ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Theirs is an on-again, off-again kind of thing, sort of like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, with as much bickering but with a substantially higher violence quotient.
Two of the baddest-ass figures in boxing, oft-incarcerated super welterweight contender James “The Mandingo Warrior” Kirkland and his female trainer, Ann “Brown Sugar” Wolfe, have rejoined forces for another dual assault on Kirkland’s opponents and the public sensibilities, and this time each swears it’s for keeps.
Then again …
“He left me. I didn’t leave him,” Wolfe said of the professional separations that were sometimes prompted by conscious decisions made by Kirkland and sometimes by the legal system that put her troubled fighter down and out more often and emphatically than the guy in the other corner ever could. “I never went nowhere. But now he’s back and we’re good. So far, anyway.”
The 29-year-old Kirkland (31-1, 27 KOs), who takes on Glen “Jersey Boy” Tapia (20-0, 12 KOs) in one of three HBO-televised bouts here Saturday night in the Adrian Phillips Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall—Guillermo Rigondeaux (12-0, 8 KOs) defends his WBA and WBO super bantamweight championships against Joseph Agbeko (29-4, 22 KOs) and middleweights Lamar Russ (14-0, 7KOs) and Matthew Macklin (29-5, 20 KOs) square off in the others – also insists that he and Wolfe are finally together for the long haul, God and assorted police departments willing.
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” Kirkland responded when asked if his frequently contentious relationship with Wolfe has been permanently repaired to the satisfaction of both. “In boxing, we don’t always make the right decisions. A lot of times things are said that can’t easily be taken back. I think it was like that with me and Ann sometimes.
“I’ve been in boxing practically my whole life, but 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.”
Well, Kirkland did it, sometimes grudgingly, when he wasn’t incarcerated. He is no stranger to penal institutions, having had his once-promising career sidetracked by an armed-robbery conviction in 2003 and for illegal possession of a firearm in 2009. When he was released in September 2010, he exercised his prerogative to go in a different direction, as he had done in the past, to work with a trainer other than Wolfe. Bob Santos was Kirkland’s chief second du jour and might have been in his corner for the Tapia fight, but a scheduling conflict – Santos is training Erislandy Lara for a Showtime-televised fight the same night against former WBA super welterweight titlist Austin Trout at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. – again steered the southpaw slugger to Wolfe’s Navy Seals-intensive gym and training regimen in Austin, Texas.
“Every time he comes back, it feels different,” Wolfe said. “But this time, he came back better than ever. He’s much more focused. He ran those eight miles and for once I didn’t have to drag his ass along.”
Wolfe, 42, who won eight world titles in four weight classes during her own illustrious boxing career, acknowledges that the demands she places on fighters are such that not everyone can or is willing to pay the price of keeping up.
“Some fighters can’t handle it,” she said. “But I know how to take someone to the breaking point and then to build him back up. Each time I take them to their limit, I’m able to take them a little further the next time.”
Maybe Wolfe and Kirkland can break up to make up because they are so alike, in so many ways. Kirkland is a devastating puncher with a mean streak in the ring; so was Wolfe, who posted a 24-1 record with 16 victories inside the distance, some of the knockouts of the spectacular variety. Wolfe is widely regarded as the most lights-out puncher in women’s boxing history.
Take the takeout shot the 5’9” Wolfe delivered to the chin of 6’6” Vonda Ward, a former star for the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team, on May 8, 2004, in Biloxi, Miss. Barely a minute had elapsed in the first round when Wolfe came in over the top with a right hand that landed flush. Ward was unconscious even as she was on her way to the canvas. She had to be removed from the ring on a stretcher.
So, how often is Wolfe asked about that punch, which is often included in video compilations of boxing’s greatest knockouts?
“I damn near killed the lady,” said Wolfe, who added that Laila Ali ducked her as if she were a low overhang. “Of course I’m going to get asked about it.”
The same might be said of Kirkland, whose power is as formidable and indisputable as Wolfe’s. If you like no-doubt-about-it knockouts, Kirkland is at or near the top of the list of must-see attractions.
“With James Kirkland, the only time I get worried is when his sparring partners don’t get sent to the hospital,” Wolfe said.
All of which leads one to wonder why Kirkland, this unbridled force of nature, is unranked by all the world sanctioning bodies. Maybe that’s because of inactivity; this is his first fight in 19 months. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t always shown the kind of discipline he needs to be at peak efficiency. It was one of the biggest shockers in boxing when, as an overwhelming favorite, an overweight and seemingly disinterested Kirkland was dropped three times in a first-round stoppage by Japan’s Nobu Ishida on April 9, 2011.
Tapia is ranked No. 3 by the WBO and No. 10 by the IBF, but the Passaic, N.J., native said he realizes most people consider him the underdog because they remember who Kirkland is, or at least who he is supposed to be.
“This fight means everything to me,” Tapia said. “This is my life. This is the step I have to take. I can’t wait any longer to show everybody I’m a great fighter.
“This is Kirkland’s chance, too, to show everybody he’s not done. But only one of us is going to leave the ring happy, and I’m going to be the guy who’s smiling. It’s not just about whether you win or lose. It’s how you win. Boxing is entertainment. You have to give the people a show. You have to give them their money’s worth.
“Look, I don’t want anybody to say I beat James Kirkland because he’s been off a long time or whatever. I want him to be at his best because I don’t want him to have no excuses when I beat him.”
Kirkland said Tapia needn’t worry about him being at his best. He said he certainly will be just that, and it will be more than good enough.
“I know the guy is pretty good and he’s coming to win,” Kirkland said. “But I’m going to show him and everybody else that I’m still James Kirkland.”
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