By Cliff Rold
It wasn’t obvious right away but, eventually, the culmination of the first two years of the Premiere Boxing Champions took pretty clear shape. Last year’s welterweight unification showdown between Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia was the destination that emerged.
For all the ups and downs of the PBC, it was their finest piece of promotional execution. Airing in prime time on CBS, before a packed house in Brooklyn, it’s peak rating was the highest in boxing for all of 2017 in the US. In a year that also featured successful pay-per-views (Mayweather-McGregor, Alvarez-Golovkin) and big numbers on ESPN (Horn-Pacquiao), boxing showed they still have a healthy audience.
What made Thurman-Garcia arguably more important than the biggest pay-per-view shows, or Pacquiao launching the ESPN deal, was that it showed that fighters without the names Alvarez, Mayweather, or Pacquiao could draw serious eyeballs on the right platform. The fact that the Thurman-Garcia audience grew throughout the night was another positive.
Why is this all relevant right now?
This Saturday could begin to answer that.
The next destination is already taking shape.
IBF welterweight titlist Errol Spence (22-0, 19 KO) headlines on Showtime (9 PM EST/6 PM PST) in his first title defense against Lamont Peterson (35-3-1, 17 KO). Spence, an unlucky 2012 Olympian who got robbed out of the Games, fulfilled so much of his early promise with a rousing stoppage of Kell Brook last May. While the ensuing layoff didn’t capitalize on that win the way it could, all of that could be forgotten quickly by the end of the Peterson fight.
If it ends with a solid win, we might be one step closer to Spence-Thurman!
Until he wins, it’s still Spence-Thurman?
There are other fights that will surely be talked about for Spence if he keeps winning but the reality of boxing matters. If Terence Crawford defeats WBO titlist Jeff Horn in April, a Spence-Crawford fight would sound fantastic. Spence being on the Al Haymon side of the boxing street, and Crawford on the Top Rank side, is a big obstacle.
Crawford against one of the other welterweight beltholders is probably going to have to mature into something more than just a fight to bring sides together. Spence and Thurman (28-0, 22 KO), the WBC and WBA titlist, is the easier fight to get to on paper. It’s potentially the biggest fight in the whole PBC/Showtime/Haymon universe with a little more build.
If it winds up being a network attraction, a la Thurman-Garcia, it could move the needle even further in terms of what boxing ratings can deliver.
For now, it’s all still in the chatter zone. Thurman had surgery on his elbow after the Garcia fight and spent the rest of 2017 on the shelf. His first fight back in 2018 isn’t going to be Spence. Thurman has coyly suggested Spence might not be possible until 2019. Thurman has fought only once in each of the last two years and twice in 2015. That might well be the case.
Often in boxing though, all the talking is just part of the game. Thurman knows he’s got something Spence wants: two belts and a proven audience. Thurman has been a consistent ratings grabber for the PBC, doing big numbers against Robert Guerrero, Shawn Porter, and Garcia in prime time. Spence has the talent, personality, and style to be a big star.
If they keep winning, they’re going to fight.
Will they both keep winning?
Thurman is staring at a WBC mandatory with Porter and, if that’s a stop along the way, fight fans win. Their first fight was exciting and a rematch would be as well. Will Thurman react adversely after the elbow surgery? Will all of the inactivity catch up to him? Porter-Thurman II might not be next but it’s going to be hard to avoid before a Spence fight can materialize.
Spence could have his hands full this weekend. The win over Brooks was great, and Spence looked sensational in 2016 Against Leonard Bundu and Chris Algieri. Peterson is the sort of opponent who can be vulnerable and dangerous. He gets better as fights go on and, if this goes rounds, the infighting between he and Spence could be vicious. Spence is a heavy favorite but Peterson isn’t a fighter incapable of an upset.
After Peterson, Spence might be the best option for a title shot for Garcia and that would be a nice bookend with a Thurman-Porter rematch. Spence, who fought only once in 2017 and twice in 2016, is still relatively early in his career. As much as single wins count, every appearance does as well. The more people see him, the more voices there will be asking for the big three belt unification with Thurman.
Last year, Thurman unified two belts in the division and won his biggest fight to date. Shortly after, Spence became a titlist in the division. From then forward, Thurman-Spence was a desirable destination.
This Saturday, we see the first piece of the road to get there.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]