James Kirkland, left; Joel Julio, right. (Photo splice taken from myboxingnework.com)
Nothing like a good fight to turn one bullish on The State Of Boxing Today. What spate of fight cancellations? I don’t remember them. And there’s nothing like the potential of back-to-back Fight of the Year candidates on consecutive weekends to transform Wednesday, when I’m writing this, into the worst day of the freaking week.
Last weekend gave us the front runner for the best fight of 2009, and early though it may be, it is going to be hard to surpass the lightweight championship fight between Juan Manuel Marquez and Juan Diaz. Saturday night on HBO, though, young junior middleweight knockout artists James Kirkland and Joel Julio could give Marquez-Diaz a run for its money. Kirkland and Julio may be NCAA-class to Marquez’ and Diaz’ NBA elite, but March Madness is upon us, and it’s not uncommon for the tourney to upstage the NBA Finals. The winner of Kirkland-Julio gets a chance to shine and boost his stock for the L.
Belaboring the point: Kirkland-Julio will be accompanied by a pair of other matches featuring young men on the path to graduation. Junior welterweight Victor Ortiz is the blazing hot frosh who probably has the best combination of talent and personality on the whole card, and he’s taking on his most difficult assignment in Mike Arnaoutis. Junior lightweight Robert Guerrero is the experienced senior who’s seen ups and downs but is just one tiny step away from jumping into the deep waters with killer pros like Humberto Soto, just as soon as he beats Saturday night opponent Daud Yordan. There’s nothing about either Arnaoutis or Yarden that suggests to me they’ll pose much more than a token threat to Ortiz or Guerrero. Neither undercard fight warrants an extensive breakdown, in my mind, although it must be noted that Guerrero’s presence on the triple-header staged in San Jose near his native Gilroy, Calif. ensures the crowd will be bumping like the Cameron Crazies. You gotta love boxing doing the regional thang and pumping the electricity into the arenas. And you gotta love Kirkland-Julio, a risky, bold fight for both men.
JOEL JULIO – JAMES KIRKLAND
The best description of Kirkland comes from his trainer, Ann Wolfe, who describes him as “like a shark in blood-infested waters.” In nearly every Kirkland fight I’ve seen, he wanted to knock out his opponent three seconds ago. After he got knocked down in his 2007 Fight of the Year candidate and Round of the Year candidate against Allen Conyers, rather than play it safe, he turned up the warp speed even higher — he wanted to knock out his man more like 20 seconds ago. Such naked aggression, and the left-handed power he brings with it, has drawn comparisons to Mike Tyson. There’s just nobody quite like Kirkland right now, and it’s why he’s got such potential to be an attraction in this sport.
In his last fight, though, in November, iron-chinned “Contender” grad Brian Vera just kept hanging around. No matter what Kirkland hit him with, Vera withstood it, even when he was stunned, at least until the fight was finally stopped. It might have had something to do with the fact that the fight was at an agreed-upon higher weight. It might have had something to do with the fact that Vera is made of some kind of stupid, stubborn alloy that bends but never explodes. Whatever the reason, it probably did Kirkland a lot of favors. His last four fights had gone only one or two rounds each, and he needed the time in the ring. Furthermore, every power puncher eventually runs into an opponent he can’t blow out, and he better have a back-up plan. While Vera caught Kirkland with a few big shots, Kirkland’s defense was surprisingly tight by his standards, with Vera not even connecting on double-digit percentages of his punches in some rounds.
What remains to be seen is if Kirkland, whether he’s a shark or not, is being thrown into waters infested by a better predator. Julio and Kirkland are both 24, but Julio has 10 more wins on his record. He’s fought two “Contender” grads to Kirkland’s one. He’s already fought for an alphabet title belt in addition to fighting in a title eliminator, and Julio is by far the best opponent of Kirkland’s career, a borderline top-10 boxer who may yet become the star he as touted to be as far back as four years ago.
And he has other advantages. He is taller by a bit and has a longer reach by a bit. He’s also the more proven boxer of the two. One of his wins, over Ishe Smith, featured long stretches where the power puncher in the fight, Julio, outboxed the slickster in the fight, Smith. And it’s clear that Julio’s a power puncher. In 34 wins, he has 31 knockouts, five in his last six since moving up from welterweight, compared to 21 knockouts in 24 wins for Kirkland. Unlike Kirkland, Julio has two losses on his record, but sometimes that happens when you fight stiffer competition. What’s notable about both losses is that they came to slick boxers, Carlos Quintana and in his last fight, Sergiy Dzindziruk. And Kirkland is anything but a slick boxer.
I expect a slugfest, and since both men have been down before, maybe even a couple different trips to the canvas. I don’t expect it to make it to the final bell. Why, oh why, does today have to be Wednesday?
My prediction: Kirkland by a knockout before the middle of the fight. I think the difference will be speed. I suspect Kirkland has a little more of it. That means he should be able to beat Julio to the punch, and I doubt he’ll give Julio much space to use his superior skill set. The lefty thing seems to have troubled Julio in the past, too. And while I’ve seen Julio shook and recover before, he’s never been hit as hard as Kirkland is going to hit him Saturday night.
Confidence: 52%. If I bet on fights, I’d bet on Julio, whom I’ve seen identified as the underdog in this match. Kirkland, as much fun as he is, is largely untested. And nobody has probably hit Kirkland as hard as Julio is going to hit him Saturday night.
My allegiance: I like both fighters a good deal, but I give Kirkland the edge in the excitement department, and I’ve like to see him pull out the win. I just don’t want it to be Julio’s undoing. Remember, everyone — he’s 24.