SB Nation

Michael Brick | August 19, 2014

The Lady Was a Champ

In the Corner with Boxer James Kirkland, A Woman Hangs Tough

The night Silky confronted an off-duty police officer in the parking lot outside the International House of Pancakes, nobody was trying to play like he had what it takes to go the distance in this life. Silky, whose given name was Rickey Lee Wolfe, had grown up in a shack with no running water 40 miles outside of Lake Charles, La. His nickname memorialized the fact that he was extraordinarily "smooth," according to his wife, who wasn't necessarily saying that in a way that endorsed his kind of smoothness. More like in a way that suggested his rap sheet might contain some understatement in the burglary category. This was back in the early 1990s, and Silky had found his way to Austin, Texas, which was smooth in its own way at the time, before all the excitement you hear so much about now with the food and the tech companies and the food and the racetrack and the food and the music festivals and the food and the food and the food. It was a good place to lay low, in other words, but things hadn't worked out that way for Silky, and so a call about a robbery attempt in the pancake house parking lot led to his confrontation with the off-duty cop, which led to a bullet in his chest (right through the tattoo that said "Wolfe"), which led to a short and bloody drive terminating on some unfortunate citizen's front lawn, which led to the mortal end at age 34 of Rickey Lee "Silky" Wolfe, a sequence of events later summarized by a police official as "unfortunate that it had to come to that."

But Silky had a little sister named Ann, and Ann might just have what it takes. She runs a gym with her name and picture up on the entrance, "Ann Wolfe Boxing & Fitness." It's at the indoor shopping mall on the near north side of Austin, in the old suburbs between the downtown newness and the outer bigness. The department stores are gone, so the shops are all clustered around one wing. There's a jewelry store and a sneaker store and El Palacio de la Quinceanera. There's no Sephora; there's Perfume Palace. Even the week before Christmas, Highland Mall feels like the most unintentionally tranquil place in town until around 4 in the afternoon, which is when Ann lifts the grate on her gym and puts the stereo on super crazy-loud. Sometimes it's upbeat blues; always it's just loud as all get out. Oh God, it's loud. So loud you can't think, but then that's the whole idea. Ann has already done plenty of thinking, and she conveys what her fighters need to know through a glare she uses as a sort of visual punctuation superseding the actual words being punctuated.

"A lot of people say they ain't scared of nothing, but they ain't telling the truth," she might say.

She has told the story of the turning point many times. She knows it has power. kirkland

Huh. So what's she scared of?

"Nothing."

Then she'll tilt her head down 15 degrees or so, with the light glinting off her sequined black painter's cap, and do the glare. The glare came from growing up with more than one X chromosome under the same circumstances that produced Silky and four other kids who, on lucky days, might split a chocolate bar six ways. The family's business interests included hauling rice, peeling crawfish and selling drugs. Ann dropped out of the seventh grade and did some of all those things. Her mother died of cancer and her father died of murder. Next came years of wandering, incarceration, marriage to a dealer, the birth of two daughters. She has told the story of the turning point many times. She knows it has power. It takes place in the waiting room of the emergency center at the public hospital in downtown Austin, in a visit around the time of (but unrelated to) her brother's thing-it-was-unfortunate-it-had-to-come-to. She was living on the streets, and the waiting room had a roof, so she took her girls there to get some sleep. At some point in the night, two women boxing appeared on the television screen.

"I was like, ‘I wonder if they're getting paid,'" she says.

The answer: Not much! But still yes. So at sunup the next morning (or maybe the morning after; it was a long time ago), Ann made her way to a rec center in East Austin, where she waited all the livelong day to meet a trainer named Pops. Pops, whose real name is Donald Billingsley, looks like his nickname should be Donald Billingsley to make room for his real name to be Pops. He has leathery skin, a shock of white hair pressed under a Yankee cap and an I-shit-you-not twinkle in his eye. He is exceedingly companionable, open-spirited and quick to laugh, even when describing how he used to recruit boxers from the special ed classes at LBJ High School and sometimes whip them with a belt.

Pops likes to tell two stories about his own start in boxing. In the first story, he went to settle some teenage business with a person called Dudelum (or perhaps Doodlum; Pops is confident of the pronunciation, but never got anything in writing from the kid), who eventually backed down from his position in their dispute. Some indeterminate time later, Pops got the wind knocked out of him doing a belly flop at the neighborhood pool and was pulled from the water by ... would you believe? ... this very same Dudelum. The lesson, Pops says, was that "you never know who's going to help you."

