James Kirkland should have known better.
He should have known that driving around with a loaded .40-caliber Glock pistol was a bad idea, worse when you consider he was banned from owning a gun after serving two years in prison for an armed robbery beef back in 2003.
It was April 2009 when the Austin police pulled Kirkland's car over. They took away his freedom that night -- he served another 18 months for the weapons charge -- and very nearly took away his career, too.
And what a career. At the time of his arrest Kirkland was a rising star in the sport. Undefeated, gifted with thudding power, Kirkland was the darling of HBO, a fresh young face the network hoped to build around. He drew 1.4 million viewers in his last HBO fight -- a six-round whipping of Joel Julio -- and the network had him penciled into a prime-time slot on the undercard of Manny Pacquiao's fight against Ricky Hatton.
"Basically your dreams are all shattered," Kirkland recalled. "You're hurting physically, you're hurting mentally, spiritually. Everything is just like a sore thumb. Everything about you is just gone. You lose not just access to the boxing, you lose access to your family, your loved ones, the people that really care about you, people that have been backing you up for many years."
Kirkland calls prison a blessing, and maybe it was. His sentence could have been longer -- the judge could have tagged him with four to six years -- but U.S. Judge James Nowlin thought Kirkland's life would be better served as a role model in society. He trained in prison and the halfway house he was shipped to following his release.
"I learned a few things as far as eating right, as far as water weight, the whole nine," Kirkland said. "Once you learn that it gives you a better thing of knowledge and everything is easy."
Kirkland says his latest stint in prison changed him. He learned a lot about the people around him -- "everybody showed their true colors when I went to jail," Kirkland said -- and has vowed to remove the negative influences. He has communicated with Bernard Hopkins, a fighter whose life followed a similar path. Hopkins advised him to throw himself into boxing and let his success in the sport define him.
Kirkland has, too. He trains in Las Vegas now, away from the myriad distractions and temptations of Texas. "I don't have one negative person around me," Kirkland said. On Saturday he will fight for the third time in the last 34 days when he faces Nobuhiro Ishida (22-6, 7 KOs) on the undercard of the Marcos Maidana-Erik Morales fight (9 p.m. ET, HBO PPV). He is slowly cutting weight -- he will tip the scales at 158 pounds for this fight with an eye on getting down to the junior middleweight limit of 154 --and continues to showcase his concussive power.
"It's like nothing can take me off my stool right now, nothing can take me off this, what I'm going to do," Kirkland said. "I'm not going to let nothing take me from my dream."
The industry is eager to re-embrace him. His promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, made an impassioned speech at his 2009 sentencing and has stuck by him every step of the way. HBO is back on board, too. Vice president Mark Taffet was practically giddy talking about Kirkland (27-0, 24 KOs) at Thursday's pre-fight press conference, and privately network executives are hoping Kirkland is ready for a showdown with middleweight king Sergio Martinez later this year.
Kirkland says he doesn't just want to take from boxing. He wants to give back to it, too. He hopes his story influences those who might be dealing with similar situations and that his success will inspire them. His promoter, Richard Schaefer, said Hopkins has approached him about holding a clinic with Kirkland to help mentor young fighters.
"Every single day, man, I've got to have a positive mind frame, even though it feels like, wow, man, why me?" Kirkland said. "But every day I drive to make this to be a positive thing, as far as being a world champion, I'm going to be dedicated to that. I know it's going to happen. I just have to wait my time. I fell off by doing something stupid, and now this is a positive thing because I'm glad I went through the situation and got to see everybody for who they were and who was really for [me]. Who was really there for me, who really has the passion for [me] to see me make it and go as a boxer and not just a boxer, but a role model to the younger people."