Known Unknowns: Canelo and Kirkland Look to Define Themselves in Key Match-Up

By Oliver Goldstein

Boxing continues to exist this Saturday when Canelo Alvarez meets James Kirkland in Houston, Texas. Hacks in search of a headline had declared the fight game dead a few days ago, but aficionados will be pleased to see yet another miraculous rebirth this weekend. They might even catch a pretty good fight.

Even those casual fans who may have sworn off the sport in anger would be served to tune-in to World Championship Boxing Saturday night at 9:00 PM ET/PT. Never mind the massaged excitement of a Vegas attraction: this week sees real fighters before real fans in a real fight. 

Alvarez, of course, lost a majority decision to Floyd Mayweather in September 2013, when C.J. Ross turned in a comically absurd card of 114-a-piece, despite Mayweather setting the fight’s entire direction and pace. On that night, Alvarez, from Guadalajara, Mexico, took the stiff upper lip to its uppermost limits, standing stiller than Ozymandias as Mayweather slipped from danger through twelve sterile rounds. But Alvarez took his licks as a fighter, and returned with wins over Alfredo Angulo and Erislandy Lara, the latter being one of the more tediously difficult stylists in boxing today. No matter that he’d lost his first fight, the Mexican was straight back to competition: in the tune-up epoch, that must make him a revolutionary. Moreover, with huge support and no real signature win, he’s also the most known unknown quantity in boxing today — eminently bankable, even if you don’t quite know what you’re banking.

Kirkland is a different fighter than Alvarez, one for whom an entirely different set of expectations exists too. Now 31, the Texan “Mandingo Warrior” seems to have been around forever, but a fourteen year career of just 33 fights (and no title belts) indicates a fighter radically compromised by his life beyond the ring. Of course, the distinction between boxing and life is a tenuous one, the two being hardly discreet categories, particularly given how Kirkland’s tendency to violence is not escaped in his profession, but exacerbated by it. As history tells us, countless fighters have fought for a living to cut off wounded pasts; but boxing is always an outlet for aggression, until it’s not.

The Texan is, then, like Alvarez, a strangely elusive figure, both entirely known and somehow radically unknowable. Fighters like Kirkland, who take three shots to land one, and laugh bitterly in the face of danger, tend to follow one pattern: they shine for an instant, then crash down to earth. And while he’s crashed and burned more times than one can count, Kirkland has not yet shined as he should have done, and all that crashing and burning, beside his loss to Nobuhiro Ishida, has been outside the ring. Only against Alfredo Angulo has the full extent of his talent been glimpsed. 

Angulo is the common name on both recent slates, having lost to Kirkland in 2011 before being maimed last year by Canelo. Going in to the fight with the former, Angulo had five consecutive stoppages through eighteen rounds, and when he dropped Kirkland hard in the first, the Texan – whose loss to Ishida that April seemed evidence of a worse chin than supposed – looked in danger of wilting. But Kirkland fought back hard, resisting a furious assault from the marching Angulo before returning fire at the end of the round. Stopped eventually in six, Angulo has never since looked the same. 

Alvarez’s win in March 2014 was more serene, though Angulo’s decline was by then likely terminal. To look at those two fights for direction in this one would be foolish. But to look around them, to spot the significant details lurking elsewhere, would be wise. Like, for example, the fact that Kirkland has fought just twice since his meeting with Angulo, with one of those bouts coming just four months after. Even then, the Texan was hardly impressive, looking clueless in a DQ win over Carlos Molina. In three years, then, Kirkland has been spotted in action once (again in a terrific encounter, with Glen Tapia a year and a half ago), while in the same period Canelo has fought six times. This is, for Kirkland, an enormous step-up.

It’s one he’ll be taking, moreover, without long-term trainer Ann Wolfe by his side. The last time Kirkland fought without her, he was splayed by Ishida, who’d had eight knockouts from 22 wins beforehand. In turning to Gerald Tucker, a former pro with a 5-0-1 record and no noted history coaching, Kirkland has hardly gone for experience over Wolfe. “I haven’t asked him why he isn’t training with Ann,” Kirkland’s manager, Michael Miller, told ESPN this February, “but she’s puzzled too.”

And this, the fact that Kirkland is a puzzle even to those closest to him, might be the most telling indication of the fight’s direction. All chaos and clamor and war when the mood strikes him, Kirkland so often puts in jeopardy the very conditions that allow him to thrill that it seems impossible to know what to do with him. Will this be the Kirkland who traded hell for leather with Alfredo Angulo, and finally tamed “El Perro?" Will it be the gunslinger who tamed Glen Tapia eighteen months ago? Or will we see the same Wolfe-less fighter who collapsed at the hands of Ishida in 2011?

Ultimately, James Kirkland is no sure thing. And while Canelo’s hardly a certainty either, having been run close by both Austin Trout and Lara, he’s a damn sight more predictable than Kirkland. If the Texan is properly prepared, expect a fun night. But history suggests backing the tighter, more focused, more precise-punching redhead. Just don’t be surprised if the “Mandingo Warrior” comes looking for war.