In the second story, Pops won a fight in the ring. "I'm going to whoop this dude so bad his own people will disown him," he bragged before the rematch, but instead the dude whooped Pops, and from that, he says, "I learned you can beat a dude one time, but he might whoop you the next time."

So there she stood, mean-eyed young Ann Wolfe, cooling her heels outside the Montopolis Rec Center, when Pops, wizened in the ways of never knowing who's going to help you or whoop you, pulled up in a van, and a dozen or so young boys came spilling out. No matter how much Pops likes to talk about the belt-whipping part of his dealings with those boys, of course that's not how he got them to follow him around. He'd meet a kid like Curtis Meeks, whose life at the Santa Rita Courts housing project involved Payless Shoes, charity gifts at Christmas, drug transactions and no dad. First he'd talk to the kid's mother; then he'd take the kid to church for The Word and to Church's for the fried chicken; and only then he'd put the kid in the ring.

Meeks got pretty good. He eventually went 9-1 as a light welterweight. And he became the lifelong sparring partner and confidant to a much more fearsome fighter by the name of James Kirkland.

"The golden goose is Kirkland. He the golden child." kirkland

"The golden goose is Kirkland," Meeks says. "He the golden child."

At that point, though, Kirkland was most generously characterized as a neighborhood tough. The field of bullying in those days, before the revolutionary innovations brought about by social media, required much simpler qualifications, at which he excelled. He remembers himself as more of a taunter than a bully, provoking fights by "knick-knacking, pulling strings here, everywhere I went," but at a certain point that's splitting hairs. The relevant facts are: He had a perpetual glower. And he hit other kids. When Pops found him, by his own account, he was throwing rocks at houses.

"Son, can you box?" Pops asked.

"No," Kirkland said, "but I sure can fight."

So Pops brought him to the rec center, opened a door he'd never noticed and offered him $5 to fight Meeks, who was a few months older.

"I walked up to him, like, ‘What's up?'" Kirkland says. "And Pops said, ‘No, no, we're going put gloves on and all this.'

It was a beautiful experience. The first time, my nose was busted. But I said, ‘You give me another five bucks, I'll come back tomorrow and fight him again.'"

Sure enough, he did come back, and he kept coming back, though his style in the ring never developed much beyond his style outside the ring. He just loved to hit people. And, much to the dismay of Pops, he even loved to get hit. He thought the cuts and bruises made him look like a fighter, which, while true enough, did not much account for the tradeoffs. His natural stance was not so much a stance as a steady advance, leading with his left hand and his glowering face. "When that bell said ding, he'd go out there to fight," Pops says. "He wasn't going to touch it up and see what the other dude had."

Outside the rec center that fine day, Ann sized up Pops and the boys as they tumbled out of the van, and vice versa all the way around, and everybody came away unimpressed.

Ann "wasn't like a fighter," Kirkland remembers thinking. "You looked at her as somebody who was just getting in shape."

Ann, for her part, almost but not quite yet a fighter herself, remembers thinking: "Look at all those dirty-ass little kids."

Pops warned Ann there wasn't any money in the sport for women, but he agreed to train her anyway. That wasn't nothing. Plenty of coaches refuse to work with women for philosophical reasons (the philosophy of sexism), and plenty more don't want to waste time chasing purses that amount to a fraction of the money put up for men. Ann knew better than to trifle with the opportunity. "In order to come through there, your ass had to fight," she says. "There wasn't no playing. You just had to have a toughness about yourself."

For a while there, it looked like she might even prove him wrong on the money thing. At that point, 20 years ago, the sport was still a cultural force, and women were finally coming up, becoming more common, even earning some money. In 1997, when Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield fought for the heavyweight championship in Las Vegas, generating revenues of more than $200 million, the promoters even put the sport's great female hope, Christy Martin, on the undercard. The campaign to make women's boxing an Olympic event was gathering momentum. Martin made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Ann only fought a handful of amateur matches, including a loss by disqualification in the final of the 1998 U.S. National Championships. Then she turned pro and, Pops says, "went around the country knocking out everything I put in front of her."

