NEW YORK -- Admit it: When you saw James Kirkland go down from that short, stiff right hand from Alfredo Angulo in the first round on Saturday night, you thought he was finished. Who could blame you? Just seven months earlier Kirkland was dropped three times and knocked out in he first round by the light hitting Nobuhiro Ishida. And Angulo, with 17 knockouts in 21 fights, was no Ishida.
"I understand people thinking that," Kirkland told SI.com. "But there was no way that punch was keeping me down."
Indeed, Kirkland survived the knockdown shot -- and the subsequent flurry by Angulo that had referee Johnny Callas taking a long look at stopping the fight -- and then, somehow, rallied. For all of his power, Angulo lacked the stamina to finish Kirkland off. When Angulo started to slow down, Kirkland fired back. Soon, it was Angulo on the defensive. With 15 seconds to go in the round, Kirkland dropped Angulo with a pair of brain rattling left hooks that, Kirkland says, Angulo never recovered from.
"I knew for a fact that when he came out for the second round, he was not the same fighter," Kirkland said. "My knockdown hurt him. His knockdown startled me more than anything else. When I got hit I just said to myself, 'James, what are you doing? Stay focused, calm down and relax.'"
While the knockdown didn't hurt him, Kirkland said the series of body shots Angulo followed up with nearly ended the fight.
"He has sneaky body shots that you don't even see," Kirkland said. "I wanted him to go to the head. Those were some strong body shots. I kept trying to hold him because I knew if kept standing in front of those shots it would be trouble for me. I stayed away just long enough to get myself back together."
When he did, Kirkland dominated. The next five rounds amounted to a slow execution, with Kirkland battering Angulo with vicious, punishing combinations. Over the final five rounds Kirkland landed 131 power shots, according to CompuBox, to just 24 for Angulo. He threw hard and he threw often: Over the first five rounds, Kirkland threw an average of 101 punches.
How did Kirkland go from looking up from the floor at Ishida to dominating one of the most feared junior middleweights in boxing? Training, specifically that of Ann Wolfe. Kirkland first started training with Wolfe when he was 9 years old. The two quickly developed chemistry, with Kirkland taking to -- and succeeding under -- Wolfe's hard-nosed training style. It didn't take long for an American with a television-friendly style to catch the eyes of the networks and by 2009 it appeared Kirkland was destined for stardom.
Then, it all unraveled. Kirkland, who was on parole for an armed robbery conviction in 2003, was busted for possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to 24 months in prison, during which time he had a falling out with Wolfe. When he got out, Kirkland moved to Las Vegas and trained with Kenny Adams. He won his first two fights before running into Ishida, a loss many felt would be unrecoverable.
Not Kirkland. Instead, he reconciled with Wolfe, moved back to Austin, Texas, and at 29 went back to work. Wolfe's training methods are unorthodox. Kirkland sparred in a 10-by-10-foot makeshift ring with a mattress-like bottom that, Kirkland said, "made it like walking with cowboy boots in the mud." He ran countless miles in the scorching Texas heat. He trained at all hours. On sparring days, he would go 18 rounds.
He did it all with Wolfe. Adams, 70, had the knowledge to teach Kirkland but lacked the physical ability to work with him. Kirkland needed that. When he ran, Wolfe was always nearby. When he trained, Wolfe was alongside him. When he ate, the 40-year-old Wolfe ate with him.
"You can always get training from a coach," Kirkland said. "You don't always have a person that is there and says, 'I'm going to do it with you.' Other coaches, they tell you to do certain things and they have a big soda and a hot dog in their hands. They tell you to do 50 pushups with a Mountain Dew. I need someone that's grinding with me. That's Ann. That's the type of motivation and training any person is going to need to get to the next level."
His career back on track, Kirkland is in a position to write his own ticket. There are not many big names at 154 pounds. Miguel Cotto is considered the biggest while Saul Alvarez is another rising star. Now that Kirkland is back in HBO's good graces, fighters will come to him. But Kirkland made his agenda clear: clean out the 154-pound division.
"I want to be the undisputed champ," Kirkland said.
That will, at some point, mean a showdown with Alvarez, Golden Boy Promotions' other prized prospect. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer says Alvarez's handlers called him after the fight and said they wanted to face Kirkland. And while Schaefer's plan for Alvarez is an all-Mexican showdown with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. early next year, he says a Kirkland fight won't be far behind.
For now, Kirkland will keep looking forward. He says a rematch with Ishida isn't out of the question, but titleholders Austin Trout and Cornelius Bundrage are more appealing.
"My mindset right now is to think big," Kirkland said. "The fans will love it if I take control of what I started. I will be the undisputed champion."
The Internet was buzzing last weekend with reports that representatives for Floyd Mayweather had reached out to 140-pound titleholder Erik Morales about a possible fight next May. The news was jolting, as just days before Mayweather's advisor, Leonard Ellerbe, told the media that Mayweather wanted to face Manny Pacquiao.
As best I can tell, the source of the reports was former Morales promoter Fernando Beltran, who informed Pacquiao's promoter, Bob Arum, that Mayweather had contacted Morales. However Morales's current promoter, Richard Schaefer, dismissed the reports.
"It was the first I have heard," Schaefer said. "There have been no discussions about Morales-Mayweather. As Leonard said, Floyd wants the biggest possible fight. Morales is not it. Fernando Beltran doesn't have anything to do with Morales anymore. He'd like to be sleeping on his doorstep, like he used to. But he is not going to be stealing Morales. We have a contract with him. Beltran, he is like a desperado. He is losing all of his fighters. Chavez Jr. wants to leave him. Bunch of fighters want to leave him. He is desperate."