Tapia-Kirkland promises fireworks

Glen Tapia's career could get a good push if he beats James Kirkland on Saturday. Ed Mulholland/Top Rank

Boxing fans will be treated to a plethora of fights Saturday with competing cards on American cable and an intriguing middleweight title bout overseas.

The majority of the bouts feature a specific selling point, with enough variety to satisfy fight fans of all kinds: Paulie Malignaggi-Zab Judah showcases the two biggest names. Guillermo Rigondeaux-Joseph Agbeko features the return of one of the world’s pound-for-pound best. Darren Barker-Felix Sturm will be contested for Saturday’s most prestigious prize.

Still, even though I’ve tabbed the junior middleweight duel between southpaws Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara as the weekend’s most evenly matched fight -- and one with huge sleeper potential -- it isn’t the one that has me the most excited.

That distinction, as surprising as it may be, goes to the pairing of junior middleweights Glen Tapia and James Kirkland at the Boardwalk Hall’s Adrian Phillips Ballroom in Atlantic City, N.J. This bout, nestled below the radar on the televised undercard of the HBO card headlined by Rigondeaux-Agbeko, could end up being the fight of the weekend, if not more.

The showdown between chiseled and fearless combatants is the very definition of a crossroads fight. For the erratic Kirkland, it’s a chance to steer a once promising career back onto the tracks and stay relevant. And for Tapia, this could be the fight that elevates his name into the mainstream.

Tapia (20-0, 12 KOs) may not be the most skilled fighter, but his television-friendly style could still someday make him a household name in the sport, which isn’t a surprise considering his roots. The native of Passaic, N.J., grew up a die-hard fan of Hall of Fame action fighter Arturo Gatti. In fact, Tapia is represented by Gatti’s longtime manager, Pat Lynch, and is hoping to build the same cult following Gatti once enjoyed from Atlantic City to New York.

While Tapia, 23, has made steady progress in his climb to contention thus far, he will be taking a considerable step up in class when he faces Kirkland (31-1, 27 KOs), a name synonymous with toughness, aggression and, in recent years, question marks.

For all of the excitement Kirkland, 29, has provided -- with his brutal 2011 slugfest against Alfredo Angulo the perfect illustration of his heart and vulnerability -- simply getting him into the ring consistently hasn’t been easy.

Kirkland has fought only once since the Angulo fight, claiming a bizarre March 2012 disqualification victory over Carlos Molina in a fight he was losing on two scorecards and was sluggish throughout. He enters Saturday on a 20-month layoff thanks to legal and promotional issues, and is in dire need of a victory to reignite his career.

But if there’s a wild card -- quite literally -- in Kirkland’s corner, it’s his recent reunion with on-again, off-again trainer Ann Wolfe. Not only is their relationship as complicated and unique as any between fighter and trainer in the sport, any hope of Kirkland fulfilling his true potential appears impossible without Wolfe’s unconventional training methods fueling him on.

Expect both Kirkland and Tapia to be runaway trains set to collide in the center of the ring, hungry to avoid the kind of defeat capable of slamming the door on their potential plans as featured players in high-profile fights.

I don’t know about you, but that’s exactly how I like my crossroads fights to be conjured up, with either fighter unlikely to take a step backward for any reason once the bell is rung.

It might be smart to wait at least one more weekend, just in case, before mailing in your vote for fight of the year. You never know what kind of surprise gift could show up just in time for the holiday season.