In October 1998, Ann won her first professional fight at 157 pounds in a split decision over a woman named Brenda Bell Drexel at Seven Feathers  Casino Resort in Canyonville, Ore. The next year she won a unanimous decision in Seattle, and the next year a technical knockout in Houston. The loser of that one, Demetra Jones, who was making her debut that day, decided she'd had enough of boxing. Ann went on to knock out, technically or otherwise, Mary Ann Almager, Gina Nicholas, Kelly Whaley, Patricia Linton, Vienna Williams, Diane Clark, Gina Nicholas (again), Shirvelle Williams, Marsha Valley, Genevia Buckhalter and Marsha Valley (again). She won titles in multiple weight divisions. Her total earnings, by her own contemporaneous estimate, amounted to about $3,000, or $100 a round. "I'm one of the best in the world, but boxers like me will fight for a hamburger," she told a newspaperman from the Calgary Herald in 2001. "It's pitiful to use women like this."

"Boxers like me will fight for a hamburger. It's pitiful to use women like this."

Still, she needed the hamburgers, and so did her daughters, who were about 10 and 12 at the time, so she kept fighting. Boxing writers, when they noticed her, reached for superlatives. One called her punches "murderous." She lost only once during that streak, to a prison guard named Valerie Mahfood. A few years later, in Biloxi, Miss., she booked a rematch on the undercard of the biggest to-do in women's boxing. The headliners were Christy Martin and Laila Ali, daughter of The Greatest, who attended the match, despite having told a filmmaker in 1978 that "women are not made to be hit in the breast and face like that." The headliners were each making $250,000 for "Ladies Night at the Mississippi Coast Coliseum." Martin, 35 at the time, was predicting the demise of professional women's boxing. Ali, 25, was predicting the ascent of her own bad self. They were both right. In the fourth round, Martin watched on one knee as the referee counted to 10.

"It's on," said the world. Ann, who'd won a decision earlier in the night over Mahfood, had good reason to believe she would be put forward next, as the tough scrapper from the streets against the telegenic fighter with the most famous last name in the sport, for a six- or maybe even seven-figure paycheck. Sort of like playing the Frazier to Laila's Ali.

On May 8, 2004, she clarified her qualifications for the spotlight. This was back in Biloxi, against Vonda Ward, a 6'6 former basketball center for the University of Tennessee. The promoters were calling Ward, who was from Cleveland, Ohio, the "All-American Girl." She wore red, white and blue trunks and dropped several pounds to get under the 175-pound light heavyweight limit. Ann, who stands 5'9, weighed in at 172 pounds. She dressed in black. The match did not last a round.

"Ohhhhh!" the TV man said. "Big right hand! One punch! That is it! Forget about the count. It is over. Tim-ber!"

Ward, who had been undefeated in 18 fights, left for the hospital on a stretcher. Before the reporters closed their notebooks, Ann told them Laila Ali "needs to fight me and stop avoiding me." The timing was not going to get any better. The movie theaters were showing trailers for "Million Dollar Baby." But Ali decided it would be better to beat up a 36-year-old computer technician named CaSandra Geiggar instead. After four more fights, none of them against Ann Wolfe, Ali retired, undefeated and still very beautiful, to go Dancing with the Stars. Before long she started showing up in ads for Vaseline and Dove and those slimming hoagies from Subway.

For Ann, who was reportedly the only fighter of either sex in the history of the sport to hold four world titles in four weight divisions at the same time, an alphabet soup of sanctioning bodies and classifications ranging from light middleweight to light heavyweight — other opportunities emerged. In the summer of 2005, after beating Valerie Mahfood one more time for good measure, she announced plans to fight a person by the name of Roy "Bo" Skipper, a 36-year-old cruiserweight with a record of 9-5-2 who accurately described himself as a "man." The authorities in Mississippi, which, according to Education Week, has the worst school system in the country, agreed to sanction the fight. The promoters planned to call it "Ann VS Man."

The purse was set at $100,000. Skipper gave the wire services some good lines about the uppitiness of the ladies these days and how it needs to get put to a stop. As a matter of general principle, the battle of the sexes boxing concept made a lot of people nervous, though it seemed clear the woman would be the one dishing out the injuries in this particular matchup. In the end the fight never did happen, for which the world may thank Hurricane Katrina. Later, Ann shrugged off a semi-flippant challenge from another male fighter, Mike Tyson, who outweighs her by a hundred pounds and is a convicted rapist. She had made her point, but not much money. "I don't think what I've done could be repeated in this lifetime," she says. "I won't live to see it." She could have stopped there, and boxing fans would remember her for a while, and they would say she was great, for a woman.

