Saturday night at the Reliant Arena in Houston, Texas, Carlos Molina will look to play his familiar role as spoiler against James Kirkland in a junior middleweight title eliminator. Both men are coming off of impressive performances, making it a natural matchup. Within the confines of wayward sanctioning bodies and spurious promotion, there are many a time when natural matchups don’t get pieced together in a timely fashion, so consider this a pleasant surprise.
Kirkland, 30-1, with 27 knockouts, had one of the more dramatic single-round rallies in recent memory, looking all the world like he was about to be eviscerated in the first stanza against heavy-handed Alfredo Angulo last November. Instead, Kirkland picked himself up off the canvas and survived a minute and a half of a dervish onslaught, only to come back with equal fervor and put Angulo down by the end of the round. Angulo wasn’t the same for the remainder of the bout, where he got thrashed until the referee finally halted the proceedings in the sixth.
Meanwhile, Molina, 19-4-2, with 6 knockouts, jump-started his career by earning a majority draw a year ago against Erislandy Lara in a scrap most observers felt Molina deserved to win. When he followed that with a knockout over Allen Conyers and a dominant decision over Kermit Cintron, he started to be looked upon more as a serious contender than a steppingstone for prospects.
Still, despite Molina’s performance against Lara—a talented Cuban whom nearly everyone agrees got robbed against Paul Williams three-and-a-half months after his encounter with Molina—he’s been tabbed by oddsmakers as a two-to-one underdog versus Kirkland.
Certainly, part of his underdog status lies in being the less recognized figure. But it can also be explained by the styles he’s been able to feast on. Equipped with sharp reflexes, acute vision, and solid anticipation, Molina is able to consistently slip inside his opponent’s range and showcase his shoulder-to-shoulder know-how. He has a dedicated body attack and has an talent for launching uppercuts through his foe’s guard. But against Kirkland, that’s strength vs. stronger.
Kirkland’s comfort zone resides in a phone booth, too, except he’s stronger and far more explosive than Molina. Unlike Lara, the aggressive southpaw’s more at ease throwing right hooks and uppercuts than he is throwing straight left hands at a distance. That, combined with an industrious motor, can make Kirkland a terror to deal with, and if trench warfare is often won by the side with the louder weapons, Molina may be at a disadvantage.
But while Molina lacks Kirkland’s megawatt power, he’s easily more responsible defensively. Kirkland will pound arms, glance shoulders, and nick ears, but could have a rough time hitting the slippery 28-year-old with a clean blow to the head. Moreover, Kirkland has an effective body attack when he elects to use it but tends to head hunt for long stretches of a bout. Perhaps Molina’s omnipresent body work will remind the Austin, Texas, native to return the favor, but either way, he’ll need to be more devoted to the task than he’s been in prior fights.
Since Kirkland’s KO ratio dwarfs Molina’s, you’d think the question of who’s more capable of hurting whom would require little thought. But the Mandingo Warrior’s first round KO loss suffered at the relatively light-punching hands of Nobuhiro Ishida last year – albeit during a brief reprieve from trainer Ann Wolfe’s hawkish tutelage – muddles the issue. Molina, originally from Patzcuaro, Michoacán de Ocampo, Mexico, isn’t much of a puncher. A well-timed shot during one of Kirkland’s reckless charges, however, can plant the hard-hitting veteran on the seat of his pants. Meanwhile, Molina has shown a strong set of whiskers throughout his career.
Ultimately, it may come down to Kirkland’s firepower vs. Molina’s defensive acumen, and the suspicion here is that a sustained focus on Molina’s rib cage would lead to a clear path of victory for Kirkland. But it should be a grueling affair, and Kirkland’s penchant of leaving his chin high with his feet parallel will leave plenty of openings for a crafty practitioner like Molina to take advantage. On paper, Molina looks to be the most difficult puzzle yet in Kirkland’s career.
As he’s made a habit of complicating the script, Molina would have it no other way.