Alfredo Angulo has a super-dope castle. Its fortified walls have thus far proven virtually impenetrable. James Kirkland has a really big cannon. Nearly everything that has encountered its fire has been pulverized. It’ll be a primitive good time Saturday night on HBO, finding out which junior middleweight will be better at getting medieval on the other one.
That remains the case even though an Angulo/unhurtable vs. Kirkland/super-hurter bout would’ve been more desirable in 2009 than 2011. Back then, it was nigh-impossible to even conceive of a bout more likely to result in an unholy war than Angulo-Kirkland. But one month after Kirkland’s career-best win in March over Joel Julio, the Austin, Texas native was committing the firearm felony that would land him in jail for 18 months. The next month, in May, Angulo was suffering his first defeat to Kermit Cintron. Angulo would rebound some over the next year, but the Mexican’s career came to a screeching halt when he got in trouble with immigration authorities and topped it all off with a feud with his promoter, Gary Shaw. While Angulo was sidelined for a full year, Kirkland began his comeback, only to suffer a shocking, Upset of the Year-style 1st round knockout to little-known Nobuhiro Ishida. When last we checked in with Kirkland and Angulo, both had gotten back into business with quick KOs of overmatched opponents, and now, here we are, in a roundabout way where we wanted to be, just under less happy circumstances.
Some things have changed since Angulo signed with a new promoter and began fighting again, and since Kirkland’s massive loss. Kirkland’s corner is under new management, although it’s the original management: Ann Wolfe was booted and replaced upon his release from jail by Kenny Adams, but the Adams experiment didn’t work out so now he’s back with Wolfe. That, according to Kirkland and his crew, will be the difference between the fearsome Kirkland of old and the chinny version we’ve seen of late. It’s a bit more of a mystery how much the Angulo layoff has affected him, since he looked much like the old Angulo in his last fight despite switching trainers himself to Nacho Beristain, but that fight didn’t last long enough to give us too much information.
Angulo is the #2 man in The Ring’s rankings of 154-pounders, while Kirkland doesn’t warrant a slot in the top 10. And the winner could end up the mandatory challenger to the title owned by big-time Mexican star Saul Alvarez. But in the false either/or debate about significance vs. excitement, this one definitely isn’t as much about what it means about who’s best — it’s about the visceral expectations that come to mind when imagining Angulo-Kirkland.
Angulo comes in as the favorite, and based on Kirkland’s recent form, it’s a status hand-delivered to “El Perro” by the man who calls himself “Mandingo Warrior.” Kirkland never has been a master boxer. He leans forward for no reason other than that he’s so eager to get at his man he doesn’t care how out of position he is, his punches are wild and his defense usually negligible. But people forget that Kirkland has at times shown flashes of actual boxing skill. Brian Vera, in some rounds, only connected on Kirkland in the single digits; when it occurs to Kirkland to keep his gloves up or move his head, he can form a rudimentary defense. He has a jab, when he bothers with it. All the worst of Kirkland and none of the best (save his authentic punching power and naked aggression) has been evident since his return to the ring.
More importantly, he got knocked out by light-hitting and unproven Ishida, of all people. And in the fight before that he got wobbled by Jhon Berrio, who had evident power but had never been able to damage anyone on the world-class level. There’s an answer for all that, by Kirkland and those who believe in him: He has always been a bit chinny, but used to recover better, and has stood up to big punchers like Joel Julio in the past. The rust from the layoff and the absence of sadistic trainer Wolfe upon his return may also have left him in worse shape than he once was. And referee Joe Cortez stopped the Ishida fight prematurely. Giving Kirkland the benefit of the doubt, it’s still fair to wonder if he’s had enough time with Wolfe and enough distance from his jail stint to be his old self. Less generously, Golden Boy could realize that this version of Kirkland is primed for a fall, so he might as well fall to someone we wanted to see him fight and who will make for a bit of brutal television along the way.
To be fair, Angulo might have been the favorite in 2009, too. He’s not just someone who can take a punch, although he definitely can do that. He’s also a car compactor of an offensive fighter, closing off space and slowly, rigorously, without wasted motion and with great finality crushing his man. Whereas Kirkland’s big left is his main weapon, Angulo’s big right is his and his overall two-fisted assault is more effective. It’s not that Kirkland is one-dimensional offensively, because he does have a body attack and an uppercut and the like, it’s just that Angulo’s attack is more consistently efficient, tight and deadly than Kirkland’s bursts of raw power. Angulo, when punching in combination, makes you suck air between your teeth. Top-to-bottom, Angulo has faced and beaten the better level of competition, although he took longer to dispose of Julio than did Kirkland.
Where Angulo is deficient above all else is speed. He gets a lot done with timing, but against Kermit Cintron, he was out-quicked and counterpunched, and Kirkland is definitely going to be faster than Angulo. Angulo says he was sick for that fight, and despite the decision loss, was coming on late. Nonetheless, his lack of speed and general lack of defense — even if he was inclined to focus more on it in his last fight, his first with Beristain — assure that his granite jaw will get tested by Kirkland. And Angulo has been wobbled once and only once in his career so far as I know, by Richard Guitierrez, who is no Kirkland in the power department.
Kirkland has a shot at storming Angulo early, especially since we don’t know much about Angulo’s conditioning or level of ring rust after just 1:36 of professional boxing since July of 2010. But even if he gets in Angulo’s chest and stays there, Angulo will be able to pick him apart, and in a fight between defense-less power-punching boxers where one is better technically and can take big blows better, it’s hard to go against THAT guy. Even if he’s in a higher plane of James Kirklandness than in recent fights, I don’t think Kirkland will last long — I predict he’ll be around for three or less — but it’ll be as exhilarating as three rounds of boxing gets.