* * *

kirkland

James Kirkland was 16 when Pops stopped taking the belt to him. Pops promised to help him make some money off that mighty left hand, but Kirkland found some other ways to make money too. At Sunset Station in San Antonio, he won a technical knockout in his professional boxing debut. At an apartment complex on the northwest side of Austin, he got picked up by the police on suspicion of slashing tires, and they found six $100 bills folded neatly in a plastic bag in his pocket, all with the same serial number. At the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C., he proved himself against a fellow left-handed boxer. In the parking lot of a Hampton Inn on Interstate 35, he left his fingerprints on a stolen truck found with the engine running and the stereo missing.

And so on. Pops mentioned college. Kirkland flashed a handful of $100 bills: "This is my college, Old School." Pops came to blame himself for easing up on the discipline. He had a stroke, then another and another. His doctor found prostate cancer. He'd coached a hundred boys, but you can't always count on boys, so it was Ann Wolfe who stayed with him in the hospital, Ann Wolfe who helped him put on weight.

"She's got an edge on all of them when it comes to being loyal," Pops says. "I told her, ‘You'd make a good coach.' And that was the best decision I ever made. I don't usually brag on myself, but I think God helped me make that decision."

When Pops put Ann in charge of the gym, she started enforcing her own method of discipline.

When Pops put Ann in charge of the gym, she started enforcing her own method of discipline. "If a kid was playing around and wasn't listening, she would take them to the back," says the county sheriff, Greg Hamilton, who started steering grant money to the gym. "I don't know what she did back there, but when she came back, the kid was listening, and the other kids noticed that too."

Ann's training methods became the stuff of legend. She attached punching bags to a lawnmower frame and the front of a truck. She made her charges flip giant tires. She berated them and cursed them and dared them to outrun her. "A female saying, ‘I can do 20 more jumping jacks than you?' It's like, ‘Bullshit, that's impossible,'" Kirkland says. "That's what gave us that chemical bond. That competitive edge was always there."

And it worked. While training under Ann, Kirkland ran over his opponents. He became an unstoppable force, advancing, absorbing and pummeling. But the discipline didn't take. Three days before Christmas 2004, a robbery victim at a police lineup saw something familiar in his thick neck and wide, flat nose. Kirkland spent six months in jail. His mother asked the judge for one more chance. She wrote, "Pops and Ann have, and will continue to be, very positive influences in James' life."

The judge let him out on probation, with the standard conditions. They included:

"3. Avoid injurious or vicious habits."

And:

"13. Support your dependents."

Kirkland had a daughter, a son and another son to come. He had tried working at UPS, but the job did not suit him, so he went back to supporting his dependents via his injurious and vicious habits. So long as he confined those to the ring, his probation officer seemed willing to chalk it up to the spirit of the law.

After several obscure fights at the Chumash Casino in Santa Ynez, Calif., Kirkland got on the undercard for Boxing After Dark on HBO. His opponent, Eromosele Albert, had a 21-1 record, a 1-inch height advantage and a half-inch reach advantage. During the pre-fight rigmarole, when the time came to describe Kirkland, the TV man told his audience about how "Ann Wolfe trains him to be a fighter more than a boxer." Kirkland knocked Albert down in the first minute. The referee counted to eight. Kirkland knocked Albert down again. Then the referee ended the fight.

The TV man, who had noticed how impatient Kirkland seemed to get done with the standing eight count part and back to the hitting part, asked Ann about her training methods. What she said was, "We do things that you ain't gonna never see in here. If you play with a puppy, it's going to lick you in the mouth. If you come to the gym, there's bulldogs in there, you better be a bulldog, or you're gonna get ate alive."

The TV man did not seem to know how to respond to that, but his bosses did. HBO dispatched a film crew to document her backwoods training technique. "Kirkland's difficult upbringing has served him well in the ring," the HBO narrator said in the video. "Trainer and former world champion Ann Wolfe has tapped into his ferociousness."

Publicity is a fine thing, whether you're running a political campaign or a software company or a baseball team, but in boxing, story really matters. Champions can avoid formidable contenders right up to the point where the public demands the match, which usually happens because the contender seems like he's got a lot of heart or represents something bigger than himself. There are glaring exceptions, about which nobody knows more than Ann Wolfe, but HBO liked the story of The Woman Who Taps Into James Kirkland's Ferociousness well enough to schedule a couple more fights and Oscar De La Hoya liked it well enough to sign Kirkland to his promotional outfit, Golden Boy. Ann signed on to work for 7.5 percent of Kirkland's earnings.

