Keith Thurman is back. (photo by Ryan Hafey)

No matter what happens from here, the once-unified welterweight titlist made his way back to the ring after more than two years away and while fighting in only one calendar year since 2017. Thurman returned doing what he’s done all but once in his career.

He returned a winner. 

Mario Barrios never really threatened on Saturday night, even with a brief moment where Thurman clearly felt a body shot from the younger man. Thurman was stronger, more accurate, and just too much better.

The same was true for another returning battler, this one still holding a title. Yes, despite not defending it since 2019, Santa Cruz remains the WBA’s primary featherweight titlist. Santa Cruz showed no hangover from the loss to Gervonta Davis in 2020. Like a real pro, he put that knockout behind him, got right back in there, and went to work with punches in bunches. 

Santa Cruz said after a lopsided win over Keenan Carbajal that he’s ready for unification. Will those opportunities emerge? 

Futures: Staying with Santa Cruz, he returns just shortly after another featherweight title situation shifted under the PBC umbrella. Mark Magsayo knocked off Gary Russell for the WBC strap and could make for an interesting rival. For whatever reason, we never got Santa Cruz-Russell. Santa Cruz-Magsayo doesn’t feel outside the realm. If Brandon Figueroa gets into the title mix at featherweight, he would also be interesting.

Boxing being boxing, what might be the best fight is probably the least likely: Santa Cruz-Emanuel Navarrete. The reality of affiliations is what it is.

Thurman is an instant player at welterweight. He can wait for the winner of Errol Spence-Yordenis Ugas or pursue Terence Crawford. Both options are realistic and Thurman brings value to either. Other names could come up but none of them get Thurman back to where he wants to be. The road to titles has two lanes. 

After Saturday, Thurman showed he’s still got something to say at welterweight no matter which lane he proceeds on.

While the Fox pay-per-view show highlighted returns, fans in Phoenix saw a potential star born.    

Bam Arrives

Inside boxing circles, the buzz around Jesse “Bam” Rodriguez as a prospect might be the strongest for an American near the flyweight limit since Michael Carbajal, Mark Johnson, and Danny Romero were on their way to their first titles in the 1990s. Rodriguez delivered on his promise Saturday night by handing veteran Carlos Cuadras a tough defeat.

What impressed wasn’t just that Rodriguez won, moving up in weight to capture a WBC belt (given franchise nonsense, the WBC is really telling you their champ is still Juan Francisco Estrada). It also wasn’t some fancy footwork and speed for a sharp knockdown in the third. What impressed was the composure Rodriguez showed. When Cuadras got up, and gave some real resistance, when Rodriguez ate some nasty body shots and uppercuts, the 22-year old never rushed his game or got flustered. 

Rodriguez showed maturity, style, and skill that could mark him a player for years to come. So where does he go from here?

Futures: Before getting to the new, let’s not skip over the defeated man. Cuadras has been a vital piece of a golden era around his weight. His legs aren’t what they were, nor is his hand speed, but again on Saturday Cuadras gave a gutsy effort and it would have been fun to see him with another older man in Srisaket Sor Rungvisai again Saturday. Instead, we got a hell of a show and perhaps a step toward the end of the era that was.

Tomorrow is in good hands. Rodriguez said before the fight he’d look to move back down in weight with a win but the reality is that the money is at Jr. bantamweight. Roman Gonzalez, Estrada, and Sor Rungvisai are all older opponents Rodriguez would have a chance to beat and build upon. If Julio Cesar Martinez wins next month versus Gonzalez, a Martinez-Rodriguez clash would be thrilling at flyweight or Jr. bantamweight. 

Rodriguez is in the mix now, and we haven’t seen his best yet.

Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.