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Fight of the Year?

Two takes on Saturday's bout in Cancun, and suggestions for how to improve boxing coverage

By the end of the six-round brawl between James Kirkland and Alfredo “Perro” Angulo Saturday night, I felt dazed. Not so much from the violent action in the ring, but rather from the rhetorical one-twos HBO’s ringside panel kept hurling through the television screen. Max Kellerman said I would remember this night for the rest of my life. Jim Lampley defied “any other fighter in the sport to take the damage that Kirkland has handed out.” And Roy Jones Jr. described Kirkland, Saturday’s TKO winner who lost his last fight by a first-round knockout, thusly: “Kirkland is ready to face whoever. He and [trainer] Ann Wolfe believe … that nobody can stop them, and they almost got me believing!”

The fight I saw didn’t seem to live up to the superlatives. Yes, the first round was thrilling. Kirkland charged out of his corner and looked to smother Angulo with jabs, hooks, uppercuts, and powerful straight lefts. Angulo took a few shots and landed some counters. A brawler himself, El Perro didn’t seem fazed by Kirkland’s pressure, and 30 seconds into the round he countered a Kirkland combination with a right that plunked Kirkland onto his back. On his way to the canvas, Kirkland’s mouth went crooked and his eyes looked like they were trying to jump out of their sockets — it was the stunned Bald Bull face from Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. Kirkland got to his feet, tried to shake the stars out of his field of vision, and covered up and fought back while Angulo moved in to finish him. Over the next minute and a half, Angulo threw about 50 full-bore haymakers, including a body shot that almost put Kirkland down a second time, but too many of the would-be final blows missed their mark. With a minute left in the round, Angulo had already shot his wad, utterly and fatally. He seemed dizzy from the exertion — all he could really do was hold his arms limply in front of his face and suck air.

That’s when Kirkland made his comeback. He pounced on Angulo with the same kind of brutal combinations that he had just defended against, only a few more of Kirkland’s head shots connected, and 13 seconds before the bell sounded Angulo stumbled and fell next to the ropes. He stood up and finished the round with a blank expression and eyes so drained of life that he could have passed for an extra in The Walking Dead.

As the bout went on, it became obvious that Angulo had nothing left. The match began to resemble a fistfight between Kirkland and an awkward, lurching, two-legged heavy bag. From the beginning of the second round until the end of the fight, Kirkland landed 178 punches to Angulo’s 37. This was not a great boxing match or even a great fight. It was an exquisite beating. Yet after the referee stopped the fight and pronounced Kirkland the winner, the plaudits kept coming.

Maybe the HBO staff sensed that fans needed a pep talk. The past few months in boxing have been filled with high-profile disappointments. In September, Floyd Mayweather’s bout with Victor Ortiz ended in a head-butting, cheek-kissing, (so-called) sucker-punching fiasco. In October, a pay-per-view fight between Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson ended when Dawson threw Hopkins to the mat and the 46-year-old champion suffered a separated shoulder and couldn’t continue. A week later, Nonito Donaire, a pound-for-pound contender who had delivered spectacular knockouts of his two previous opponents, defended his bantamweight belts on HBO against Omar Narvaez, a rat-tailed Argentine who seemed intent on testing the formal limits of boxing: Could he win a fight without ever trying to hurt his opponent? The result had the crowd at Madison Square Garden livid and likely wishing that someone (preferably Narvaez) would dislocate a shoulder so everyone could go home.

Yes, it’s been an ugly season for the sport, so maybe I should cut Lampley & Co. a break. At least we got to see a brawl, even if it was competitive for only one round. But as the HBO panel’s proclamations grew more and more grandiose, an off-color but useful mantra popped into my head: “Let’s not start sucking each other’s d@$#s quite yet.” That’s Winston Wolfe, Harvey Keitel’s character in in Pulp Fiction. The Wolf is summoned in the final third of the film to help John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson clean up the remains of a man Travolta accidentally shot in the face in the back seat of their car. After Travolta and Jackson scrub the vehicle of skull fragments and gray matter, another character congratulates them on a job well done, and that’s when The Wolf chimes in with his not-so-gentle reminder. Pulp Fiction may be the most quotable film ever, but for some reason that line has stuck with me more than any other. I’ve whispered it to myself on occasion, and it came to mind again during Saturday’s Angulo-Kirkland victory lap. Let’s not … you know … quite yet.

