JAMES KIRKLAND REUNITED WITH ANN WOLFE — You’ve heard all the putdowns, and for the most part they would appear to be justified. Puerto Rican legend Miguel Cotto against the frequently missing and erratic James “Mandingo Warrior” Kirkland, two recently inactive guys past their respective primes, one of whom will almost certainly be inducted into in the International Boxing Hall of Fame someday and the other who just as certainly won’t? For $65 or $70 of your hard-earned cash? (The subscription price for the Feb. 25 HBO Pay-Per-view bout has not been announced yet.) One boxing columnist described the curious matchup, scheduled for 12 rounds and at a catch weight of 153 pounds, as an attempt to apply lipstick to a pig, which seems to be the consensus opinion.
And yet …
Even though he hasn’t fought since he dropped a one-sided unanimous decision to Canelo Alvarez on Nov. 21, 2015, the 36-year-old Cotto (40-5, 33 KOs), the only Puerto Rican fighter ever to reign in four different weigh classes, figures to be a prohibitive favorite (betting lines have not been posted to date) over the even-ring-rustier, 32-year-old Kirkland (32-2, 28 KOs), a native of Austin, Texas, who will be fighting for only the fourth time in 59 months when he steps inside the ropes at the glitzy Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas, the new training facility for the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. The last time we saw the free-swinging southpaw in action, he was brutally knocked out in three rounds by, yes, Canelo Alvarez on May 9, 2015, at Minute Maid Park in Houston.
But there is a wild card who just might turn what for all the world looks like a dog of a fight into, well, a dog fight with bared teeth and far more bite than bark. That would be Ann Wolfe, a snarling pit bull of a trainer whose on-again, off-again presence in Kirkland’s corner is again on. With Wolfe as his chief second, Kirkland is almost always transformed into a far more dangerous dude than he is whenever he and Wolfe have split during one of their periodic spats and her role is assumed by whichever available trainer draws the short straw. Kirkland, an ex-convict with anger-management issues, is often as unstable as sweaty sticks of dynamite, a ticking time bomb whose lengthy absences between fights owe as much or more to jail terms (for armed robbery in 2003 and illegal possession of a firearm in 2009) as to such standard career momentum-stoppers as managerial and promotional squabbles, in which the Mandingo Warrior again finds himself embroiled.
Is it too late for Kirkland to harness all that rage, punching power and flashes of talent to establish himself as the sort of legitimate contender a lot of people imagined he should have become by now? Well, maybe. But one thing just might be undeniably true: Ann Wolfe means more to James Kirkland than any trainer does to another fighter, and that includes seven-time Boxing Writers Association of America Trainer of the Year Freddie Roach to Cotto.
“A lot of people say this shouldn’t be pay-per-view,” Wolfe said at a press conference in Frisco to announce the bout. “B—s—. This should be pay-per-view because you know that if I’m with James, he’s going to fight. Regardless of who Cotto is with, he is going to fight. So let me tell y’all, somebody’s going to get knocked out. Come watch and see who it’s going to be.”
We have heard this sort of defiance from Wolfe before, and her words tend to be more rooted in reality than standard boxing bombast. Whenever Kirkland, another hard case, has wearied of her Navy SEALS-level training regimen and profane manner of making each and every point, he has paid a price for seeking out less stress-inducing handlers. Kirkland was just 26 and a rising phenom with a 25-0 record (22 KOs) when he first bolted from Wolfe, relocating from Austin to Las Vegas to turn his training duties over to veteran Kenny Adams. After winning twice more on early KOs, he was paired on April 9, 2011, against Japan’s Nobuhiro Ishida, who came in with a 26-6-2 mark that included just seven knockout victories. It was almost a Buster Douglas-esque upset of Mike Tyson when Kirkland was floored three times in losing on a first-round TKO at the MGM Grand.
That shocker sent a chastened Kirkland back to Wolfe, who was in his corner for quickie blowouts of Dennis Sharpe and Alexis Hloros before the Mandingo Warrior got a shot at highly regarded Alfredo Angulo, who was 14-1 with 14 KOs for the Nov. 5, 2011, bout, which Kirkland won on a sixth-round stoppage. Given Angulo’s status as a rising star, it was, arguably, the most impressive performance of Kirkland’s career to that point.
Another split soon followed, however, with Kirkland, citing purse issues, filing a lawsuit seeking separation from his then-promotional company, Golden Boy, and from Wolfe. He had Bob Santos as his trainer for his next bout, against Carlos Molina on March 24, 2012, in Houston’s Reliant Arena. But while Kirkland won on a 10th-round disqualification, he might have caught a major break. Referee Jon Schorle was giving Molina the remainder of a mandatory eight-count after he had been floored late in the round (the fight was scheduled for 12) when his corner team scrambled into the ring before the bell sounded. Schorle’s controversial call, which was within the rules and at his discretion, came with Molina ahead by five points and three points, respectively, on two judges’ scorecards and Kirkland up by a point on the third judge’s card.
