Everyone who steps between the ropes has some degree of toughness, but there are those who are defined by it. Two such men will meet Saturday when James Kirkland and Carlos Molina meet at Houston's Reliant Arena.
Kirkland is an ask-no-quarters bomber fresh off a sensational sixth-round TKO over Alfredo Angulo while Molina has strung together an impressive 11-0-1 record after going 0-3-1 between December 2005 and February 2007. Which man's career will continue on its upward path? Their recent CompuBox histories yield these clues:
Kirkland's Ups and Downs: A two-year prison stint did nothing to change Kirkland's approach -- he starts fast and keeps firing until either the bell rings or the referee intervenes. That blueprint has yielded 27 knockouts in 30 wins but it didn't save him from his lone defeat against Nobuhiro Ishida.
Twenty-two days before meeting Ishida, Kirkland experienced a sober foreshadowing a little more than a minute into his fight with Jhon Berrio. A long right to the temple caused Kirkland's back leg to shudder and stopped his attack cold. Unfortunately for Berrio he had no more bombs at his disposal and was stopped in the second.
Averaging 89.2 punches per round -- 34 percent above the 58.8 junior middleweight norm -- Kirkland created connect bulges of 45-22 (total), 7-1 (jabs) and 38-21 (power), landing 38.8 percent of his total punches and 46.9 percent of his power shots. Aside from the one hiccup, Kirkland's defensive numbers were better than average as he felt 20.9 percent of Berrio's overall punches, 3.6 percent of his jabs and 27.7 percent of his power punches.
The Ishida fight was a disaster because the 35-year-old Japanese seized on what Berrio exposed. In scoring three knockdowns and ending the fight in 112 seconds, Ishida more than doubled Kirkland's total output (49-26) and nearly doubled his power connects (15-8). The same story appeared to unfold when Angulo dropped Kirkland 28 seconds into their fight, but a much better conditioned Kirkland weathered the Mexican's storm and scored his own knockdown with 14 seconds left in round one.
Despite the beating he absorbed in round one (37-28 total connects and 37-24 power connects), Kirkland still managed to out-throw Angulo 103-74 (total) and 83-67 (power). The rest of the fight was all Kirkland as he out-threw his arm-weary opponent 442-252 (total) and out-landed him 178-37 (total) and 131-24 (power). That indomitable spirit will make Kirkland tough to beat, especially when trainer Ann Wolfe is in charge.
Molina's Resurgence: Before his recent run of success, Molina was best known for giving a rising Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. two rugged fights in 2005 and 2006, inflicting the only blemish on Junior's record in fight one and pushing him to a majority decision in the rematch. But during his recent unbeaten streak, the secret to his success lies not in his varied offense but in his subtle defense.
In his last three fights against Erislandy Lara (D 10), Allen Conyers (KO 7) and Kermit Cintron (W 10), Molina faced slightly more fire than he produced -- 62.6 punches per round for Molina and a combined 63.9 from the opponents. Despite being "in the pocket" most of the time, Molina's upper body movement and blocking skills enabled him to neutralize his opponents while dishing out far more than he received.
Molina threw just one more punch than the volume-punching Cintron (658-657) yet out-landed him 254-105 (overall), 100-39 (jabs) and 154-66 (power) in capturing a 98-92 decision across the board. A similar pattern unfolded against Conyers as Molina threw just 24 more punches (490-466) yet trounced him in connects (202-76 total, 78-27 jabs and 124-49 power). Even during his draw over Lara, Molina was far more efficient and effective as he threw 76 less (490-566) but out-landed the Cuban 142-103 (total) and 115-65 (power) while trailing 38-27 in jabs.
In the three fights combined, Molina enjoyed a plus-20.3 rating in overall punches (37.1 percent to 16.8), a plus-18.2 in jabs (29.2 percent to 11.0) and a plus-19.4 in power shots (43.3 percent to 23.9). The name of the game is hit and not be hit, and though he doesn't look as pretty as Floyd Mayweather the results can't be denied.
Prediction: If Molina can survive Kirkland's opening salvos, he will give "The Mandingo Warrior" all he can handle for as long as the fight lasts. But Kirkland is on more stable ground now and talent tends to emerge. Kirkland by decision.