Why not? Well, for starters, this fight could have been even better. If Angulo hadn’t punched himself out in the first round, Angulo-Kirkland could have had a classic war, maybe even something along the lines of the first bout between Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward, where the fighters traded blows and pushed each other to seemingly heroic feats of strength and endurance. Instead, we watched Angulo stumble around while Kirkland teed off on him. Angulo’s ability to stand long after fatigue and trauma had caused his brain to cease communicating with his body was impressive, but we’ve seen other men take awful beatings in recent years — Antonio Margarito and Miguel Cotto, both at the fists of Manny Pacquiao — and those fights weren’t deemed classics. It’s no secret that boxing fans enjoy the violent side of the sport, but they also enjoy the sporting side of it, and aside from the first round, Angulo-Kirkland didn’t deliver much in that regard.

And as great as Round 1 was, I’d argue that it still doesn’t deserve to be held in the same breath as the first round of Hagler-Hearns or the 10th of Corrales-Castillo. Kirkland and Angulo aren’t in the same class. In fact, Saturday’s fight felt a bit like an elimination bout between two reclamation projects that had gone off track.

A couple of years ago, HBO had both fighters pegged as stars. Back then, Angulo — despite his trademark, straight-from-the-S&M-catalog black choker and its bedazzled capital letters that spell EL PERRO — seemed mean, efficient, and talented enough to make exciting fights and challenge the best junior middleweights. As it turned out, his gifts were only good enough to batter fighters you probably have never heard of, such as “Lightning” Harry Joe Yorgey. The best opponent of Angulo’s career, prior to Kirkland, was Kermit Cintron, who outboxed Angulo in 2009, exposing him as slow and guileless in the ring. Even so, Angulo’s willingness to trade shots earned him second chances — the Yorgey beatdown aired on HBO after Angulo was outclassed by Cintron — until his U.S. visa expired in 2010 and the government wouldn’t issue another one because of a previous immigration violation. After that, he couldn’t enter the United States, let alone fight there, and his career floundered. Kirkland was on a similar track in 2009, when he was arrested for firearm possession — while on probation for a 2003 armed robbery conviction — and had to serve another 18 months. Until Saturday night, his comeback had been rocky, including a brief split from longtime trainer Wolfe and a humiliating first-round KO loss to Nobuhiro Ishida. Reunited with Wolfe and her draconian training methods, Kirkland definitely had his edge back on Saturday, but for a pressure fighter who invites counterpunches, his chin looks too shaky to survive against a superior boxer who won’t wilt under Kirkland’s onslaught.

Which is all to say that Angulo and Kirkland are entertaining fighters, but they still haven’t proved that they’re in the same class as top junior middleweights like Saul Alvarez, Sergei Dzinziruk, or Erislandy Lara, let alone all-time greats like Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler.

By pitting these two brawlers against each other, HBO and Golden Boy Promotions, which handles both fighters, came up with an ingenious way to revive one boxer’s career. The fight was sure to be an action-packed crowd pleaser. Whoever survived would have his career rejuvenated by emerging from a battle against a fighter whose name still rang familiar to boxing fans, and the loser would be identified as dead weight. (By staging the fight in Cancun, it seems as if Golden Boy expected Angulo to be the comeback star and Kirkland the sacrificial lamb, but if they unwittingly created an American fighter with star potential, that could be an even bigger win for the promoter.)

In the end, HBO and Golden Boy got brownie points for putting on a good show after months of disappointing fights. James Kirkland’s career matters again. Writers and fans are lauding Alfredo Angulo’s courage and toughness. So let’s be happy. Let’s enjoy this enjoyable fight and give the boxers credit for going after each other in a dramatic and unforgettable first round. A really great fight, however, requires great boxers, none of whom were in the ring in Cancun on Saturday night. So let’s remember The Wolf and let’s not … you know … quite yet.

