"On paper, Kirkland is made for Angulo. But this fight isn't fought on paper, it's fought through hell." - Max Kellerman, Round 3
James Kirkland came out aggressive against Alfredo Angulo, looking to erase the all too recent, all too embarrassing memories of being knocked out in the first round by light-hitting, lightly regarded Nobuhiro Ishida. A sizzling right hand in an exchange from Angulo dropped Kirkland to the mat just thirty seconds in.
Making matters worse than simply an early knockdown was that this wasn't the light hitting Ishida, this was the brutal Angulo. A man for whom wearing a dog collar into the ring is no mere costuming, but a statement on his animalistic style.
Kirkland rose to his feet, the audience waiting for the inevitable finishing flurry from Angulo...
"That's where the motivation comes in. Mentally if you build a whole bunch of blocks and someone knock em down. You know that you're still capable of building the blocks back up but it's going to be harder than it was before." - Ann Wolfe
Kirkland was a rising star on the American boxing scene, compiling a 25-0 record with only three men making it to the judges scorecards. In 2003 he lost over two years of his career thanks to an armed robbery conviction. After getting back to business and rattling off win after win, Kirkland made the disastrous decision to purchase a handgun which would be discovered in his car during a routine traffic stop. The violation of his probation meant another trip to jail and more time out of the ring.
Kirkland's mentor and trainer was one of the best female boxers to ever step into the ring, Ann Wolfe. During his time in jail the two had a falling out, meaning Kirkland came out to resume his career and was moved to Las Vegas to train under Kenny Adams. Adams is a perfectly capable and talented trainer, but it was clear that Kirkland under Adams was a different, and not better, fighter.
After the Ishida loss it was time for Kirkland to get back to Ann Wolfe and her unique form of guidance.
"I went and got some rough, tough sparring partners and I made him fight." - Ann Wolfe
Wolfe is a no-nonsense trainer. A woman who pushes Kirkland to be the best he can be and gives him no shelter from hard work. Her job is not to coddle, but to better.
As Angulo unleashed his flurry on a still shaken Kirkland, James' back against the ropes with power shots landing to his face and body, it was seemingly Ann Wolfe's training that kept him upright. She prepared James for this, you don't fight Angulo without getting hurt. Wolfe had pushed James through hell, she showed him the path and now he had to remember how to walk it.
What was it about Wolfe that seemed to strengthen Kirkland? It's hard to not think that it's their having been cut from a similar cloth. An ESPN article by Joe Tessitore from 2006 explains:
The scars are abundant. Wolfe was molested as a preteen, she said. She was a dropout unable to read or write when her mom died. That same year, she said, her father was killed. Her brother was also killed in an attempted robbery. Another is serving a life sentence.
In 1990, she too got tripped up by street life. It took four police officers to haul her in on a drug charge.
She served 18 months. After that, living a straight life didn't come easy. With two young daughters, Wolfe tried to provide in any way she could. The result was a year spent working construction during the day and being homeless through the night. Wolfe and her daughters lived under a boat in a desolate parking lot, she said.
Then one day she saw a female fight on TV. An inspired Wolfe made her way to the Texas Park and Recreations gym in Austin. Her fighting style was clear from the start: Wolfe was a brawler.
Kirkland and Wolfe have seen the worst parts of life and they've survived. They've stepped into the ring and seem to put every bit of hardship they've faced into each punch they unleash on their foes. Wolfe, like Kirkland, has unbelievable power and spent her career putting it to good use (see her knockout of Vonda Ward for proof).
Wolfe is more than a trainer for Kirkland. And, as James unleashed a counter right hand while Angulo flurried, it became clear just how much more.
"They'll be talking about this round for years" Max Kellerman, Round 1
While Angulo flurried, Kirkland survived until counters started to land for him. Alfredo had been so sure that James would crumble that he seemed to punch himself out. The fatigue combined with the crushing return shots of Kirkland sent Angulo stumbling backward.
Kirkland followed, landing hard shots and having Angulo badly hurt.
Then it happened.
For the first time in his career, Angulo went down. He bounced back to his feet, but it was clear that Kirkland had just beaten him. For five more rounds, Kirkland poured on the punishment. Angulo would have his own successful moments of savagery, but Kirkland was relentless. Few men have the incredible will and chin of Angulo to be able to stand up until the referee jumped in to make the save in the sixth round, but if anyone did that night, it was Kirkland.
"What this fight means is that through hard work...when you think you can't go on, you keep persevering anyway. In preparation for that moment, that CAN happen." - Max Kellerman, after the fight
Kirkland redeemed himself in a single night. From a kid written off by the boxing world after a second stint in jail and a horrible loss, to a man under the correct tutelage with the right combination of desire and skills who demands big opponents again.
This is what fight sports can be at their best. A display of the ways that hard work can change a man and a reminder that sometimes all a man has to do to rise is survive.