On the undercard, with no title on the line, her cut only amounted to a few thousand dollars, but even that was more than she'd made fighting women with her own fists. Finally, from the corner of one of the "dirty-ass little kids" she'd known since her days at the rec center, she had the chance to really beat a man, to make a new name for herself as the first woman to train a male champion and to finally make a respectable bit of money to show for all her bruises. Soon everything started falling into place. In the spring of 2009, Kirkland agreed to fight Michael Walker at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, for a minimum of $150,000. It was a featured bout, up high on the poster with Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton. Kirkland was one fight away from a shot at the junior middleweight belt.

But he was also, in his own later estimation, "a dummy, man."

On the Friday before the date scheduled for the big match, Kirkland was led into federal district court in Austin, shackled and dressed in an orange jumpsuit.

On the Friday before the date scheduled for the big match, Kirkland was led into federal district court in Austin, shackled and dressed in an orange jumpsuit, with nothing to say. He shuffled past his mother and the mother of his children and Pops and Ann. The day's business concerned a .40-caliber handgun and a parole violation. It did not help his cause much that he had sent a young woman in to acquire the piece as his straw buyer at a gun show. Mens rea, as the lawyers say, a guilty mind, criminal intent. Seeking to justify the gun purchase, Kirkland's lawyer said he had been robbed and was living in fear for the safety of his children. He asked the judge for a quick pretrial furlough to make the fight in Las Vegas. Ann offered little to the conversation, other than her glare.

Several months later, after Kirkland's pretrial furlough request had been denied and his chance to fight Walker had been blown and his latest guilty plea had been duly recorded, Ann showed up in court again to vouch for his good character, in her way. "I went to the gym, and I hate to say it, but James was the sneakiest little boy I had ever met, and it just seemed like he came from such horror that it was just like I was," she testified.

"Uh-huh," said Kirkland's lawyer. Ann went on about how Kirkland always trained hard and how he set an example for the younger kids at the gym and how she'd told him, "James, if you want people to help you, you have to help yourself."

"And I've seen that in him," she told the judge. "I've seen him change within this last year to where he wanted to help himself."

Then the judge turned to Kirkland, and spoke in long paragraphs about moral relativity and socioeconomic theory and federal sentencing guidelines.

"I understand," Kirkland said. His lawyer added, "Every significant event in our lives tends to move us somewhere between hope and despair, and typically at two ends of the spectrum. And I would ask you, your honor, to please consider that in this case, if we can move this young man closer to hope than despair, if that opportunity is still there, that I think he'll make the difference in a lot of different lives."

The judge did have reason to believe in redemption that day. He had just heard Ann Wolfe tell the powerful story of how she herself, as a young woman with a growing criminal record, "just started boxing to stay out of trouble." When the lawyers finished their presentation, the judge delivered his sentence: Two years, less than half the maximum.

Kirkland was still only 25 years old. His career was damaged, but not ruined. By September 2010, Oscar De La Hoya would have permission to visit him at the Three Rivers Federal Correctional Institution and HBO would have permission to film the meeting. A few weeks later, Kirkland had permission to leave for a halfway house in Austin.

Next, in some imaginary parallel universe where good-hearted people reap the rewards of hard work and dedication, Ann led her chastened protégé through a montage of readjustment to life on the outside, distancing from street culture, a tough exercise program, a return to sparring in the ring, a series of matches with escalating high stakes and, at long last, a championship to gainsay all the underestimation.

In this craven world, though, Kirkland petitioned the court for a transfer of his probation to the District of Nevada for "employment reasons." He left Ann to train with Ken Adams, who had coached the U.S. Olympic team in the 1980s. He started taking calls from Floyd Mayweather Jr. and 50 Cent (collectively, "The Money Team"). As a gauge of Kirkland's mindset at the time, know that at one point he called his probation officer and admitted traveling without authorization to see The Money Team, by arrangement of The Money Team. "Kirkland claims," the probation officer wrote in a report, "that he was so excited he simply forgot to follow protocol."

Ann, who retained her contractual financial stake in Kirkland's immediate future, was not invited to Vegas. She was not on The Money Team. Curtis Meeks, to whom had fallen the unenviable position of go-between, says she and Kirkland "had a misunderstanding on the money situation."