— Rafe Bartholomew

If there was ever a reason to forgive boxing for its recent transgressions, of which there have been several, Saturday night’s fight between James Kirkland and Alfredo “Perro” Angulo was enough to absolve the sport of Chad Dawson-Bernard Hopkins, Floyd Mayweather-Victor Ortiz, and the past two Manny Pacquiao fights. Angulo-Kirkland was certainly not the most technically sound fight, and after the first round the action was decidedly one-way, but the courage and violence that was on display should help bail out a struggling sport and remind its fans of what is possible when two motivated men decide to say, “Fuck boxing,” and proceed to beat the holy hell out of one other.

Just 30 seconds into the first round, after having been backed into a corner, Angulo let loose a monstrous right hand straight into Kirkland’s forehead. It was the sort of punch that freezes time, where the look on the victim’s face seems more confused than anything else. Hey, what just happened? Oh yes, down go the lights.

Given Perro’s punching power, Kirkland — who has had a notoriously weak chin — should not have gotten up from that straight right hand. But he sprung back up to his feet, albeit a bit unsteadily, and held on for the next 90 seconds as Angulo threw dozens of power shots into his shoulders, torso, and head. With 1:12 left in the round, Angulo had punched himself out. At 1:04, Kirkland caught Angulo with an uppercut that turned the fight around. Over the next 15 minutes of ring time, Kirkland destroyed Angulo, mixing in impassioned flurries with methodical power shots to the body. Angulo weathered the punishment with the courage expected of a Mexican fighter — he was hurt, badly, but he refused to throw in the towel. When the referee finally stopped the fight in the sixth round, HBO’s announcing team was justifiably wondering whether or not Angulo’s life had been at risk.

In the postfight analysis, Roy Jones, Max Kellerman, and Jim Lampley all agreed that the stock of both fighters had risen. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true — given HBO’s past investments in the careers of both Angulo and Kirkland, there’s certainly some incentive to try to oversell both guys as rising stars. What happened Saturday night wasn’t an exhibition of technical boxing, nor was it the coronation of a new People’s Champ, but it helped clarify the core values and the ultimate ambition of the sport. For any level of fight fan, it should have been impossible to see Alfredo Angulo’s face after the fight and not feel both a shiver of pity and a shiver of pride at what he had just endured. And who didn’t get choked up — at least a little — at the sight of Ann Wolfe running to hug her boxer in the center of the ring?

Boxing can inspire its fans in as many ways as it can disappoint them. Through their resilience, both Kirkland and Angulo showed that boxing is still the best alternative to the increasingly analytical and robotic American sports scene.

At the same time, I couldn’t help wonder why so many of the recent pay-per-view fights have been so disappointing, and why most people now see good fights only via YouTube postmortems. The problems with boxing and its coverage can’t all be explained or exposed here, but we offer four somewhat realistic suggestions for making sure fights like Kirkland-Angulo don’t fall by the wayside.

Suggestion no. 1: A fight should not be pay-per-viewed unless it can also be 24/7-ed.

If we went by this rule, Pacquiao vs. Clottey, Pacquiao vs. Mosely, and Dawson vs. Hopkins would have never happened. And although I’ve watched every minute of every 24/7, even I can admit that it’s time for some new blood. We already know everything Manny does before a fight — he trains with Freddie Roach at Wild Card, he eats chicken tinola soup, he likes to be around a lot of people, he clowns on Buboy, he sings karaoke, he says something very earnest about the people of the Philippines. Floyd’s act, despite its pyrotechnics, has gotten so stale that in the last 24/7, the camera crew followed Roger Mayweather to Quiznos. And it wasn’t a particularly meaningful trip to Quiznos, either. The public’s fascination with Floyd has soured into a bored sort of contempt. You either love him or you hate him, but there’s nothing that a new 24/7 can do to change your opinion.

Because PPV bouts so rarely create stars, it’s up to the lead-up show to create boxing’s outsize personalities. And although it’s nice to think that the final product will operate as a meritocracy, where the best will fight against the best and everyone will really care, boxing isn’t really in a position to dictate whom the public should pay to watch. Winky Wright was very good fighter for a few years. Nobody but the angriest boxing purist should ever have to pay to watch Winky fight.

