HBO is playing it rather savvy with its May programming. Knowing that after Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao finally met, people would be wondering, “Who’s next for the mantle of boxing’s biggest star?” they threw in two of their best bids: Canelo Alvarez this weekend, Gennady Golovkin the one after. They also hedged their bets on blood: Canelo Alvarez vs James Kirkland is significantly more likely to lead to exciting two-way action, and Golovkin is such good one-way action it doesn’t even matter who he’s fighting. (The Mayweather/boxing manager Al Haymon side has lined up its own bit of May savvy, making sure that Amir Khan, his potential next opponent, is fighting this month on Spike TV.)
Alvarez isn’t guaranteed action, as his own dud against Mayweather showed. Pairing him with Kirkland makes a world of sense there, because there probably isn’t anyone alive who fights with that level of ferocity when he’s at the top of his game — dude is like a one-man wolfpack. Because of how great he can look in one fight followed by how terrible he can look in the next, he is also an intelligent calculated risk if you want to preserve Canelo’s record while building him toward, say, a make-or-break fight for both Canelo and Golovkin against one another.
And book it: As much as the general public complained about Mayweather vs Pacquiao, there will be a huge audience ready to tune in just for the replay of that fight, and another huge audience that already loves Canelo, a redheaded Mexican boxer-puncher who is that nation’s biggest star right now. This will be a smash. It will be up to Canelo and Kirkland to deliver the product.
On entertainment value, Canelo might not be able to deliver the goods solo. He’s a nice fighter, better than I ever imagined he’d be, someone who’s beaten extra-difficult foes like Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, however narrowly. But he’s yet to be in a fight that qualified as a great, or even very good, action fight. As a thick junior middleweight, he’s got the size to deliver big punches, yet he fancies himself a boxer. In a way, that’s a good thing. He doesn’t have crazy one-punch power, and he’s had to work hard on his speed and defense to get himself to the level where we could be talking about him as a potential heir apparent for boxing. Since moving up from welterweight, he has demonstrated high-caliber punch resistance, just not so much that he feels like taking risks to test all that. So he picks his spots, throws flashy (and, to be fair, effective) combinations, boxes sometimes and brawls his way out of binds when he has to.
He has, notably, beaten the living daylights out of every brawler he has faced. Mayweather smoked him easily, while Trout and Lara gave him trouble. Carlos Baldomir, Matthew Hatton, Alfredo Angulo — hardly a moment’s competition.
Kirkland is, at his best, a better brawler than all of them. He got dropped hard by Angulo in the 1st round but otherwise dominated that fight. He’s faster than Angulo, and better at creating openings when he’s in trouble. Watch him take a brief step back his opponent has him cornered on the ropes, then drop a quick, flush left hand.
But he is, still, a brawler, and a flawed one, which is glorious for his appeal. And while having trainer Ann Wolfe in his corner makes a difference in how good he is (he doesn’t for this fight), the flaws are still there. Kirkland struggles early, getting dropped often — even without Wolfe, how did he get stopped by Nobuhiro Ishida? — and has a ton of bad habits, like pulling back from an exchange with his hands down. For all his athletic qualities, he’s a horrible defensive fighter, easy to catch by anyone who even bothers, especially when he’s exchanging on the inside.
To be successful, Kirkland has to let his hands go in combination. He can do damage with one punch, to be sure, but he is no one-punch knockout artist. He can also jab his way inside, where he’s more comfortable letting his big multi-punch salvos go. Despite how he can fight off the ropes, he can still be put there easily, and it’s not like he’s better off there, either.
What this boils down to is, Kirkland needs to survive the early rounds and establish at some point that he can hurt Canelo. I’m not convinced he can do either. Kirkland should, of course, be approaching this as the fight of his life, because it’s sure to be his best payday. Yet his decision to dispense with Wolfe for some unknown trainers is a bad omen. It’s patently obvious that Wolfe is best for him in the ring, compared to how he’s fared with others. Reading interviews with his promoter 50 Cent, where he talks about not taking lesser fights because he wanted Canelo so bad, this has the feel of a fighter who knows this is he is cashing out and didn’t want to take any fights at all because all fights are a risk for a guy who’s in and out of personal trouble and trains poorly when he’s broken off with Wolfe.
If I’m wrong, and if Kirkland avoids early trouble, we could very well find out how Canelo stands up to a big junior middleweight puncher, like never before. That’s the better result — an early Canelo beat down, a great Kirkland rally, and a race to the finish that shows us what one of boxing’s would-be successors has to offer in a moment like that.
Rather, look for Canelo to score a knockout by the middle rounds against an under-prepared Kirkland. He will, at least, go down swinging, so it won’t lack for excitement, the way Mayweather-Pacquiao did after a certain point. And in that way, it will serve its purpose for many.