Friday Nights Fights is over for the 2008 season, as ESPN gives up the stage for football. The final headline bout of the year featured up ‘n comer James Kirkland on his home turf, in Austin, Texas, and it revealed several things about the sport as a whole that indicate American boxing can still do some things right on occasion, and of course, can still screw things up in a big way.

Kirkland, age 24, is a 5-9 junior middleweight from Austin, Texas who whetted some appetites when he plowed through Eromosele Albert (TKO1) on May 17. On the FNF season finale, Kirkland was pitted against another fighter with a strong record, 22-2-1 Mexican Ricardo Cortes (age 28).

Cortes came into this tiff on a down note; he’d been blasted out (KO1) by Alfredo Angulo in his last outing, on Feb. 1. During the staredown, watchers noted that Cortes chose to look at the ceiling rather than Kirkland. Can’t much blame the kid, as the Austin Music Hall was packed to the rafters with delirious Kirkland fans, all of whom were salivating at the prospect of a conclusive rubout. Yes, it may be almost a micro-niche sport in the US, but Kirkland evidently has a passionate fanbase that was willing to part with half a days pay to see their guy, trained by Anne Wolfe, do his thing.

Sadly, or should I say, semi-sadly, fans weren’t given their full measure of ecstasy, because the referee Gregorio Alvarez, at 1:59 of the second, stepped in early to halt the contest (TKO2). Trapped in a corner, Cortes was on the edge of unconsciousness, in all likelihood, but he was fighting back when Alvarez waved it off. He probably saved the kid from a nasty ending. Cortes owes Alvarez a real nice holiday card.

Kirkland (23-0, 20 KOs) looked tight, and too intent on giving fans a quickie KO, in the first. He didn’t jab as much as Wolfe would want, and didn’t attack the stringbean body of the 6-1 Cortes at all. In the second, Kirkland scored a knockdown at 1:40 off a flurry. He hit Cortes while he was down, but was not warned or penalized. Alvarez, it must be said, could use some more seasoning before he gets another big fight assignment. Shortly after, Kirkland, who is rated as high as No. 3 in the WBA,  moved in for the climax. Of the stoppage, Teddy Atlas cried foul. “It was a tad quick. Again, this is not checkers, this is boxing.” At ringside, Brian Kenny agreed. “It hadn’t reached its conclusion, it seemed early.”

Stats wise, Kirkland won out, 63 landed to 40.

The fighter admitted he tried too hard for his fans, and said postfight, “(My showing) was fairly decent, it wasn’t one of my best performances. I look forward to getting better opponents down the line. I did some mistakes because of the activity inside the room.”

Wolfe looked a bit glum, as her guy didn’t stick to needed basics in his excitement, and that won’t fly when he takes on legit top 10 foes moving forward. She agreed the ref stepped in early. “I think he would have knocked him all the way out,” she said. The trainer said she’d like to take Kirkland away from home to maximize his development.

To cap the show, the KO of the Decade on FNF was offered. The fans voted, from a bunch of pre-screened selections, and the winner was: with 33%, Edison Miranda, who walloped David Banks on January 11. Darnell Wilson (KO11) over Nwodo in 2007 got 28%, while old pal Rich LaMontagne’s 2002 comeback 11th round whackout of Michael Bennett got 13%. Miranda finished off Banks in the third round with a right cross, which sent Banks halfway out of the ring. For the record, fans voted the July 13 2001 Micky Ward/Emanuel Augustus fight of the decade (Ward won, UD10), and Augustus, the showy, mercurial slickster, the  fighter of the decade.

FNF will be back in early January, fight fans.