I don’t know how Kirkland would fare against some of the best boxers in his weight class, but 24/7: James Kirkland would make for great television, especially if he can schedule his next fight against Mexico’s darling, Canelo Alvarez. Kirkland was raised in Austin, Texas, and has had numerous run-ins with the law, including two extended prison sentences for armed robbery and a weapons charge. This does not necessarily equal great TV, but it certainly does provide the jailhouse backstory that fight fans always seem to love. What’s more, Kirkland wouldn’t even be the star of his own 24/7. That role would go to his trainer, Wolfe. Because not every boxer can talk like Floyd, HBO has done a commendable job in turning the trainers into ancillary characters — Freddie Roach, Nacho Beristain, and the two elder Mayweathers are just as much a part of boxing’s new narrative as their protégés. Ann Wolfe doesn’t have their résumés, but she bases her training practices on pushing her fighters into moments of true panic, in which the body is forced to draw on superhuman powers.

But all you need to know about Ann Wolfe, really, is that on May 8 2004, she did this:

She is hungry, unorthodox, and seems completely committed to her training style and philosophy, which dictates that the human condition is at its best when pushed to its limits. HBO has tried to make stars out of Kirkland and Wolfe before, but the attempt was derailed by Kirkland’s legal troubles and his loss to Nobuhiro Ishida. Now, with a measure of redemption against “Perro” and a possible upcoming fight against Mexico’s young hope, Kirkland would become the sport’s next story of redemption against all odds.

No story plays better in boxing than the ex-con who, through the care of a dedicated trainer, finds the champion within. It’s cheesy, silly, and manipulative, sure, but boxing is at its best when it’s cheesy, silly, and manipulative.

Suggestion no. 2: Book more action fights.

Seems obvious, but why do we keep seeing fights like Dawson-Hopkins, Marquez-Mayweather, and Pacquiao-Clottey? It’s not hard to compare the styles of two boxers, examine their temperaments, and predict the sort of fight that might result. I understand that boxers have contracts with promoters and that many bad fights are the result of backroom deals, but if that’s true, HBO and Showtime should have the foresight to bury those fights. If you don’t want Joshua Clottey to fight Manny Pacquiao, then just refuse to show it on PPV until everyone involved comes out with a better option.

This is not to say that everything has to turn into Gatti-Ward, but if the rampant politicking and resulting bad fights continue, where will boxing turn after Pacquiao-Mayweather (if it ever happens)? Will American fans really pay $60 to watch Canelo Alvarez fight Sergio Martinez?

Suggestion no. 3: Roy Jones Jr. and Max Kellerman should get more exposure.

Look, I love hearing Emanuel Steward yell, “He didn’t hurt him” 15 times every fight, and Larry Merchant redeemed himself a bit in the aftermath of Mayweather-Ortiz, but it’s time to change the guard. Kellerman can match Jim Lampley’s energy, and Roy Jones always seems to have unique insight into the mind of a fighter. Let Manny and Larry do the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight and bring on Jones and Kellerman for the next five years.

Suggestion no. 4: The one way to make Canelo-Kirkland or Canelo-Martinez into a big fight is for HBO to hype up Canelo

I watched the Ortiz-Mayweather fight in a movie theater in Dallas. Ninety-five percent of the audience was of Mexican heritage, and the biggest cheers from that crowd were for Canelo’s undercard fight against Alfonso Gomez. Canelo might already be the biggest boxing star in Mexico and has the face and the style to be a crossover star here in the States. For those who haven’t seen him in action, here’s a quick primer: He looks like the ginger love child of Matt Damon and Blake Griffin, he’s an aggressive, powerful puncher, and he’s thoroughly untested. Half of American fight fans will absolutely hate him, but their girlfriends will shriek in terror every time an opponent’s fist makes contact with Canelo’s handsome face. He’s the perfect foil to Kirkland and Wolfe and the only personality who could make Sergio Martinez seem a bit more exciting.

Hurry up and get it done, HBO. You have some momentum now to create something other than the ongoing saga of Pacquiao-Mayweather. Let’s not let tiresome politics get in the way.

— Jay Caspian Kang

Rafe Bartholomew is an editor at Grantland and author of Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-Flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball. On Twitter, he is @rafeboogs.

Jay Caspian Kang is an editor at Grantland. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, will be published by Hogarth/Random House in Summer 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @jaycaspiankang.


Previously from Rafe Bartholomew and Jay Caspian Kang:

M/F/K with A Tribe Called Quest
The YouTube Highlights NBA Draft

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Filed Under: Boxing, Sports

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