"Business is not their world. And if somebody tells them that somebody's cheating them, they're apt to believe it."

"These fighters," says Joe Turner, a sometime lawyer for Kirkland, "especially from the poor areas, they've always got somebody in their ear saying, ‘Oh, he's not treating you right,' ‘Oh, he's cheating you.' These poor kids, they're not educated. Business is not their world. And if somebody tells them that somebody's cheating them, they're apt to believe it."

So Ann went back to her own gym, which she was turning into a cross between an orphanage and Parris Island. "Throwaway kids, kids that nobody wanted, she was out there working with the kids that nobody was trying to reach," says Sheriff Hamilton. "There's a lot of people that talk right but walk left. And Ann Wolfe talks right and walks right."

To raise money, she started selling T-shirts with her catch phrases:

You look in my eyes, I see in your soul
Don't train to win, train not to lose
It takes a second to quit and a lifetime to regret it
First you take his nutz, then you take his heart

From Austin, Ann was able to follow the comeback in the boxing press. Kirkland knocked out his first opponent in 34 seconds and his next in the second round. These were guys the newspapers politely described as "journeymen." In the span of five weeks, he was in the ring for a third time. Japan's Nobuhiro Ishida, who was 35 years old and frequently described as a "light puncher," wore a bandana with the Rising Sun Ensign. The announcer described the occasion as a "stay-busy fight for Kirkland." If that left any doubt, he added, "Kirkland's supposed to beat the hell out of him."

Instead, just like in that old story Pops likes to tell, Ishida beat the hell out of Kirkland. Kirkland was fighting, but Ishida was boxing, and the resulting triumph of technique ended in the first round, with Kirkland on the mat for the third time in as many minutes, trying to get up, but instead pulling the referee down on top of him. For the post-fight interviews, the promoters had not even bothered to hire a translator on account of the odds against Ishida, so instead the TV man talked first to the great favorite, Kirkland, who blamed the referee for stopping the fight.

"Boo," said the crowd.

The interviewer gathered his thoughts, then ventured: "You're not training with Ann Wolfe at the moment. We never saw anything like this with her, the performance from you. What are your thoughts at this moment about your training situation?"

"Decent" was how Kirkland described his training situation. Regarding the outcome of the fight as reflective of that situation, he said, "It is what it is."

* * *

kirkland

She took him back, of course. All parties with a vote, and plenty more with just a blog, agreed on the wisdom of the reunion. Kirkland soon found that while the Vegas regimen had been "hard," Ann's methods seemed "hard, hard, hard."

"Training's kind of like cooking meat," Ann says. "You got to put not too much of this and not too much of that. And it's not going to taste the same to everybody."

The Kirkland re-comeback started out well, by Kirkland comeback standards. He knocked out Dennis Sharpe in the first round at a minor league ballpark in North Texas, and when the bell sounded he gave Ann a big hug. He took on serious adversaries. The next two fights ended in technical knockouts, including a fearsome battle with Alfredo Angulo in Cancun. Against Carlos Molina in Houston, he was awarded a 10th-round victory by disqualification, though he looked sluggish and offered improbable excuses.

Just as Ann was getting him back into shape, Kirkland went and fell in love with a woman named Frances, four years his junior. Among boxing managers, there's a well-known reputation attached to love in general and its physical expression in particular: Both are to be discouraged. Kirkland's entourage did its level best in the discouragement department, to limited effect. "There's something wrong with him," Meeks says. "Now that he's in this relationship with this girl, he's more into the relationship."

Kirkland credits Frances with a lead role in his return to form. Frances is from Detroit. She cooks all his food. "No sugar and salt, everything is baked," Kirkland says. Though he's hard pressed to name one of her culinary specialties, he does say the diet includes a lot of salmon, "to lube the brain." He and Frances got a place together way up on the northwest side of town, where he has sought partial distance from criminal influences. That is: He maintains certain friendships, but terms himself "not into that lifestyle."

For all the love and court dates, Kirkland was away from the ring for nearly two years, so nobody knew what to expect when he finally booked a fight.