However one chooses to view that propitious escape, it was hardly Kirkland’s finest moment in a career marked by long stretches of down time. He elected to again cast his lot with Wolfe for his next fight, a Dec. 7, 2013, showdown in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall with another well-regarded prospect, Glen Tapia. It was like the swallows coming back to Capistrano, or a boomerang making its way back to its flinger.
“He left me. I didn’t leave him,” Wolfe said of her checkered professional relationship with Kirkland. “I never went nowhere. But now he’s back and we’re good. So far, anyway.”
Said Kirkland: “At some point you have to ask yourself, `Who is it that can push and motivate you like no one else can?’ Some trainers can take you only to a certain level because that’s all they know. But me and Ann … We know each other so well. When Ann tells me to do this or do that, I just do it, no matter how hard it is. Most fighters who train under her wind up quitting because they can’t handle the demands she makes of them. I didn’t always handle it as well as I might have. But I’m used to it now, I’ve been doing it for so long.”
To almost no one’s surprise, Kirkland tore through Tapia as might a ravenous beast going after a slab of raw meat, brutalizing him so thoroughly the home-state crowd favorite (Tapia is from Passaic, N.J.) had to be rushed to the trauma center of a local hospital following the sixth-round TKO.
But Wolfe’s reunion with Kirkland again proved to be temporary. He switched over to little-known Gerald Tucker for the ill-fated go at Alvarez, prompting still another request to Wolfe to kindly fix whatever part of his boxing future might be salvaged. The latest reconciliation was orchestrated by Kirkland’s adviser, Mike Miller, who said that “I think both realized that they were best for each other.”
So why is it that Wolfe, who turns 46 on Jan. 17 and is arguably the most fearsome female fighter ever to lace up a pair of gloves, keeps taking back Kirkland as she might welcome the multiple returns of a favorite pet that keeps slipping its leash? Perhaps it’s because she has a forgiving heart, but more likely it’s because they are so much alike, natural-born destroyers who aren’t satisfied unless their opponent is rendered a bloody, twitching heap on the canvas.
“If you come to me and you’re sincere, you can come back a thousand times,” Wolfe said of her apparent open-door policy with Kirkland. “If you’re not sincere, don’t come back. He’s always respected me, and I respect him. Even when he don’t come to me, he’ll keep that respect. But when he does come to me he understands that we’re not playing. That’s just how it is between us.”
No matter how many fighters Kirkland lays to waste, there is no single night when he’s been as chillingly devastating as was his trainer on May 8, 2004, in Biloxi, Miss. Barely a minute had elapsed in the first round when the 5-foot-9 Wolfe came in over the top with a right hand that landed flush on the jaw of 6-6 Vonda Ward, a former star for the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. Ward, who was unconscious even as she was on her way down, had to be removed from the ring on a stretcher.
“I damn near killed the lady,” Wolfe, who won eight world titles in four weight classes en route to a 24-1 record with 16 wins inside the distance, says with unabashed pride.
It will be interesting to see if Cotto, who has said 2017 will be his final year in boxing, can become the first fighter to defeat Kirkland when Wolfe is working her corner magic. But make no mistake, Cotto is catching some heat for even bidding for that distinction; naysayers figure that for a guaranteed $10 million purse, and coming off a 15-month layoff, he owes the public a bout with a more credible opponent than Kirkland, someone like, say, IBF junior middleweight champion Jermall Charlo (25-0, 19 KOs) or hot welterweight Errol Spence Jr. (21-0, 18 KOs).
There are out-of-the-ring considerations that are, for now at least, as much or more compelling than whatever takes place in the cauldron of competition. Cotto-Kirkland is on pay-per-view instead of regular HBO because Cotto, who will be making his fourth and final ring appearance under the terms of his excessively lavish contract with Jay Z’s Roc Nation Sports, is due that $10 million from Roc Nation, whose boxing division has all but folded. With an anticipated buy rate of fewer than 150,000, Roc Nation is assured of taking a bath in red ink no matter how Cotto fares. Kirkland also has promotional woes; he is contractually tied for a couple more months to SMS Promotions, whose founder, rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, has put him into only one fight in three years and whose company also is virtually defunct.
Another storyline is Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’ expanding boxing ambitions. Jones has put a couple of major fights into AT&T Stadium and is pushing hard to land the Gennady Golovkin-Canelo showdown for Jerry’s World, whenever it happens. He sees the 12,000-seat Ford Center at The Star as a site for somewhat-less-high-visibility bouts, which makes Cotto-Kirkland as a sort of test balloon.
“What we do here is a big deal,” Jones said when the matchup was announced. “We have the nation interested in sports, and they’ve got their eyes on us. Our dream when we built AT&T Stadium was for it to become something like Madison Square Garden. I feel the same way about The Star. For us to have Miguel Cotto open our initial professional effort at The Star is really a dream come true.”
Dreams sometimes become nightmares, and in a fit and focused Kirkland, Ann Wolfe just might have the instrument to put the marquee attraction to sleep, and to wake up a bit later screaming. And that’s just the way Wolfe likes it.
“I love being the underdog,” she said. “I love it when people say, `You have no chance at all.’ That’s why I’m doing this.”