The End (or Beginning) of the Road for James Kirkland?
By Gabriel Montoya/Max Boxing
Success in boxing is hard enough without complicating matters. Talent has to be discovered, honed and disciplined into skill. Luck, timing and dedication to excellence must all come together at the right time many times over before a fighter can move successfully from the gym to greatest stages of all time. With so much to look forward to, the possibility of any of it not happening is too great to fathom. That a fighter gets sidetracked or led astray is much more likely than the opposite.
Such has been the case of junior middleweight contender James “Mandingo Warrior” Kirkland. Born March 19, 1984 in a rough Austin, Texas neighborhood, Kirkland was found in an abandoned house by Donald “Pops” Billingsley, a man who has devoted 35 years of his life to not only boxing but to helping kids like Kirkland. Billingsley’s other famous fighter is former four-division world champion Ann Wolfe.
Billingsley took Kirkland under his wing and showed him how to box. His only requirement was that Kirkland, along with others who trained at the gym, accompanied Billingsley to church on Sunday. He and Wolfe, who helped condition and trained Kirkland along with Billingsley, don’t aim to just build fighters. They are looking to build adults who can function and fully contribute to society.
Kirkland had a record as an amateur of 134-12. He opted for the professional ranks rather than the Olympic trials because he wanted to provide for his growing family. With an easygoing manner and all-out aggression southpaw style, Kirkland seemed easy to promote. His style is universal, even visceral. When the bell rings and Kirkland is in optimum condition (meaning he has gone through six-to-eight weeks of hell with Wolfe and Billingsley), Kirkland fights like he has been shot out of a cannon. He comes forward relentlessly - awkwardly at times - in his pursuit of visiting the highest level of violence upon his opponent for as long as he can take it.
But that chaos he controls so well in the ring follows Kirkland out of it. After his 11th pro fight, Kirkland went to jail for armed robbery and lost over two years of his career. During what should have been a long welterweight run to a title with an eventual progression to junior middle and middleweight into the twilight of his career, he instead went into prison, having fought at 148 (against Russell Jordan prior to his stretch) and re-entered boxing three years later at 163 pounds (against Manny Castillo), eventually settling in at 154.
This second campaign would be under a new promoter, Gary Shaw, and the management team Cameron Dunkin and Michael Miller. Everything went well. Kirkland began to get regular TV dates and experienced a breakthrough when squaring off against Allen Conyers on the November 2007 edition of “ShoBox.” It was a one-round bout that packed in Kirkland’s first visit to the canvas along with two for Conyers as Kirkland surged and stopped him.
Kirkland would move from Shaw to Golden Boy Promotions and seemed naturally headed for a title. He defeated Joel Julio in March of 2009 in a six-round destruction that saw the serviceable Julio quit on his stool. The stage was set for Kirkland to fight on a Golden Boy pay-per-view and ultimately fight Sergey Dzinziruk for the title he held at the time.
Then Kirkland, a felon, was arrested for gun possession and promptly lost more of his career to prison time. He emerged in September of 2010 and promptly broke ties with Ann Wolfe, setting up shop in Las Vegas under veteran trainer Kenny Adams.
2011 would be a momentous year for Kirkland. He returned to the ring in March and fought three times in five weeks. Adams, known as a disciplinarian with a military background, through no fault of his own, was not able to get Kirkland to stay in shape between fights much less focused in the gym according to several sources.
The end result was that in the third fight, Nobu Ishida, a fighter with no knockout power of note, stopped Kirkland in one round on April 9, 2011. Most in the business wrote off Kirkland. They claimed he had no chin. Others said he was never any good at all.
But Ann and Pops, as always, welcomed Kirkland to their gym.
Golden Boy set Kirkland to work often yet again but this time, under Wolfe’s watch, Kirkland began to understand what he had to do to return to where he almost was before that second prison stint.
That effort and understanding culminated in a Mexican-style war between Alfredo Angulo and Kirkland. This new comeback was almost derailed 30 seconds into the fight when Kirkland was dropped hard by a sledgehammer right hand from Angulo. But in the follow-up attack, Angulo tired and Kirkland surged, dropping him near the bell of that same first round. From there, Kirkland found his rhythm and came on the attack until Angulo was saved from his pride by referee Johnny Callas.
The world appeared to be wide open for Kirkland yet it would appear, at this point, that Kirkland began to feel as if his career was not going the way it should. In an interview with Leaveitintheringradio.com after that fight, Kirkland seemed to feel he had been sent down to Mexico to be cashed out against Angulo so that an all-Mexican clash between Angulo and Saul Alvarez could be made.
However, Kirkland appeared to be happy with the relationship when he was set to fight Carlos Molina in March of 2012. The bout was a semifinal eliminator set up by the WBC to find a mandatory challenger for Saul Alvarez. According to several sources close to the camp, Kirkland again showed up heavy for training. Rather than it be a camp devoted to honing his fighting skills and taking his conditioning to new heights, the focus was on losing weight.
To someone knowing this going into the fight, it appeared to be the case. Kirkland was sluggish and looked very tired at times in the bout. Gone was the Kirkland who would throw non-stop punches from all angles, overwhelming you like a twister. Kirkland won by 10th-round disqualification after he dropped Molina and a member of the fallen fighter’s team entered the ring before the round was over. It wasn’t pretty. On top of it all, Kirkland’s injured shoulder would require surgery.
This is where things get dicey.
