ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Despite the unpredictability of James Kirkland's run as a name action fighter during the past few years, there's a scary truth each of his opponents must face.
If the rugged junior middleweight, who on Saturday ended a 20-month layoff due to legal and promotional issues that have hampered his career, is in top-level shape and completely focused, you'll have to knock him cold to get him off of you.
But being "in shape" is a nebulous, sometimes relative designation. Most would associate the phrase with quality cardio vascular capacity. But in reference to the horrors of an Ann Wolfe training camp, it means something altogether different.
Kirkland, who has endured multiple falling-outs with Wolfe to create, without question, boxing's most complicated and unique trainer-fighter relationship, was reunited with the former four-division female champion here in A.C. on Saturday, and the results were spectacular.
In a relatively obscure crossroads fight thought to have potential for fireworks, Kirkland and unbeaten prospect Glen Tapia took the concept to another level in Kirkland's sixth-round TKO victory at the Adrian Phillips Ballroom at Boardwalk Hall.
Kirkland (32-1, 28 KOs) outlasted the 23-year-old New Jersey native and ultimately quieted a passionate pro-Tapia crowd in one of 2013's most brutal action fights. And he did it by channeling the Kirkland of old -- the same guy who walked through hell in the first round against Alfredo Angulo in their memorable 2011 slugfest to ultimately break one of boxing's toughest fighters.
The same sequence unfolded against Tapia (20-1, 12 KOs), although the game fighter who showed tremendous heart simply didn't have the punching power to do enough damage.
Tapia dominated the first round and landed just about everything he threw to cut, bruise and even stagger Kirkland. But an Ann Wolfe camp, featuring a list of unconventional and even cruel training methods, doesn't prepare a fighter to simply endure 12 rounds. It prepares him for actual warfare, and that was the difference in the fight.
"I told y'all: I can train a pussy cat to go in a dog pen," Wolfe said. "James got it in him already, and he's a killer, but I know how to bring it out of him."
Kirkland walked through the damage of the opening round to pin Tapia against the ropes in the final 30 seconds, planting a seed in Tapia's head that he was in deep with a different kind of animal.
Tapia went toe-to-toe with Kirkland over the next few rounds, visibly hurting Kirkland with a left hand in Round 3. But the fight increasingly became one-sided as Kirkland's maniacal stalking wore down Tapia. The end came on a brutal left hook in the corner at 38 seconds of Round 6 as referee Steve Smoger jumped in to catch Tapia from falling.
"Glen had heart, too, but he ain't have this kind of heart," Wolfe said. "He ain't do what we did. Glen can't do what we do. Glen couldn't last a f---ing week in my training camp."
You have to wonder if anyone else could.
Kirkland and Wolfe proved once again that they are perfect for each other, despite how difficult it remains to keep their relationship -- and ultimately Kirkland's career -- on track. He is simply a different fighter under her care, with his career ceiling raised considerably thanks to her no-nonsense and intimidating approach pushing him on.
"I had to go through such hell in this camp with Ann," Kirkland said. "But we're a team."
You'll never confuse Kirkland with another fighter who actually implements defense as part of his game plan. But just try to find one as tough and savage, with such a relentless motor, willing to throw an endless stream of punches through heavy counter fire in order to break his opponent's will.
And that's a scary proposition for anyone.