LAS VEGAS – The crowd of reporters surrounding James Kirkland had thinned and the unbeaten super welterweight contender cast a gaze around the Pound-4-Pound boxing gym.
Cameras and reporters were everywhere. Other fighters were using the exercise equipment or preparing to climb into the ring. Kirkland gazed left, then right, eyeballing the scene. A look of amazement creased his face.
"Hard to believe it," he said, softly. "Hard to believe."
He's marveling at his fortune, at the dramatic upward turn in his life. Less than a year ago, Kirkland sat in an Austin, Texas, jail, his future as a professional boxer as questionable as his surroundings. He hoped he would box again, but he sure didn't know if he actually would get the chance.
Now, he's 27-0 with 24 knockouts and is taught by one of the finest coaches in the sport. He's preparing to face a former world champion with the promise of big-money, high-profile fights sitting tantalizingly close.
Kirkland has come to Las Vegas to find redemption, to salvage a career, to avoid the trouble that seemed to always find and, occasionally, engulf him.
He spent his 27th birthday in this gym, located in a drab strip mall behind a KFC in the shadow of the famed Las Vegas Strip, dutifully preparing for an April 9 bout against Nobuhiro Ishida on an HBO Pay-Per-View card at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
To some, it seems odd that Kirkland fled trouble by moving to Vegas, America's Sin City, but those who think that way haven't seen where Kirkland is from and lived the zany life he's led.
Kirkland was convicted of an armed robbery when he was 17 and served two-and-a-half years. Armed robbers aren't generally warm and cuddly personalities, certainly not the kind you want your daughter to bring home.
After being paroled, as he was building himself into a promising boxer who looked like he might fight his way to a world championship, he violated terms of his probation by purchasing a gun. That landed him in jail for another two years.
One would be right to conclude that's a person to avoid if that were all there was to the story. But listen to his co-manager, attorney Michael Miller, and the passion with which he speaks about Kirkland, and you get a sense that something is different about this kid.
"There's nobody I have had (in boxing) who I have enjoyed more than James," Miller says.
If you care to listen, Miller will tell you there's much more to James Kirkland than arrest records printed on a sheet of paper could ever say.
"When you look beyond the surface, there is a lot more to the story," Miller said. "This isn't to excuse anything, but he's a kid who never knew his father and his mother was rarely involved in his life. It was really hit and miss with her. He was homeless when he was 14. He didn't have the same breaks or the same upbringing you and I did. The armed robbery? Do you really want to know what happened? He was trying to get money to buy food. He was in and out of a lot of houses. Different people would take him in and try to help him. He was a wayward kid back when he was 16 years old."
He's now a 27-year-old with a promising future and massive earning potential. He's hired former U.S. Olympic coach Kenny Adams, arguably the sport's finest teacher, to be his trainer.
Adams discovered a raw, hard-nosed kid with fast hands and the power to knock out a horse. But Kirkland was so aggressive, so intent on ending every bout with the next punch, that he wound up and fired as if he were Andy Roddick in desperate need of an ace, putting extra juice on a serve.
Adams set out to change that approach because Kirkland was often off-balance and out of position after he threw. Less talented fighters would succumb quickly, but Adams has been in the sport for decades and he knows the truly gifted boxers would use that aggressiveness against him.
And, as Adams kept preaching to Kirkland early and often in the gym, he didn't really need to wind up so much.
"This kid, let me tell you, he can punch so (expletive) hard, he could knock guys out, cold, with a punch that goes just six, eight inches," Adams said. "When he does the right technique, man, let me tell you, he can knock anybody out at any time."
Adams joined Kirkland's team in January, almost immediately after Kirkland's release from prison. This time, Kirkland had served about two years for violating his probation.
The problem began when he was robbed in his hometown, in East Austin, Texas, and lost about $1,800. He was a high-profile figure who lived on the wrong side of the tracks and it was no secret that he was making big money. That, Miller said, made him a target, so, after being robbed, Kirkland wanted to buy a gun to protect himself.
But, Miller said, Kirkland didn't want trouble. He wanted to do things the right way. Kirkland knew he was a felon, but wasn't sure if felony convictions and the baggage they carry go away after time.
He went to a gun show in Austin, where there were Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. He went to a counter and bought a Glock. He handed the person behind the counter his identification. The person tapped on the keyboard after looking at Kirkland's ID and completed the sale. Kirkland, Miller said, believed he had complied with the law and purchased the gun legally.
He had not. The person never entered the information into the database. And when ATF agents began to follow him around the gun show, Kirkland became fearful and he ran.
Big, big mistake.
"I said to him, 'James, you hadn't done anything wrong. Why did you run and not stop and explain what had happened to the police?' " Miller said. "It's that whole cultural thing, afraid of the cops and believing he was going to be targeted."
He faced a maximum sentence of 120 months, but U.S. District Judge James Nowlin took pity on him and sentenced him to just 24 months, six of which could be spent in a halfway house.
Kirkland got out in January and immediately left Austin for Las Vegas.
"I just needed to get somewhere where it was just about boxing and nothing else," Kirkland said. "I have a great opportunity now and I want to take full advantage of it."
He fought March 5 in Anaheim, Calif., and March 18 in Costa Mesa, Calif., winning by first- and second-round knockouts, respectively. He'll fight Ishida next week and could move into a title shot by the end of the year.
He's never followed the sport carefully and has been so immersed in his work with Adams that he's not even sure who he's sharing the bill with on April 9. Asked who would win the main event between Erik Morales and Marcos Maidana, Kirkland shrugged.
"I don't even know who those guys are," he said, as Maidana sat on the ring apron a few feet away doing interviews.
But he is convinced that, finally, the good times are ahead. The trouble is in his past forever, he vows.
"Oh, for sure, most definitely," he says. "If there is one thing I can promise you 100 percent, it's that there are going to be no more mistakes or slipups."
Things are coming together in the ring. Big fights loom, though he's not sure who those bouts may be against.
"I don't watch boxing at all," Kirkland said, beaming. "I don't know who is champion. I don't know who is going to be champion. I have no idea about boxing whatsoever."
Give him a few more months under Adams and a few more fights, and this much you can be certain of: By the end of the year, Kirkland is going to know one guy who is a future champion.
Because as hard as he hits and as much as he's improving technically by working with Adams, it might be a bigger upset than VCU over Kansas if Kirkland doesn't have a title belt around his waist by year's end.