- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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James Kirkland had a lot of time to think about what had happened, about how he had screwed up.
That's because the fearsome-punching middleweight spent 17 months locked up in a federal prison not far from his hometown of Austin, Texas, followed by several months in a halfway house -- where he was sent after having time shaved off his two-year sentence for good behavior -- before gaining freedom in January.
"Basically, man, your dreams are all shattered," Kirkland said, reflecting on his time in prison. "You're hurting physically, you're hurting mentally, spiritually, you're all down. Everything is just like a sore thumb. Everything about you is just gone. You lose not just access to the boxing, you lose access to your family.
"Your key is your loved ones, people that really care about you, people that have been backing you up for many years, staying behind you and people that wish the best for you -- and then you make a dumb and a careless decision."
Kirkland's "dumb" and "careless" decision came when he purchased a handgun at an Austin gun show in April 2009. He said he believed everything was legal because he showed his own identification, had it checked, paid for the gun -- which he claims he purchased for protection -- and left without incident.
However, Kirkland was already on probation for a 2003 armed robbery conviction. As a convicted felon, possessing a firearm was a serious offense, which he learned when police discovered the weapon during a traffic stop.
At the time of the incident, Kirkland was a fast-rising junior middleweight contender on the verge of some very big fights. He had knocked out Joel "Love Child" Julio in March 2009 in an impressive performance on HBO, where he was on the verge of becoming a regular. The network and fans alike were awed by Kirkland's incredibly aggressive and crowd-pleasing style.
Golden Boy Promotions thought so highly of him that it awarded him one of its slots on the Manny Pacquiao-Ricky Hatton HBO PPV undercard in May 2009. However, after Kirkland was arrested, his fight was canceled.
It turned out that all of Kirkland's plans would be canceled for the next two years. He pleaded guilty to a charge of gun possession by a convicted felon and, sitting in a prison cell, was left to ponder what might have been had he not bought that gun.
Kirkland did his time and, after his release from the halfway house, left Austin and the bad influences behind. At the behest of co-managers Cameron Dunkin and Michael Miller, he relocated to Las Vegas to train with Kenny Adams, one of the most respected cornermen in the sport.
Kirkland had previously had a falling-out with former trainer Ann Wolfe, the former female boxing champion who had become as much a part of Kirkland's story as he had. In Las Vegas, Kirkland moved into an apartment with other fighters managed by Dunkin and settled into a routine with Adams for what would be his third chance after two convictions.
Your dreams are all shattered. You're hurting physically, you're hurting mentally, spiritually, you're all down. Everything about you is just gone. You lose not just access to the boxing, you lose access to your family.
”-- James Kirkland on his two-year prison sentence
Kirkland, who turned 27 on March 19, made his return March 5, almost two years to the day of his last fight. He knocked out Ahsandi Gibbs in just 34 seconds and was so overcome by the emotion of the moment that he screamed at Gibbs while he was on the mat.
The fight was so quick that Golden Boy promoter Richard Schaefer scheduled Kirkland (27-0, 24 KOs) for another fight on March 18, when the fighter drilled Jhon Berrio in the second round of a Telefutura-televised undercard.
That set the stage for a return to national prominence on Saturday night (9 ET, HBO PPV, $44.95) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where Kirkland will face Japan's Nobuhiro Ishida (22-6-2, 7 KOs), a former interim junior middleweight titlist, in a scheduled eight-rounder at 158 pounds on the "Action Heroes" card headlined by the Erik Morales-Marcos Maidana junior welterweight fight.
Kirkland said he is thankful that his managers and Golden Boy stood behind him during his lowest moments.
"I just got blessed and got a 24-month sentence, came home [in] 18, 19 months, was in the halfway house training," he said. "Then, basically moved out here to Vegas just to set aside foolish things and it's just like, man, it's time to grow. And I got Richard Schaefer's Golden Boy, I've got the whole Golden Boy Promotion behind me and positive, positive people, man."
While he was in prison, Kirkland said he dreamed about fighting again, worked out in his cell and promised himself that he would get the most out of what he was blessed to do.
"I had to keep praying to God and just stay positive, try to keep my mind focused on achieving," Kirkland said. "And if God wants what's best for me, he'll make a great comeback out of this, and that's what happened, man."
Although Saturday's fight is contracted at 158 pounds, Kirkland is working his way back to 154 pounds. His first two comeback fights were at 162 and 163 pounds, respectively.
Adams, who served in the U.S. Army and coached the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, has handled numerous professional world champions. He is known as a disciplinarian and for his ability to teach the finer points of boxing. Those are the reasons why Kirkland's handlers wanted Adams to train Kirkland.
So far, the two-month-old union is working out well, Adams said. Kirkland is a southpaw who never really used his right hook much. Adams said he is schooling him on that punch and working on his defense.
"I want him to be more patient, but I don't want to take away his aggressiveness," Adams said. "We haven't had enough time to do all the things I want to do, but he's looking pretty good now. I have him throwing the hook. I'm glad he hardly threw it before because I have him doing it the right way. It will take some time. I think things will get better. He knows how to fight. I am trying to make him better and he is adjusting very well. He's very respectful of everyone, very positive. He just wants to get out there and be a fighter and win championships and move forward. He has a good attitude.
"James likes discipline. I'm going to make him work hard. It's perfect because he likes to work hard, so that's no problem. That's one thing some guys had a problem with. But we're getting along good and we have a good respect for each other. He has to go see his probation officer and he has been very receptive to that. Everything is falling into place."
One thing Adams has learned about Kirkland is how hard he punches. Adams holds the mitts for their workouts and also wears a thick body suit when they work on body punching.
"I've had to get me a suit with two extra inches of padding because he is cracking so hard from all angles," Adams said. "He's well above the guys I've held mitts for before in terms of the power. It feels like [the punches are] going to go through you. He is very strong."
Kirkland said the switch from Austin to Adams' gym in Las Vegas has been the best thing for him, both physically in the gym and mentally.
"It's just nice, man, as far as switching my environment from being in a negative environment and then coming to a positive environment, as far as switching friends and changing up my whole lifestyle, and eventually bringing my family down here," Kirkland said. "It's just wonderful.
"I'm not going to let nothing take me from my dream. I'm not going to let nothing inspire me to do the wrong thing. It's all positive around me now. I don't have one negative person or anything that's not worth being around me."
If everything goes well for Kirkland on Saturday, Golden Boy is aiming for his next fight to take place in June.
"He is really eager to keep the momentum going," Schaefer said. "If everything continues to go as well as it has, I think we can get him a world title shot sometime later on this year."
Former middleweight and light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins is a partner in Golden Boy and one of the most respected fighters of this era. But before he became a boxing legend, he served 4½ years in prison for armed robbery. When he was released, he was determined never to go back. He has stayed out of trouble for more than 20 years.
Kirkland has sought out Hopkins' advice and counsel, while also leaning on his own managers, Adams and Golden Boy. He said he will be like Hopkins and never return to prison.
"The advice that he gave was all positive," Kirkland said of Hopkins. "It's everything that a man could want and I'm just coming to the table to let everybody know, man, that was a poor, poor, careless, dumb decision that I made. I learned from my actions."
Dan Rafael covers boxing for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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