- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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Chicago junior middleweight Carlos Molina is just one of those guys who is easy to root for. He's humble, he has never been handed anything in boxing and he's good -- even if his record (19-4-2 with just six knockouts) doesn't look all that impressive.
It has been a long, hard climb up the ladder for Molina, who hasn't lost since dropping three consecutive decisions (two of which were majority verdicts) spanning 2006 and 2007, including bouts with junior welterweight contender Mike Alvarado and future middleweight titlist Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
Molina also happens to be the guy who hung the only blemish on Chavez's record in the form of a six-round draw in 2005, in a fight many thought Molina won. But from June 2009 until March 2011, Molina was on ice while locked in a promotional battle with Don King. Finally free, Molina came roaring back with strong performances in his three fights over a period of less than four months.
There was a draw with top contender Erislandy Lara (a fight he deserved to win), a seventh-round knockout of Allen Conyers and then a dominant decision against former welterweight titlist Kermit Cintron last July.
Molina, without an ounce of bitterness in his voice, said he never got down during the midst of his forced layoff.
"Not at all. I'm always positive, no matter what," Molina said. "You've got to be."
With those three good showings, Molina muscled his way into the junior middleweight top 10, a designation he clearly deserved, especially after seeing the way Lara went on to manhandle Paul Williams last summer in an incredibly controversial points loss.
And now Molina has a chance to really make some noise in one of boxing's best divisions. He has earned the opportunity he will get on Saturday night (HBO, 10 ET) at Reliant Arena in Houston, where he will face power hitter James Kirkland, 28, of Austin, Texas, whose awesome offensive gifts are special to watch. Kirkland's defense? Not so much.
That's why this is a fascinating fight. There's no way around it: Kirkland is chinny. He was drilled in the first round by light-hitting Nobuhiro Ishida in the biggest upset of 2011, and he has been down multiple times -- including in an exciting sixth-round knockout win against Alfredo Angulo in an epic battle in November, in which both men were dropped in the first round (the consensus round of the year).
Molina, 28, although not blessed with the thunderous power Kirkland (30-1, 27 KOs) possesses, has been down only once in his career. He has showed he can take a shot, a trait he'll need again Saturday.
"I have a great chin, but I don't like to use the chin unless I have to," he said. "That's a backup plan there. No. 1, it's slip and not get hit, and then, if you ever do -- which it does happen in boxing -- then you've got the chin there."
If he survives Kirkland's inevitable early onslaught, this could be a dandy of a fight, which opens the card headlined by junior welterweight titlist and all-time action star Erik Morales (52-7, 36 KOs) of Mexico, making his first defense against Philadelphia's Danny Garcia (22-0, 14 KOs).
While few have been willing to fight Kirkland, Molina jumped at the opportunity.
"Well, first of all, I don't want any easy fights," Molina said. "I don't want to be handed a WBC belt or any belt, for that matter. I want to earn my belt, and [during] almost two years of layoff, I was so focused, and I knew I was still going to fight again, so I was always training. I was always in the gym. If I wasn't boxing, I'd still be in the gym working out, so either way I was ready for my next opportunity. I knew it would come soon."
His faith was rewarded, and a victory would push him closer to a world title opportunity.
"I want to fight the best at 154 and I'm glad I'm fighting James Kirkland right now," Molina said, "and hopefully, I'll get a world title shot after this fight."
After the eight-round majority decision loss to Alvarado in 2007, Molina said, he didn't let his third consecutive defeat get him down. He worked hard, kept the faith during the promotional battle and has taken care of business since.
"I knew all I had to do was keep winning," Molina said. "I knew I was going to get my chance and my opportunity to get those bigger fights, and you've just got to stay focused. You can't let anything bother you. Like they say, you've got to roll with the punch and you just keep working. Keep working hard all the time, no matter what, and keep winning.
"If you lose, you're going to step back, and after I lost my last fight, I said to myself that I wasn't going to lose any more fights. And I'm going to stick to that."