When I moved out of
the boxing hotspot that is Southern California for more chill confines of NorCal's
Bay Area, I was told on Twitter by a boxing scribe from the region, “Welcome to
Boxing Exile.” Once a hub of boxing activity, (San Francisco boasted the first
gloved heavyweight champion) the Bay Area no longer enjoys such a distinction despite
boasting the number two boxer in the world, super middleweight champion Andre
Ward in nearby Oakland.
But there's something
going on in San Carlos, CA. First, Nonito Donaire moved his training camp to the
Undisputed Boxing Gym, training with owner Brian Schwartz and conditioning
coach Mike Bazzel. The trio along with Victor Conte, owner/operator of
Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning's (SNAC) and sprint coach Remi
Korchemny back in early 2010 helped put that gym on the international map. It
also formed a brain trust that is going strong today despite Donaire moving on
to another facility, the Robert Garcia Boxing Academy in Oxnard, CA.
The core of Conte, Korchemny, Schwartz and Bazzel have
helped a stable that includes Bruno Escalante and Andy Vences as well as the
likes of Amir Khan, Edwin Rodriguez, Alfredo Angulo and 2012 Olympic medalist
Marlen Esparza. Whether it is working on a Curve treadmill, working a
heavyweight or the target mitts while wearing a custom hypoxic boxing harness
or sprinting with Korchemny, the fighters coming through Undisputed are subject
to cutting edge training techniques that take the latest research and attempt
to turn it into boxing-centric exercise.
It is this next level universe that welterweight
contender Shawn “Showtime” Porter and his father/trainer, Ken, have stepped
into. Ken Porter, himself a former fighter of many disciplines from wrestling
to mixed martial arts and boxing, was preparing his son for the biggest fight
of their lives: a December 7 showdown at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY
against slick southpaw IBF welterweight champion Devon Alexander on Showtime.
At age 26, Porter's game is starting to peak. A mainstay
at the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA, “Showtime” has long been exposed
to the top level of the sport. From watching and working with the likes of Manny
Pacquiao, Porter knows where the bar is set, what it looks like and just
exactly how hard he has to work in order to reach it.
Porter had been in the Bay Area a couple weeks, working
with Korchemny, undergoing hypoxic training at Undisputed and recovering in
Conte's hyperbaric chamber (which rests in the main room of the SNAC offices
just a few blocks away from Undisputed) when junior middleweight James Kirkland
got to town.
James “Mandingo Warrior” Kirkland, 31-1 (27), is in a
different place than Porter. At 29, the East Austin southpaw assassin is a man
searching for the right answers before the world stops asking questions. He has
had a tumultuous layoff since beating Carlos Molina by disqualification in
March of last year. Following a lackluster effort Kirkland won when Molina's
corner entered the ring before the round was over, Kirkland blew up his whole
team. He left his trainers Ann Wolfe and Donald “Pops” Billingsley, who was in
his corner since he was nine years old. He had his contract with Golden Boy
Promotions voided and split with his management team of Cameron Dunkin, Mike
Miller and Wolfe.
In the back end of that tumult, Kirkland, who had been
quite out of shape heading into the Molina fight, began to figure some things
out. His contract up in October, Kirkland was going to be a free agent of
possible use to anyone not named Golden Boy Promotions. According to sources,
Mike Tyson's promotional outfit had some interest. Instead, Kirkland signed
with 50 Cent and soon, signed to fight Glen “Jersey Boy” Tapia, 20-0 (12), a
promising 23-year-old prospect from Passaic, New Jersey. Like Porter, Kirkland
will fight on the East Coast (Atlantic City) on December 7. His fight will be
on HBO. Unlike Porter, there aren't many picking Kirkland to win much less
place well versus Tapia.
That is until the day after Porter and Kirkland sparred.
