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What to expect from James Kirkland’s return

Credit: Will Hart / NBCUniversal ©2012 WILL HART

On December 7, the strange career of “The Mandingo Warrior” James Kirkland continues. The junior middleweight puncher’s career has been one of thrills and excitement, but also one of disappointment, punctuated by a series of long layoffs. It’s hard to believe that after all these years, the 31-1 (27 KOs) battler is still not yet 30 years old.

He faces unbeaten prospect Glen Tapia on the 7th at Boardwalk Hall. It will mark the first time in nearly two years that Kirkland has been in the ring. His last outing was a DQ win over current titleholder Carlos Molina. Kirkland was behind on the scorecards, but had Molina in trouble, knocking him down in the 10th round when Molina’s trainer entered the ring prior to the bell. That miscue gave the DQ win to Kirkland and mary very well have saved him from suffering his 2nd defeat.

Prior to that fight, Kirkland scored a 6th round TKO over Alfredo Angulo. So his resume shows two good wins in his last two fights. But to help paint an accurate picture, he needed a break against Molina and Angulo hasn’t looked like the “Perro” of old in quite some time. To put it lightly, many questions loom.

We see Kirkland now after a nearly-two year layoff. We remember that not long ago, he lost two years for a gun charge. The reason that gun charge carried such a stiff penalty was because when he was 11-0 in 2003, he was convicted of armed robbery, which cost him 2.5 years. In his 12-year career, more than half of it has been spent on the sidelines.

This latest layoff, however, was not brought about due to legal issues. This time, the layoff was due to managerial issues, as Kirkland had problems with Golden Boy. Different fights were proposed, but Kirkland and his team wanted too much money. Tension soon took over, as the relationship between promoter and fighter became strained. After some legal wrangling, Kirkland is now free, and is working with 50 Cent and SMS Promotions. He now looks to make another run, but has all this taken something out of him?

The layoffs, the drama, a few different stretches in the joint, and the ring mileage have all added up. At his best, Kirkland was a massive punching junior middleweight–an exciting battler with durability and skills. But when he returned from prison this last time, he ran into the fists of light-hitting Japanese fringe contender Nobuhiro Ishida and was stopped shockingly in the first round. His fight with Angulo was a redeeming moment, but he took a lot of punishment en route to victory. And against the classy Molina, he spent most of the fight getting schooled before securing the bizarre DQ win.

Now after another long layoff, he’s ready to give it another whirl. His resume is strong, which should help him secure some big fights rather quickly. But what he has in opportunities he may lack in potential at this point. Kirkland will always be a threat until he hangs up the gloves for good. His power, fighting spirit, and toughness are above reproach. But events both in and out of the ring seemed to have robbed him of his youthful exuberance. He’s more wooden now and not as fluid as he used to be, his defense has progressively grown worse, and his chin is not the dependable asset it once was.

Kirkland’s best chance to get back to the upper reaches of the division is to face off with another similarly-styled fighter, where he can perhaps out-gut or overpower the opponent. The problem is that the top spots at 154 are occupied by classy boxers who may be too skillful for Kirkland at this point. He already struggled massively against Molina, who is the IBF champ. You also have guys like Demetrius Andrade, Erislandy Lara, and Mayweather–all bad matchups for Kirkland.

He could fight Alvarez, though working with Golden Boy could be problematic. There is Cotto, which would be an exciting fight and perhaps even a winnable one. Against any of the champions, however, Kirkland is looking at a bad style match and would be a major underdog. A Molina rematch is interesting, but he didn’t look that good against “King” Carlos the first time around, despite having him hurt late in the fight. While Kirkland has been on the sidelines, Molina has stayed busy.

He should beat Tapia on the 7th. The “Jersey Boy” is a decent prospect/fringe contender, but the 23-year old is taking a massive jump up in class. It is a tough first fight out of mothballs for Kirkland. If successful, it would represent a decent win and pave the way for him to get a big fight sooner than later. Kirkland will continue to arouse interest, as he was always one of the more-consistently exciting fighters in the sport. In terms of overall merit, however, one can’t help but think that his window has closed.