seconds. Then a minute. Then two minutes. Until you can fight [in that trademark fierce and flat out style] for a full three minutes.”

Whether through cutting the ring up in fourths to encourage and develop close quarter skills as well as that relentlessly aggressive style or through grueling workouts that begin at the boxer’s hour of 5AM, developing a prospect is as tough thing as there is to accomplish in boxing. It takes patience and experience to make a champion. Besides the wisdom of a good trainer or manager, building a fighter requires sparring partners. Something Kirkland has had some difficulty with. Not in the ring mind you. Getting them into the ring in the first place. ”What’s so difficult for Kirkland is that it is very, very hard to find sparring partners for him,” says Kirkland’s manger Michael Miller. “He has to travel from Austin to Houston to spar. That’s three and a half hours one-way. Nobody wants to spar with him. He’s too tough. He’s sparring with 16-18 ounce gloves and he spars with heavyweights.“ Kirkland has also been known to fight two men at the same time though he did not do that for this one. Says Kirkland, “I sparred with all different type of fighters to prepare for what ever my opponent brings into the ring.”

“He’ll spar with two guys at 160 and spar them at the same time just so one doesn’t take a continual pounding,” Miller says with a laugh. “It might be one thing to work on because he blows these sparring partners out. Many of them don’t want to come back regardless of what you pay them.” Miller’s dilemma is not only a fight fans dream but also a trainer’s. “See that’s why it’s easy to train James because his outlook is my outlook,” says Wolfe.”You have to realize about this sport,” she continues, “someone’s in there trying to hit you in the face. I ain’t going to box nobody trying to hit me in the face and knock me out. I am going to fight. You’re going to have to kill me.”

After a busy 2006, which saw Kirkland tear through 6 opponents, 2007 has been a bit of a setback. Kirkland has fought only once this year. Reasons for this were unclear but one thing was; we haven’t seen the best of Kirkland so far and this kind of inactivity might prevent of us from seeing it all. Both Wolfe and Manager Mike Miller agree that they would like to see Kirkland fight more often. “He needs to fight every month, every two weeks,” says Wolfe. ”If you feed him like that you’re going to see a totally different James Kirkland than fought Billy Lyell (his last opponent) in every fight.” It should be noted that Kirkland controlled that fight from the outset and rolled through Lyell with blistering shots until Lyell gave in at 0:34 of the 8th. “If you go back to the early James Kirkland fights, when he fought four rounds, he fought four rounds,” says Wolfe. ”What you saw in the Lyell fight was less than 60% of what I know James Kirkland is capable of. He’s not hot yet. They [the public] ain’t seen him hot yet.”

Throwing down for broke like he does might be exciting at the prospect/contender level but can it be effective at the upper echelons of the sport? Kirkland thinks it can. “I don’t think anybody can handle that [style]. As far as that speed, that firefight, that power, that punching. There’s no more of that going around. There are very few fighters that fight like that anymore.” All action is the style he speaks of and Kirkland is right. “There are some people they want to just pop, pop, touch. They want to be a plain boxer. They want to give you a dip there, a turn there. A combination here and there. Make it look pretty. I’m not trying to make it look pretty. I’m trying to make someone bleed. I’m trying to break something. It’s a firefight and I’m a fighter.”

For that quite confidence and brutal honesty, Kirkland is without a doubt one of the most sincere and honest fighters I have had the pleasure of speaking with. His candor and open attitude is rare. A father of two, Kirkland fights for something more than just himself and is intent on remaining both humble and trouble free out of the ring. “I just gotta keep training, keep self motivated and continue to be in a good environment,” he says with quiet confidence. “I got rid of all of the negative people in my life,” he says, referring to all the hangers-on and yes-man type personalities that appear when they sense they are in the presence of potential greatness. For Wolfe and Miller, the belief is that the only person that can beat James Kirkland is James Kirkland. Both agree that that is not likely to happen.

For now this young fighter lays in wait in the junior middleweight division. Biding his time for his next step towards boxing glory.

This Friday on Showtime’s ShoBox series, Kirkland takes on Ossie Duran at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, Ca. Look at it not as just a mere chance to see a young all action prospect but rather as a chance to add yet another fighter to your list of favorites.

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