It was a Tuesday around noon when the two camps convened
at Undisputed. Porter got there early with Ken, sporting matching blue SNAC
shirts and cutman Mike Rodriguez, who carefully wrapped his hands. They are a
contrast in styles. About the same height, the Porters look like brothers more
than father and son. While Shawn is easygoing and kind of quiet, Ken is
confident with a gleam in his eye and generally a joke if you talk to him long
Kirkland met up with his trainer (at the moment), Bob
Santos in Las Vegas following his release from a Texas penitentiary for
felonious possession of a firearm. Kirkland was working with Kenny Adams and
Santos was working with his fighter, Robert Guerrero. The two hit it off and
while Kirkland left Adams following his lone loss, a first round TKO to Nobuhiro
Ishida, he always kept Santos in the back of his mind if he ever needed a trainer
again. Following the Molina fight, Kirkland left Wolfe and trained himself into
shape knowing that as a free agent, he would have to prove himself to potential
promotional suitors. I spoke with Kirkland during this time. He was hungrier
than I'd ever recalled, candid about where he was. Bills needed to be paid. A
career had to resume. There is no one I've known in boxing to the degree in
which I know Kirkland, who I would deem more born to fight. I could hear in his
voice how it was killing him to be away. The longer a warrior is out of battle,
the closer he is to the end of his wars.
Heading into this session, I'd heard Kirkland was 165 or
so. Solid. As he came through the gym doors and bumped fists with me, he confirmed
our conversation wasn’t built on empty rhetoric. The hunger in his voice translated
into the James Kirkland I knew from before, the one who terrorized Angulo and
made Joel Julio quit on his stool. At the very least, he looked an awful lot
I had previously thought of Porter as a bit of volume
puncher with not much power. I wasn't sure how tough he was. He's a fighter, no
doubt, and he'd fought hard with Julio Diaz in their draw and performed much
better in their rematch. So I knew he could learn but could he handle Kirkland
near his best? I was not sure.
Furthermore, what kind of trainer is Bob Santos? I heard
good things from Kirkland about his training techniques with Guerrero. No one
else could give me any insight. Would Santos know how to do what Wolfe does? Could
he bring out the devil Kirkland could be when properly motivated?
The agreement was that Kirkland, visiting Porter's gym
from where he was training in San Jose, CA, was going to get as many rounds as
he wanted. Barely three weeks with Santos, he wanted to see where he was. With Porter
and Kirkland fighting on the same evening, they should be near each other in
terms of condition.
The bell for round one began and the two moved forward to
touch gloves. As they did, Kirkland hit Porter with his free hand. It was on.
This was not a sparring session. This was as close to a
fight as you get. The phrase “gym war” came to mind. Except for his team, no
one there had seen Kirkland this live and up close. On either side, no one knew
what to expect but each was confident in its man.
The teams were a contrast too. While Ken Porter seemed a
mirror of his son, only louder, more intense, Santos and second Mario Serrano
were a little gritty, unshaven in track suits and stone poker faces. Their
instruction quiet and under the breath to Porter's “I don't give a damn who
hears. This is the lab” instruction to his son.
Stylistically, Porter is what Kirkland needs and vice
versa. Tapia is going to move on Kirkland and avoid a fight as long as he can.
It's Kirkland's job to not allow it. He's a whirlwind of a pressure fighter at
full capacity. On this day, he was about 60-75% of what he required to be in
order to win and certainly not the man who beat Angulo. But he looked an awful
lot like him.
Porter, 5’7” to Kirkland's 5’9”, stayed low and worked a
hard jab, a sneaky inside right and a body attack before getting off to each
that was the plan.
it worked most of the time - but with a fighter like Kirkland, this was not
going to be a punch-the-clock-day at the office.
The two were all over each other. Porter tried to box and
succeeded early on in the first while Kirkland felt his power, taking flush
shots while crowding in. It was as if he saw how Porter would handle someone
who didn’t care about his punches. Kirkland didn't dole out a ton of punishment
this round as he moved this way and that, chasing down Porter.
The surface of this ring should be noted because it's
like a separate character in sessions at Undisputed. It's super-spongy like rubber
sand. After two rounds of doing anything on it, if you aren't used to it, say, “Bye-bye”
to the strength in your legs. It'll start to go before you realize it.
Round two started and by now, Kirkland let his hands go.
If anyone doubted either man's chin, well, this was as good a display as any to
how well each could take a shot. Porter was under heavy fire and if he was
looking for a fight with a southpaw, he had one. Kirkland fired his left
straight time and again, not always landing but always there to help let
something else go.
Porter's defense got used in all manner of ways. He
parried, blocked, ducked and just plain absorbed hard shots into his high
guard. He fired his jab back from behind it and stayed in the pocket too long at
times. But this is what they both came for. Kirkland needed someone to
pressure, a boxing style with enough aggression to it to make him work. Porter
needed someone who would fire at him from the southpaw style and make him
comfortable fighting the type of war necessary in order to tame the slick
Alexander. It was a match made in sanctioned violence Heaven.
