James Kirkland has had more than his share of trouble in life, and once again will find himself put the test as he takes on rugged Alfredo Angulo, the toughest opponent of his career. Considering that Kirkland is just six months removed from a first round knockout loss, this is either a very bold move, or a reckless one.
"He's a guy who lost a lot of his career in prison, and I think he is trying to make it up fast," says Bob Papa, the HBO commentator. "Angulo is a tough fight for him because you know Kirkland cannot just go in there and punish him. Angulo is going to take him into deep water. This is a somewhat desperate measure for Kirkland."
In poker, they would call it going all-in.
What makes Angulo such a difficult matchup is that unlike the vast majority of Kirkland's previous opponents, the Mexican almost certainly will not succumb to his kamikaze-style of boxing. Never having been knocked down, Angulo (20-1, 17 KOs) is a graduate cum laude of the "Antonio Margarito School of Hard Knocks." Earlier in his career, Angulo was a chief sparring partner for Margarito, and many of their sessions turned into near legendary gym wars. If Kirkland tries to test the Mexican's resolve with all-out aggression, Angulo will be in his comfort zone.
"This fight for Kirkland is almost as much about mental aspects as physical," Papa says. "What will happen to Kirkland (29-1, 26 KOs) when he hits Angulo right on the chin and Angulo gives him that Holyfield smile, as he sometimes does, and says ‘is that all you got?' You have to wonder is Kirkland mentally tough enough to deal with what might happen in the late rounds."
Late rounds are unchartered territory for the Texas southpaw. In 30 career fights, Kirkland has gone beyond four rounds just twice. In 2008, Kirkland went into the eighth before knocking out Brian Vera. The following year he took six rounds to put away Joel Julio. After the Julio fight, Kirkland was sent to prison for a gun possession violation and was out of the ring for two years. Since returning, he has fought five times this year, but none of the fights lasted longer than two rounds.
What might level the playing field is that Angulo has been even less active. Due largely to visa problems, the Mexican has fought just two one-round fights since April of 2010, a span of 18 months. "That opens the door of possibility for Kirkland," Papa says. "There's no way Angulo can't have ring rust."
Questions abound for this fight, but one thing's for certain; it will be a brutal, all-out war. Both know just one way to fight: Come forward aggressively and apply pressure again and again until you take their heart. The only time either might take a step back is if rocked by a punch, which puts their chins in play.
Some question Kirkland's whiskers because of his first-round-knockout loss in April to the light-hitting Nobuhiro Ishida. But that fight was more likely an aberration due to lack of conditioning. Trained his whole career by ex-fighter Ann Wolfe, Kirkland parted ways with her after his release from prison and went with Kenny Adams. While an accomplished trainer, Adams was not remotely as obsessed with intense conditioning as Wolfe. Kirkland returned to Wolfe after the loss.
"James told me he just wasn't in shape for that fight," says Cameron Dunkin, Kirkland's manager. "He told me he didn't train the way he did with Ann and that the knockout would never have happened if he had been with her. Now he's back in terrific shape."
Dunkin says a more appropriate measure of Kirkland's ability to take a punch was his fight with Julio, one of the hardest-hitting punchers in boxing. "James walked through some tremendous shots and kept going," Dunkin says. One of those punches came in round three, when Kirkland had his hands down and was blindsided by a huge right hook to the head. Most fighters would have gone down, but Kirkland barely took a step back before charging forward throwing a barrage of his own bombs. In calling play-by-play for that fight, Papa said on air just before the start of round six: "Julio has landed some pretty hard punches, but Kirkland keeps walking through them."
How Angulo's punches compare to Julio's is hard to say, but the Mexican's record attests to his ability to put opponents away. Tossing out a unanimous-decision loss to Kermit Cintron in 2009, Angulo has knocked out 16 straight opponents.
Should both fighters' chins hold up and it goes the distance, it will likely be a tough one to call. Kirkland throws a higher volume of punches and his work rate will be faster; Angulo is a better precision puncher and will land a higher percentage of his shots. Of the two, Kirkland's defense is weaker, but not by much. What could possibly be a factor is that Angulo has prepared for Kirkland with the Mexican master, Nacho Beristain, long-time trainer of Juan Manuel Marquez.
Beristain is a great technician and teacher of defense, but Papa questions whether Angulo will benefit. "Angulo's nickname is Perro, which is Spanish for ‘dog.' So you have to wonder if Nacho can teach an old dog new tricks." The reality is that once the leather starts flying, defense will be an afterthought and both will resort to the brawling they do best.
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