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Kirkland has tough test in Julio

06
Mar

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Robert Guerrero, from nearby Gilroy, Calif., is the local attraction of the Golden Boy Promotions card Saturday at the HP Pavilion, which will host at least 7,000 fans from the surrounding areas.

But the main event of the HBO-televised triple header is undoubtedly the junior middleweight clash between James Kirkland and Joel Julio.

The reason is simple: Both Kirkland (24-0, 21 knockouts) and Julio (34-2, 31 KOs) are known to provide two-fisted action every time they step into the ring.

And the stakes are high. If Julio, a hammer-fisted Colombian with loads of natural athletic ability, wins the 10-round bout, he will regain the promise he once had as boxing’s “hottest prospect” before he lost a 12-round bout to Carlos Quintana in 2006 and dropped a unanimous decision to WBO titleholder Sergiy Dzinziruk last November.

However, the eyes of the sport will be on Kirkland, a relentless combination-punching southpaw from Austin, Texas, who relishes toe-to-toe exchanges and breaking his opponents down with a ruthless body attack. If he beats Julio, he will instantly graduate from headlining HBO’s “Boxing After Dark” series, aimed at shinning light on up and comers, to “Championship Boxing”, the subscription network’s flagship boxing program that hosts the sport’s elite fighters.

But that transition will probably not be as easy as the transition Kirkland made from prospect to contender (he’s currently ranked No. 10 by THE RING) over the past 18 months, during which time the 24 year old blazed through five solid opponents – Mohammad Said (KO 2), Allen Conyers (TKO 1), Eromosele Albert (TKO 1), Ricardo Cortes (TKO 2) and Brian Vera (TKO 8) – on various cable networks and pay-per-view shows.

In those five outings, Kirkland exhibited everything – speed, power, footwork, conditioning and heart – save for defense. Even casual boxing fans realize that a fighter can practically close his eyes while launching a right hand and still land a shot flush on Kirkland’s chin.

“The funny thing about Kirkland is that he actually has decent defense, but he usually chooses not to use it,” observed respected trainer Freddie Roach, whose Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, Calif., hosted Kirkland for a few months last year and in 2007. “He can box, but he doesn’t want to. He’d rather go in there and try to kill the other guy with every punch he throws.

“And the thing is, when you commit as much to your offense as Kirkland does, you’re going to get caught coming in.”

Kirkland was dropped during his one-round shoot-out with Conyers and he’s been stunned a few times in other bouts, but he’s never been in the ring with a fighter who punches as hard as Julio, which is why there is so much interest in the fight.

“This is a high-risk fight, a make-or-break fight for Kirkland,” said Eric Gomez, matchmaker for Golden Boy Promotions, which signed Kirkland last year. “It’s the kind of fight I like to make, but I’ll be honest, I’m nervous.

“I know Kirkland is in his prime, but Julio is a strong fighter, he’s the same age as Kirkland and he’s got more experience; he’s been in title fights. I was hesitant to make the fight at first, but after talking to his trainer, Ann Wolfe, and his managers, Cameron Dunkin and Michael Miller, and they were just as confident as the fighter, so that gave me confidence.”

Roach, who has watched Kirkland spar with the best middleweights of his gym, views Saturday’s main event as a competitive fight but he also believes Gomez has reason to be confident.

“It won’t be an easy fight for him but I like Kirkland,” Roach said. “They can both fight and they can both punch, but Kirkland’s a beast. I think he’s going to out-work and out-punch Julio.”

However, Roach says that while Kirkland out-works Julio don’t be surprised if he takes a trip to the canvas or has to survive a rough moment or two.

“He’s not invincible,” he said. “I’ve seen him hurt in sparring.”

Kirkland quickly gained a reputation for getting into gym wars while he was in Southern California, sparring with undefeated (at the time) young middleweights like Sergio Mora, Alfred Angulo and Craig McEwan and often going at it hard enough to draw blood.

But it was a grizzled old journeyman who gave as good as he got, according to Roach.

“Danny Zee hurt him pretty good with a body shot,” said Roach, referring to the boxing alias of 37-year-old Daniel Stanislavjevic, a tough and experienced spoiler who recently held Juan “Pollo” Valenzuela to a draw and caused Angulo to struggle to a split-decision win early in the Mexican prospect’s career.

Gomez has heard all the gym stories about Kirkland. It’s the reason he’s both excited and nervous about Saturday’s fight.

“It’s the dangerous fights that give the fans what they want and the winner of the fight the biggest pay off,” Gomez said. “Look at the Marquez-Diaz fight. That was a fight that Juan Manuel Marquez could have lost. A lot of people thought he was losing to Juan Diaz before he knocked him out. Marquez had to go through hell but the pay off is that he’s the hero of Mexico now. Some people believe that he should be considered the No. 1 fighter, pound for pound, over Manny Pacquiao. I think everyone agrees that he’s a great fighter.

“All of this is basically the pay off from one fight. High risk equals big pay off.”

The big pay off for Kirkland?

More HBO dates against higher-profile fighters for a lot more money.

“That’s the way it should be,” Gomez said. “That’s what HBO boxing is supposed to be all about. There shouldn’t be a clear winner in any of their main events. They got away from that formula for a few years, but they’ve gotten back to it in a big way this year and we have to give them credit for it.”

Gomez says if Kirkland beats Julio in impressive fashion, the fighter’s co-manager Cameron Dunkin, who is usually not one to take unnecessary risks with his fighters, is more than willing to target a world title in his next bout.

“He told me he wouldn’t mind going after (WBC titleholder) Vernon Forrest or (WBA beltholder) Daniel Santos, which tells you something about his belief in his fighter,” Gomez said. “We [Golden Boy Promotions] believe in him, too. That’s why we signed him. He’s there. He’s ready. He’s knocking on the door.

“This fight will open it for him.”

Doug Fischer can be reached at [email protected]

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