By Cliff Rold
Just shy of twenty-two months ago, it could be argued a leader of the post-Floyd Mayweather years at welterweight was emerging. Compelling, consecutive wins over a once-beaten Shawn Porter and then-undefeated Danny Garcia, saw WBA titlist Keith Thurman add the WBC belt to his mantle and push himself into some of the pound-for-pound conversations.
There was room for debate. IBF titlist Kell Brook still hadn’t lost at welterweight and beat Porter first. Manny Pacquiao had bounced back from his loss to Mayweather with consecutive drubbings of Timothy Bradley and Jessie Vargas, regaining the WBO belt in the latter. But Thurman, only 28, looked like the man with time on his side.
That was twenty-two months ago.
Things have changed at welterweight.
Thurman, following the defeat of Garcia, had elbow surgery. What was announced as an expected six-month rehab assignment took much longer. Speculation was in healthy supply about whether Thurman was really all that excited about getting back in the ring at all. Along the way, Thurman gave up the WBC belt he won against Garcia only to see it now held by Porter.
Pacquiao is still around but lost the WBO strap to Jeff Horn in a controversial decision. Two wins since haven’t quite vaulted him back into the conversation about the best welterweight in the world though the 40-year old remarkably isn’t perceived as far from the top and holds the WBA’s sub-title.
Terence Crawford had only won two of what would eventually be four belts at Jr. welterweight the last time Thurman was in the ring. Now he holds the WBO welterweight belt he knocked out Horn to attain. Brook is a former titlist thanks to Errol Spence. Ask most boxing aficionados and they’d point to Crawford-Spence as the best fight possible at 147 lbs.
Thurman (28-0, 22 KO) is the guy who was. Saturday presents the chance to begin proving he still is. Thurman puts his toe back in the water against veteran Josesito Lopez (36-7, 19 KO) for his first defense of the title in almost two years. Lopez is among the safer choices for a return bout he could have selected without being a walk.
Lopez has won three in a row since being stopped by Andre Berto in 2015. Going just by the sheer number of fights, Lopez has had as many as Thurman since then even with Thurman’s layoff. For most of his career, Lopez has been a guy most notable for good shows against bigger names. He was also stopped not by Saul Alvarez and Marcos Maidana. The exception was a career making upset of the erratic Victor Ortiz in 2012.
Now 34, Lopez plays the part of measuring stick. If Thurman is troubled greatly, much less defeated, the narrative of the class will remain until someone comes along to push Spence or Crawford off the stage. If Thurman wins in good fashion, and stays active in 2019 with no further physical issues, the narrative can’t help but change.
An impressive Keith Thurman will quickly remind the boxing world it was he who was close to leading the pack and whet the appetites of fight fans to see him back with dangerous opponents. As part of the PBC lineup, there are plenty of options. Thurman will have the opportunity to finish the story he appeared to be telling in the ring before it was abruptly interrupted.
Crawford probably won’t be one of them. Fighting under the Top Rank banner, Crawford is sort of an island to himself. While he always could factor in with one of the PBC welterweights, there’s no real business impetus for it on the PBC side. They can make money and competitive fights without him. Crawford is likely only to be in real demand if a single fighter clears the decks on the PBC side.
Prior to making his return official, Thurman made it no secret Spence wouldn’t be in his immediate plans. Spence has a showdown with reigning lightweight titlist Mikey Garcia in March so he has other business to attend to anyways. On paper, a clash of undefeated titlist between Spence and Thurman would appear to still be the end zone for the division but fights along the way could change that.
Rematches with Porter and Garcia could always develop for Thurman before the year is out. The WBA title mess could also provide a doorway to the sort of big name opponent capable of vaulting Thurman past his inactivity. Pacquiao-Mayweather rematch chatter continues. It might happen. If it does not, the WBA could and should insist Thurman-Pacquiao take place to eliminate an excess belt.
Any of those three opponents after Lopez would give fans insight into exactly where Thurman stands in 2019. At 30 years old, if fully rehabilitated, there is no reason to think he won’t be a major factor again sooner than later. Inactivity on the current scene isn’t the impediment it was once perceived to be. With contemporaries who struggle to get into the ring more than twice a year, Thurman hasn’t really missed much.
A camp or two should be more than enough to shake off the rust.
Once shaken off, Thurman’s return promises to shake up the welterweight division sooner than later. It could make the next twenty-two months a more interesting time at welterweight than the landscape has been without him.
Cliff Rod 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]