The road to recognition as a top contender is never easy, and the undercard fighters for Saturday's Erik Morales-Danny Garcia title fight at Houston's Reliant Arena are a testimony to the steep climb.
James Kirkland (30-1, 27 KOs), a 28-year-old southpaw from Austin, Texas, was on the fast track until he ran into Nobuhiro Ishida in April 2011 and suffered a devastating first-round TKO. The loss put a halt to Kirkland's championship quest. But he has since regained some momentum with a three-fight winning streak -- all knockouts, including a devastating stoppage of top Mexican contender Alfredo Angulo. Kirkland's opponent, Carlos Molina (19-4-2, 6 KOs), also 28, has walked an even tougher path, taking on all comers on short notice and frequently finding ways to overcome the odds and rise to the challenge, as he did in a decision over former welterweight champ Kermit Cintron and in a draw against highly regarded Cuban prospect Erislandy Lara. Against the hard-charging Kirkland, Molina will seek to keep alive his four-year, 11-fight undefeated streak. This crossroads fight will put the winner in a title bout sometime in 2012.
We had a chance to chat with Kirkland in the days leading up to Saturday's fight, and this is what he had to share with us:
How was training for this fight?
This training camp has been a tough one. Just a lot of hard work and dedication.
Did the postponement of the event because of Erik Morales' surgery affect your training or your mentality in any way?
No, it just basically gave me more time to train. I just stayed on my A-game, and stay prepared for the fight.
What do you know about Molina as a fighter?
We didn't watch any of the Molina videos; maybe in the beginning of the week prior to the fight we will watch him and analyze him. Right now we're focusing on condition and strength more than watching his style. We need to come into the fight in great shape. If you're in shape, you can beat any style.
Molina is a brawler who doesn't quit. What would it take for you to defeat him?
I don't expect anybody can get in a brawl with me. He may say he is a brawler, but every time I fight a brawler, they become boxers. But if he comes in prepared and in good shape, and I am in the same shape, you know, we're going to have a great fight.
Do you see this fight as a boxing match or a brawl?
I believe he's going to turn into a boxer and try to box. It's the same thing other fighters do. But if he brings it on, it's going to be a great fight.
You put on a great performance against Angulo. Do you feel the pressure of achieving that same level of excellence?
To tell you the truth, I don't care about that. I care more about having a good fight and putting on a good performance, and I just come to win. Whatever comes, comes. It can be a brawl type of fight, it can be a boxing match -- I just come to win and give the fans more of what they want to see. I am not trying to do more of the same, I am trying to do better and get the win.
This is your second fight in a row against a brawler from Mexico. Are you getting ready for someone in particular or trying to send anyone a message?
I've been sending messages to [Saul] Alvarez, [Julio Cesar] Chavez [Jr.] and everyone out there in the 154-pound weight class. My messages are going one way, but I don't get anything on the other way. I just have to keep doing what I have to do, and hopefully they will give me what I want. I am ready, I am all for it.
You seem to be enjoying a very good moment in your career after the unexpected setback a year ago. What's the next logical opponent for you?
For me, it's just that whenever they tell me my opportunity is there, when they ask me if I want to fight for the world title, which I do, I want to take full advantage. When they give me the opportunity to do so, I will take full advantage. Right now, the champions are looking my way, but they are ducking me. But I am just having fun. But I need the champions to come out and say, "I want to fight Kirkland." But Kirkland is ready and he is a fighter who wants to fight the best, and that's what the champions have to do -- they have to fight the best.
How do you imagine Saturday's fight developing, round by round?
Like I said before, I come to fight and everybody knows my style. I am a brawling fighter, I am a come-forward fighter, I do what it takes to win, and that's basically what it is. I don't come out expecting to get a knockout in a certain round or think this or that is going to happen. I just go out there and have fun.
Diego Morilla is a contributor to ESPNdeportes.com.