NEW YORK – Keith Thurman stood in the center of the ring on Saturday, a perplexed look on his face reflecting, perhaps, an inability to fully process the moment. He was a winner, eking out a split decision over Danny Garcia, unifying a pair of welterweight titles. Yet he was being received like a loser, with a mix of boos and cheers cascading down from the crowd and a group of puzzled ringside reporters wondering why Thurman nearly gave the fight away.
This was supposed to be Thurman’s moment, and honestly, it was an opportunity missed. A Barclays Center boxing-record crowd, a nationally televised audience — these were all things Thurman craved. In an interview in his Brooklyn hotel room this week, Thurman acknowledged he wanted the money that comes with being a pay-per-view star, but craved the recognition that comes with mass exposure.
“I want to be the people’s champ,” Thurman told Yahoo Sports. “I want to be the guy who gives fans what they want.”
For five rounds, Thurman did. He landed a knee-buckling right hand early in the opening round. He landed two more in the second. He combined thudding power punches (102 in all, per PunchStats) with savvy defense. In the third, Garcia ducked to Thurman’s waist, looking to tie him up. Thurman paused, waited for Garcia to pop up, and clipped him to the temple when he did.
He was in control … until he wasn’t. Thurman gave away the sixth round before rallying in the seventh. But the game plan changed. The aggressive fighter through the first five rounds morphed into a defensive one over the last seven. He was an NBA team trying to milk the clock in the fourth quarter, an NFL team playing prevent. He fought like a fighter who knew he won the first half of the fight and believed he could simply cruise through the second.
“I was not giving the fight away,” Thurman said. “I felt like we had a nice lead, we could cool down. I felt like we were controlling the three-minute intervals every round. My defense was effective – he wasn’t landing.”
It’s true. Garcia was far from brilliant. He flicked out an occasional jab (41 total) and desperately tried to time Thurman’s advances with counter hooks. Fighting a top contender, Garcia looked like a fighter nearly four years removed from facing one. He rallied late, made the fight interesting but the 140-pound titleholder who coolly dispatched the fearsome Lucas Matthysse has never seemed so distant.
“It is what it is,” Garcia said. “I can’t cry over anything, I’ll come back strong like a true champion. I would love to have a rematch to get my titles back.”
A rematch? For now … pass. On paper, Garcia-Thurman was what boxing needed. Premier Boxing Champions — the Al Haymon-headed time-buy series — has been an unqualified failure, further dividing a sport already deeply divided. HBO’s budget has been badly slashed, forcing most fights of any significance onto pay-per-view. For a fight of Thurman-Garcia’s caliber to land on CBS was a major coup.
It wasn’t a disappointment, but it isn’t one anyone needs to immediately see again. Showtime — which has been reinvesting heavily in boxing — has pieced together something of a welterweight tournament, with Shawn Porter-Andre Berto scheduled for April and Kell Brook-Errol Spence slated for the spring. Thurman, inactive since beating Porter last June, insists he wants to stay busy, and Showtime has a deep pool of opponents to match him up with.
Or … he could look across the street. The most accomplished welterweights are still Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley, Top Rank-promoted fighters who regularly appear on HBO. Pacquiao is involved in bizarre negotiations with Amir Khan — is there really $38 million out there for the two of them? — while Bradley is merely waiting for the right fight. A Bradley-Thurman fight would be stylistically appealing, and the winner would have a legitimate claim to the No. 2 spot behind Pacquiao in the division.
There are good fights for Thurman, and maybe next time he will fight the full 12. There were shades of Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad in Thurman-Porter, with Thurman, like De La Hoya, believing he had built an insurmountable early lead and towards the end just giving it away. At 28, Thurman has all the tools to be a superstar in the 147-pound division, but wins like this won’t push him much closer to it.