One night last summer, for old time's sake or something, Kirkland took Frances to a club down on the Eastside, where she caught him checking out another woman, who was not just any other woman, but in fact the mother of his children. There was some yelling on the way home. Before sunrise, Frances swore out a criminal complaint accusing Kirkland of grabbing her by the neck, enough to cause "pain and discomfort nothing more." When he was arrested on assault charges, Kirkland identified his nearest relatives as his mother and Ann Wolfe. An order of protection was issued, but Frances later filed documents to lift it.

For all the love and court dates, Kirkland was away from the ring for nearly two years, so nobody knew what to expect when he finally booked a fight in December. His opponent, Glen Tapia, six years younger and undefeated in 12 fights, had been a sparring partner for Manny Pacquiao.

In Atlantic City, Ann wasn't alone in the corner. Pops was there too, and so was Curtis Meeks. Right from the opening bell, Kirkland "went out there and did exactly what I told him not to do," Pops says. "He went out there and let that boy clock him." Tapia threw combination punches. Kirkland threw his face. Kirkland felt his lip split open. "Fuck," he thought. "This motherfucker can punch."

The judges gave the round to Tapia. In the corner, Ann and Meeks gave conflicting counsel. Kirkland gazed out at the ring, half-listening. "It was like a Jerry Springer show, a fight within a fight," he says. "It was cool to me. I was already in a zone."

Ann had the last word, Pops says: "She told him, ‘You're going to have to go ahead and destroy this boy, because he's tagging you. You ain't fighting like James Kirkland."

Halfway through the second round, Kirkland caught Tapia with that big left hand, a straight shot. Ann saw something change between the men. "I'm watching Glen's emotion," she says. "So he's taking out parts of the fighter that don't have to do with physical parts."

Kirkland saw it, too. "As soon as I touch you the way I want to touch you," he says, "I know with one shot I can win the fight. When they touch where you hit them at, checking to see if it's blood. You've got signs like that. You can see it."

And when the referee saw it, he called the fight in the sixth round. Tapia was taken to a trauma center.

"We've seen you now build this kind of momentum before when you're with Ann Wolfe as your trainer," the TV interviewer asked Kirkland. "You're an unstoppable force of nature. Then you guys split, and you show up like a different guy. Come back together with Ann, the beast is back. Why does that keep happening?"

Kirkland recounted the hardship of her training regimen.

Was it so hard, the interviewer wanted to know, that he would have to take fewer fights?

"I'm with Ann. We're a team. Going to be a legend. Going to be marked down in history."

"Hell no," Kirkland said. "My whole mindset is I'm with Ann. We're a team. Going to be a legend. Going to be marked down in history."

Then they all went back to Austin. Kirkland says he's one fight away from a title shot, and he may be right. It's a complicated business. To pass the time, he tools around in his silver Jaguar, and he hangs out with Frances. Sometimes she answers his cell phone. He tells her to watch for a call from the 917 area code in New York, because it might be 50 Cent. He's trying to do the father thing too. He'll go up to school for Donuts with Dad. When his son lost a cell phone, he told the boy, "You've got to be in more control of your surroundings."

"Kirkland's head is on straight now, as far as staying out of trouble," Meeks says. "We've just got to get our stuff together, as far as communication with Ann Wolfe. She calls him but he don't answer, so she calls me, and I've got to find out what's going on, what 50's saying, and then relay it back to her."

Ann's back at the gym, of course. "One of the biggest things is that she can go out and tell the story," says Sheriff Hamilton. "You've been knocked down, you've been lied to, you've been backstabbed, you've been dragged through the mud, but in the end, if you don't give up, you can still succeed. Anybody would want to be the first female trainer of a world champion. But her takeaway, her reward, is to be able to tell her story. Not only to tell it, but people can see it themselves."

You should see her work with the kids. They stand around shadowboxing, tubular arms in deliberate motion, eyes clocking her. "Turn. Come down. Squat-thrust. Next!" she calls, and the kids take turns climbing an obstacle. Her voice isn't soft, but it's not raised either. Once the kids have all crossed over, she orders them to stand in front of the obstacle, one at a time. A girl in pink sneakers goes first. She starts throwing plastic disks at the girl's head. This is a ducking exercise, the girl figures out. "Keep your eyes on me," Ann says. "You keep your eyes on me."

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photos: Getty Images

Complete boxing coverage on SB Nation's Bad Left Hook

About the Author

Michael Brick, a senior writer for the Houston Chronicle, is the author of "Saving the School" and "The Big Race." His work has appeared in Harper's, The New Republic and Sports Illustrated.

Loading comments...