by David P. Greisman
Once upon a time, Keith Thurman was someone who didn’t yet deserve to be on television but landed a prime slot anyway.
That time was just four years ago. So much has changed over the course of seemingly so little.
This past Saturday, Thurman’s prime slot was primetime broadcast television, aired nationally for at least 2.1 million viewers, the largest boxing audience yet for 2016, and showcased in front of more than 12,700 people, the second-largest boxing crowd ever at a relatively new arena in Brooklyn.
The welterweight who few had heard of four years ago now held a world title. The fighter who many continued to doubt long after his introduction was taking on his biggest challenge yet.
Keith “One Time” Thurman keeps proving his doubters wrong. He keeps showing why he belongs.
Thurman is 27 years old and is now 27-0 with 22 knockouts, adding a decision victory to his record after edging Shawn Porter on the scorecards. The win came over a former welterweight titleholder who still should be considered a good contender.
Boxing fans and observers have a habit of holding onto doubt and holding out for more proof. They want to see more and they want to see better, which is fair given how careful matchmaking has so often given the illusion that a fighter may go on to great things, but they sometimes fail to give credit to that fighter for what he has already done.
So while Thurman’s win wasn’t dominant, the fight with Porter was quite competitive because Porter is quite competent. And while Thurman hasn’t yet distanced himself from the other top welterweights, he has at least put himself among them toward the front of the pack.
They are all trying to become the top stars in the division now that Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao have retired, or at least for as long as Mayweather and Pacquiao claim they are retired and remain so. They cannot become Mayweather or Pacquiao, at least not immediately, not without several years of succeeding at the highest levels. That’s an unnecessary standard.
It’s good enough for them to aim to be better than the others, the best for now rather than one of the best of all time.
That’s not yet Thurman, not while he also shares a division with Timothy Bradley, Kell Brook, Danny Garcia, Errol Spence and Jessie Vargas, and not until he shares a ring with some if not most of them, as well as several others who will add their names to the list.
He had to work to get here. Which is amusing, given that once upon a time the criticism over his first major television slot was over it being given instead of earned.
Four years ago, Marcos Maidana was a former 140-pound titleholder who had tried to go up to 147, only to lose a wide decision to Devon Alexander. His promoter at the time, Golden Boy Promotions, offered Maidana a fight with Thurman. Maidana’s team turned it down. His manager said they wanted a tune-up fight, not a bout against an undefeated prospect whom they considered to be a junior middleweight not a welterweight.
Thurman at the time was fighting at or slightly above 147. And aside from one fight in late 2012, welterweight is where he’s been since. He’s comfortably made the limit. Nevertheless, there would be no fight between Maidana and Thurman on a July 2012 show headlined by Adrien Broner. Thurman opened up the HBO broadcast anyway.
“In my view, Thurman, an untested prospect, should never have been put in an HBO fight yet in the first place,” veteran boxing reporter Dan Rafael of ESPN.com wrote at the time, voicing the thoughts others had. “That’s no knock on Thurman. It’s just that he hadn’t come close to earning that lofty position yet because, despite his impressive-looking record, he has fought absolutely nobody of remote consequence. In any event, the best HBO and Golden Boy could do was come up with Orlando Lora (29-2-2, 19 KOs), who is 1-1-1 in his last three, including a one-sided loss to Paulie Malignaggi in October.
“Thurman-Lora simply doesn’t come close to the quality subscribers expect from an HBO fight,” Rafael wrote. “But it just further illustrates the immense power that Al Haymon, who manages Thurman (and Broner), wields at HBO. I dare say that nobody else in the business could have gotten the network to buy Thurman in the first place, much less keep him on for this sort of throwaway fight when the A-side (Maidana) fell out.”
Thurman beat Lora. He beat Carlos Quintana and Jan Zaveck in two more HBO appearances, then moved over to Showtime as the network continued to air more Golden Boy shows and feature more Haymon fighters. Thurman went to battle and triumphed against Diego Chaves, and then he did the same at the end of 2013 against Jesus Soto-Karass.
The main event that night was Maidana’s victory over Adrien Broner. That night, Richard Schaefer, then the chief executive of Golden Boy, was asked about a potential fight between Maidana and Thurman.
He began to laugh.
“I can’t do that. Come on,” he said repeatedly.
Instead of two-way violence, Thurman went on to have one-sided victories in 2014, making quick work of Julio Diaz and shutting out Leonard Bundu.
By that point he was no longer a prospect, but a contender. And yet there were reasons to doubt. While the opponents he’d beaten included former titleholders and fringe contenders, there were too few upper-level foes and too many who were past their primes or who had already lost to other welterweights.
It wasn’t until last year that Thurman again stepped up, and even then his war against Robert Guerrero came against an opponent who appeared to be slipping from his past form. That was followed by another stoppage of another former titleholder, Luis Collazo, who had hurt Thurman badly with a body shot at one point in the bout.
So going into the Porter fight, there were good reasons to wonder how Thurman would handle him. There also were good indications suggesting that Thurman would be able to do just that.
The work Thurman’s put in during training camp — and the experience he’s accumulated in the past four years in particular — helped him improve to the point that he could edge Porter by unanimous decision, winning seven of the 12 rounds on all three judges’ scorecards. In the past, we had wondered what would happen if the flaws and weaknesses Thurman demonstrated against lesser opposition were still there against better opponents.
We hold onto doubt and hold out for more proof. We failed to give credit for what he had already shown us. What were rough moments also emphasized how Thurman could handle them. He didn’t beat Porter easily, but he did beat Porter.
“I was bred for this sport,” Thurman said after the fight. “Shawn Porter put on a great effort and a great performance, but he was not able to walk away with that ‘W.’ I showed you time in and time out against Diego Chaves. I showed you when [Jesus Soto] Karass rocked me. I showed you when Luis Collazo hit me with a body shot. I showed you guys when Robert Guerrero gave me a hematoma in the third round and I had to go nine rounds. This was the first time that I’ve been cut in my professional career. We just kept pushing, man. He was trying to fight and smother me. I threw back.”
He says he’s not afraid to lose, that his undefeated record won’t keep him from getting in the ring with tough challenges from here on out.
“I got an ‘oh,’ I’m not afraid to let it go,” Thurman said. “If you can beat me, beat me. You deserve it.”
He deserves the attention.
He’s entertaining in the ring, which is why Haymon featured him in prominent “Premier Boxing Champions” broadcasts on NBC and ESPN for the Guerrero and Collazo fights, which were the debuts for the series on each of those networks. It’s also why Haymon had Thurman-Porter in the first primetime CBS boxing broadcast in more than 38 years, dating back to when Muhammad Ali lost the heavyweight championship to Leon Spinks. And like Ali, Thurman is engaging outside of the ring. He is an excellent quote and an insightful interview.
Thurman belongs in the spotlight. Once upon a time, that wasn’t yet the truth. For a story that began once upon a time, however, this isn’t a fairy tale. It’s reality. Thurman’s now made the case for himself. The next chapter will show what he can make of himself next.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide. Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]