In a recent interview with a blogtalk radio show called The “Boxing Voice,” Kirkland claimed someone from his camp gave him two black pills before the bout. He claimed that they made him feel “high as a kite.” But that they wore off in the fight which is why he was able to drop Molina late in the fight.
In speaking with Susan Stanford of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, Kirkland was drug tested for that fight. According to a couple sources, he had trouble giving a urine sample before the fight and was, in fact, urinating blood, a sign of dehydration. He was not able to give a sample beforehand but provided one after that fight.
“The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation performed drug testing and no further action is being taken,” said Susan Stanford when asked if Kirkland had tested positive for any banned substance.
Ann Wolfe declined to comment on the allegation at the present time.
Mike Miller told Maxboxing.com, “If [Kirkland] felt that [a member of his team] had been corrupt, he would have complained about it at the time. He would’ve told HBO about it. He would’ve told us about it. He would have screamed it from the highest mountain. But it was March and we are in August and this is just now coming up? It’s laughable and it’s unfortunate. Someone has it in his mind that the reason he did not perform well is that he was on drugs, which I think is unfortunate. He’s trying to make an excuse but none of that happened and that is my side of the story.”
Recently, Kirkland was offered the Saul Alvarez fight September 15. He actually agreed to the fight even though his shoulder was a few weeks out from being medically cleared. He was set to be cleared for a later September/ Early October fight date. But Paul Williams was injured and an opponent was needed. Despite the bad showing vs. Molina, Kirkland was getting his title shot. Money offers and counter offers went back and forth and finally it was decided Kirkland would be getting in the neighborhood of $750,000 to fight for the title with around $40,000 for training expenses like sparring partners (which Kirkland is particularly hard on).
That evening, a Thursday, Kirkland came on leaveitintheringradio.com and talked excitedly about the fight.
The next day, under the guidance of lifelong friend and adviser, Curtis Meeks, Kirkland declined the fight and asked for more money, somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.7 million with financial plans for the rematch. The offer was not taken seriously by Golden Boy. In part because Meeks seemed to come out of nowhere as an adviser and because Kirkland at first claimed his shoulder was reinjured in training and then later admitted it was about money. Essentially, if he was going to risk his shoulder, then he needed to be compensated for it.
Golden Boy moved on and eventually Josesito Lopez emerged as the challenger to Alvarez.
This past week, as reported by RingTV.com, Kirkland’s new attorney Sekou Gary, who represented Yuri Gamboa during his buy out of his Top Rank contract and exodus to TMT Promotions (through California counsel) filed suit against Golden Boy to get out of his contract but be allowed to fight while that process happens. He has also fired his entire team, including Billingsley, the surrogate father who raised him.
Gamboa was easy to move from Top Rank to TMT. He paid 1.5 million to which Top Rank agreed and the deal was done. Kirkland is in a bit of different spot. It is going to be hard to prove that Golden Boy is in breach. He was given 6 fights in 2011. He has been positioned and even offered a titled fight. While Kirkland’s minimum has not been met in many of the fights, (it is in the neighborhood of $150,000) he was being rebuilt and quickly.
But after the Ishida loss, his minimum was gone and everything in terms of purse became fight-by-fight, according to a source close to the contract negotiations.
What is more, Kirkland recently re-upped with Wolfe, Dunkin, Billingsley and Miller along with Golden Boy. Kirkland is now signed through February of 2018.
Why is Kirkland allowed to have Meeks advise him? Meeks went 9-1-2 with three knockouts as a pro. He was trained by Wolfe as well but a manslaughter charge derailed his career. There does not appear to be any sort of qualification for the career advice he is giving. Having boxed does not make you a boxing adviser or business person.
Is this a move by TMT to acquire Kirkland? In his interview with Boxing Voice and in a conversation with this writer, Kirkland seemed to incline no. But pictures tweeted with 50 Cent, a co-founder of TMT, may give a different impression. Kirkland was in town to see Floyd Mayweather released from jail when the photo was taken. However, the presence of the lawyer seems to indicate some sort of connection.
Should be interesting to see how 50 Cent and Kirkland, if this turns out to be a move to acquire, are able to do business together as convicted felons.
Where will Kirkland go from here? At press time, he was unavailable for comment. For now, his lawyer and their paperwork are doing the talking and the questions will be answered in time.
Whether Kirkland is simply asserting control over a career he feels is not living up to his expectations or he is getting bad advice, one thing is clear; the relationship between he and Wolfe appears over. The men who waited for him through injury loss and jail, Dunkin and Miller, are being discarded. But most of all, its Billingsley you have to feel for.
“I’m strong,” Wolfe told me Monday evening. “I’ll be fine. I can provide for my family. Mike and Cameron will go on and have other fighters. The only thing that bothers, that makes me sick to my soul, is when I looked into Pops’ eyes yesterday. The look that he gave me, not disgusted but just super-sad.”
Trainers spend their whole lives looking for that special fighter. Pops found his first in Ann Wolfe. He thought he found his second in James Kirkland. But now it has come to lawsuits and allegations. Strangers will sort their business and friendships that should make up a lifetime well spent will have ended in a courtroom.
“Nothing else bothers me. I can handle all the rest,” said Wolfe. “I know how to fight. I know how to survive. I know all the rest. That doesn’t bother me. But the look I saw on Pops’ face. You can’t hurt Pops. Pops is old-school. I can tell. That bothers him.”