By: Boxing Writer Carl Hewitt
Riding high after a scintillating sixth round stoppage of Alfredo Angulo in November, Texas junior middleweight James Kirkland didn’t choose a soft touch for his next bout on the way to a shot at a title fight in the 154 lb. division. Instead, he’ll next face off with Chicago’s Carlos Molina, who is perhaps the most deserving contender in the division. Both are jockeying for a crack at one of the weight class’s major champions. It’s a match made Heaven, since both fighters have had considerable difficulty finding opponents willing to put it on the line.
After battling to a highly-disputed draw with Cuba’s Erislandy Lara, Molina polished off Kermit Cintron in convincing fashion in a distance victory that should have amounted to a title eliminator for one of the many alphabet belts the sport is now littered with. Instead of being rewarded with the opportunity to face Mexico’s Sául Álvarez for the WBC junior middleweight crown, the opportunity went to Cintron, the fighter he defeated over ten one-sided rounds, received the title shot instead, an odd turnabout that once again illustrated the arbitrary and capricious manner by which the sanctioning bodies and networks decide who gets to fight for titles.
In an age where top contenders and titlists avoid each other like the Ebola Virus, kudos go to Kirkland for taking a second straight difficult assignment against one of the division’s most feared contenders. Not quite the puncher Angulo is, Molina is nonetheless a hard night’s work for anyone at 154. In a fair and just world, Molina and Kirkland would be in preparation for separate title shots of their own, rather than gearing up to face each other in what the wretched WBC deems a “semi-final eliminator” for its title, with the winner to face Vanes Martirosyan in the final eliminator. So basically, while Kirkland and Molina have had to walk through fire in the junior middleweight division to get a title shot, Martirosyan is allowed to face one ESPN-quality doormat after another. How Martirosyan is ranked ahead of Kirkland and Molina is beyond me.
Molina is one of the most avoided fighters in all of boxing for a reason — he’s been more than competitive with some of the sport’s better fighters. His majority decision losses to Mike Alvarado and Julio Cesar Chavez, and draw against Chavez Jr., are a clear indicator of Molina’s difficult and clever style, a style designed to neutralize any opponent’s strengths. Such a style is necessary, considering Molina’s modest punching power, as evidenced by his 24% KO percentage. But don’t let the lack of knockouts fool you about Molina’s overall ability. He is, in boxing vernacular, a “professional fighter”, a guy who knows his way around the ring and is more than capable of adjusting to almost any style out there.
Unlike his last fight against Angulo, the biggest single variable coming into this contest doesn’t involve Kirkland, but his opponent. The Texas native brings major league heat to the table and defies opponents to withstand it. This was on display in that Angulo fight, on a night where Kirkland had to exorcise demons and display tremendous fortitude in battling back from a first round knockdown. In Molina, however, Kirkland won’t be facing a straight-ahead brawler stuck in one gear. Molina feints, slides, circles, holds and smothers. In other words, he’s a stylistic nightmare and almost impossible to hit solidly on a consistent basis.
Both fighters are relatively fresh, as Kirkland served a twenty month prison sentence and Molina sat out nearly twenty-one months due to contract issues. So, it’s safe to say that neither fighter will show wear and tear anytime soon. So what this battle boils down to is which fighter will impose his style more successfully upon the other. In his shocking loss to Nobuhiro Ishida last April, Kirkland appeared “soft” fighting at 158 lbs. He had virtually no head movement and just didn’t seem to be in his typical peak condition. Was it more of a case of improper conditioning, a short-notice opponent or the fact that Ann Wolfe wasn’t present in his corner? The Kirkland we saw in with the flame-throwing Angulo had proper balance, excellent head movement, a devastating power jab and enough punch resistance to overcome his biggest single test to date. There was no panic in the corner that night, either. The instructions were concise and executed almost to perfection. This fight’s opponent, however, is not overpowering, nor is he what could be called a “pure boxer”. What he is though, is a tremendous fighter that the division’s major players have avoided at all costs. The fact that Golden Boy chose the underachieving Cintron as the opponent in Alvarez’s most recent fight attests to this. Hardly anyone looks great against Molina, win, lose or draw. And since Golden Boy wants to feature Canelo in fights where he looks scintillating offensively, there was no way they’d have put their future cash cow in with a skilled “spoiler” like Molina.
The humble blue-collar warrior from The City of Broad Shoulders will have his work cut out for him against Kirkland, though. While it’s safe to say that Kirkland has never faced anyone quite like Molina, the opposite is also true. With Wolfe back on board, it appears that Kirkland’s spartan training regimen is back on point. And being back at his natural weight of 154 lbs. has to be a tremendous a plus.
Prediction: Don’t expect Kirkland-Angulo II on Saturday night because Molina’s too crafty to be drawn into an all-out war with a vastly superior puncher. Instead, we will see the Molina we’re used to seeing, which happens to be a fighter proficient of ring generalship and a master of distance. Typically, his opponents are frustrated after a few rounds. We’ve never seen Kirkland frustrated or discouraged up to this point, but we’ve also never seen him in with a guy quite like Molina. Expect Kirkland to establish his improved jab in the early rounds because it’s a weapon that should enable him to remain patient in a fight likely to be lacking early fireworks. Kirkland knows he will have his hands full in yet another difficult assignment, but if the technical improvements we saw in the Angulo war carries over into this fight, he should be able to do enough offensively to emerge victorious. But it won’t be easy.
Both fighters are hungry. Both fighters have earned their current rankings the old fashioned way. Both fighters are looking for bigger things later this year. To get there, they have at least one more obstacle to overcome. It’s nothing new for them, either. The commonly-held perception of Molina as the hard-luck journeyman is an erroneous one. Journeymen don’t lose highly-disputed decisions to Mike Alvarado and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. And they’re also not as avoided by some of the sport’s biggest names. Molina’s far too skilled and resourceful to be considered a mere journeyman.
A loss this weekend would briefly stall Molina’s career, but would not prove debilitating. On the other hand, a defeat on Saturday coming on the heels of the Ishida meltdown would set Kirkland back at least a year, possibly more. Hence, there’s a bit more urgency at hand for Kirkland. Molina’s been in with guys who can crack and knows what to do stylistically and defensively, but will he generate enough offense to get the verdict? The technical enhancements shown in his last fight should be enough to edge a win for Kirkland. The Mandingo Warrior’s resolute, round-by-round approach will hold him in good stead in this, a fight in which patience could prove to be the ultimate virtue. Don’t expect the type of pyrotechnics we saw against Angulo — just a gritty, hard-fought decision victory for Kirkland, on his way to a much-anticipated title shot against Canelo Alvarez…maybe. Kirkland by MD.
On Saturday, March 24, 2012 at the Reliant Arena in Houston, Texas, James ‘Mandingo Warrior’ Kirkland and Carlos ‘King’ Molina will meet in a 12-round junior middleweight bout. It will serve as the co-feature to the WBC junior welterweight fight between Erik ‘El Terrible’ Morales and Danny Garcia. Tickets can be purchased at the Reliant Arena box office or by calling (832) 667-1400. Both fights will be televised by HBO World Championship Boxing beginning at 10:00pm EST.
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