A Kirkland hammer fist smashed into the back of Porter's
head as the shorter man came in low and clinched at Kirkland. Ken Porter exploded.
“We are not going to have that here!” he admonished
Kirkland, stopping the session.
Things got hot fast as Santos tried to intervene but the
senior Porter wasn't having it. This was work, not war. There are rules.
“It's real,” said Kirkland as they finished the round,
hotter than before.
This was as testy as tests get.
Round by round for the next three, Porter worked his ass
and Kirkland made him. To the ropes they went, trading shots. Porter worked the
body, hustled to the side, went upstairs and ate a couple hard ones before
getting out of range. Kirkland was getting the worst of it but you could tell
the punches, though they bloodied his nose, didn't stun him.
You have to remember, this is a man who trained with Ann
Wolfe since age nine. He's been hit with hammers, chased by several combatants
at the same time. He's fought and suffered every which way Wolfe could think of
to prepare him to be unfazed by his opposition. “It's real” is how he do.
Round five ended and it was clear that Porter, edging the
encounter on my very unofficial card, had enough.
“Don't tell me,” said Ken. “Tell them,” as Porter the
younger exited the ring and said, “Guys, I'm good.”
“No, no, no,” came the reply from Santos and Kirkland.
They had asked for as many rounds as they wanted. That's what they intended to
“OK,” Shawn relented, stepping back in to the ring.
“You gotta grow up right now,” said Kirkland as the sixth
started, newly energized by Porter's reluctance to continue the session.
Then it was on like Donkey Kong. Kirkland brought the
house and Porter discovered he had more than he realized. What followed likely
will benefit both men greatly and possibly altered the course of the Tapia
fight for Kirkland.
For the first half of the round, as was the pattern much
of the day, Kirkland started hard but tired midway through the round. Porter,
working on a specific move, found it in the session and used it to get to
Kirkland's body. As the two men faced each other, tired, tying up at times,
Porter found his long range.
Full disclosure, as I looked down to my notebook, I
caught a flash and then looked up to see Kirkland, off a right hand from
Porter, sitting on his butt. By most accounts, Kirkland missed coming in and
ate a counter right by Porter off a dip move. One observer said Kirkland's feet
were twisted but, bottom line, a punch landed and he went down. He did not
appear “hurt,” “dazed” or “wobbled.” Still, the room was dead silent. There
wasn't a cheer or a sound or anything as Kirkland got to his knees, not buzzed
but clearly tired as hell and rose to his feet. After an “I'm OK” to his
corner, Kirkland stayed true to form and finished the round.
Porter was now energized and as the action carried into
the seventh round, he was still less fatigued. Both gave it everything but Porter
who pushed through a wall of exhaustion to a new plateau. He wanted to stop and
if he had, he wouldn't have discovered his well is much deeper than he
Ken would leave Shawn the next day for a week, secure in
the knowledge that his young warrior, his son, his fighter, his everything, was
in great hands with Conte, Korchemny, Schwartz and Bazzel.
Kirkland's reaction to the session was different. Santos
and Serrano gathered their belongings and quietly left the gym. Kirkland and I
bumped fists but didn't speak or interview. He simply left, head held high but
obviously, his expectations for himself, high as always, hadn't been met.
The next day it was announced that Kirkland left Santos
and returned to Austin and the gym in which he grew up to be again molded into
a ring monster by Ann Wolfe as only she knows how. Scheduling conflicts were
the reason given but the truth is something deeper. There is only one person
who has always won with Kirkland and that's Ann Wolfe. There is only one person
who knows how to motivate him mentally and mold him physically and that's Ann
Wolfe spoke with me briefly Monday night, preferring to
remain off the record. But it was clear in her tone and attitude that all was
forgiven between her James. She raises fighters from as young as five to become
not just fighters but good citizens. Through her non-profit and her gym, Wolfe
looks at training fighters as a service, building productive adults. The door
has always been open for Kirkland. It sounds like it always will be.
“Without Ann Wolfe, I
don't know,” she said. “With Ann Wolfe, somebody might die; somebody going to
get knocked out. I am going to do whatever it takes, hit him with nails, pound
him with hammers, whatever, so that when Glen Tapia touches James, he won't
feel a thing.”
One day. Two
fighters. One more month to go. It’s amazing how much can change in seven