Keith Thurman’s Gamble Of Waiting On The Sidelines Could Pay Off
It has been over five years since Keith “One Time” Thurman (30-1, 22 KOs) stood on top of the welterweight division. When he had his hand raised in victory over the then-undefeated Danny Garcia in March 2017 to unify the WBA and WBC welterweight titles, he was the number one fighter in one of boxing's most loaded weight classes.
Life is sometimes cyclical, and boxing follows suit. Thurman has become more known for staying outside the ring in those five years since defeating Garcia than stepping inside the squared circle. The Floridian has only had three fights since 2017. One of which was against Manny Pacquiao in the summer of 2019. For all intents and purposes, the battle with the legendary Pacquiao was set up to give Thurman a win over an aging fighter.
However, things went differently than planned. A litany of injuries, surgeries, the COVID pandemic, and missed opportunities kept Thurman out of the ring for the next two years. And 2022 was supposed to be the get-back year but it was more of the same.
“Really, what happened to me was a little bit of my ego got to me,” Thurman expressed in an interview on the Last Stand Podcast with Brian Custer. “We went through some rough times with COVID, and that's apparent for everybody, right? I got the phone call to be one of those athletes to perform with no fans. After the biggest pay-per-view event of my life with Manny Pacquiao at the MGM Grand, just filling up the arena, the roars, the screaming, the shouting. They called me during COVID and said, ‘Keith would you like to come to LA studios and fight in a room with a few cameras, your corner men, and nobody in attendance?' I didn't ask, ‘who am I fighting?' I didn't ask, ‘how much are they going to pay me?' I said it sounds like the most boring experience of my life; no, thank you. It took me less than five seconds to say no and reject that.
“I look back and maybe that was a mistake. It kept me inactive, and what that taught them was Thurman wants the fans, and it took a long time for that to manifest. I contracted COVID after working the Pacquiao-Ugas fight, which had my management group push my date back further. I was hoping to get back at the last quarter of that year (2021), but then we got pushed into possible rumors of January, and the date fell February 5th.”
Thurman's performance against Mario Barrios last February wasn't spectacular. Still, the fight did the former unified welterweight champion some good in going all twelve rounds allowing him to rid some of the ring rust. The thought at the time was for the Barrios fight to be the launching point in a year that would see Thurman regain some of the ground he lost through years of inactivity.
“I was willing to take a lesser fight just to get back in the ring,” Thurman said to Boxingscene.com in the summer. “But as long as I fight two times this year, that will have to be good enough. Get back in October, then hopefully pick up some momentum and have a 12-month span where we're fighting three times. It will be easier when I get back my title.”
Instead of utilizing 2022 as an opportunity to get back in the ring as much as possible, it was another squandered year for Thurman. While championship bouts didn't manifest, matchups that could have put him more in the public eye could have taken place. Eimantas Stanionis or Radzhab Butaev, who both only fought once in 2022 and are rated in the top ten at welterweight by ESPN and Ring Magazine, would have tested Thurman. Jaron Ennis and Vergil Ortiz have just crossed the barrier between prospect and contender. Fights with either would have been significant, but Thurman seemed more concerned with not being used as a stepping-stone.
“Man, Keith ‘One Time' Thurman is not the gatekeeper,” Thurman stated on Showtime. “And if you wanna act like I'm a gatekeeper, then you need to understand that gate is welded shut. And I will school you just like I schooled Mario Barrios. I'm not those past opponents. I'm a veteran. I'm a fine wine. You can only get me at a certain high-level restaurant.”
Throughout his career, Thurman hasn't been able to take advantage of staying in the public eye outside of interviews with boxing media. He has continually had a stop-and-start pattern in his career without any benefits from any momentum built.
Boxing is a challenging and arduous sport and for those like Thurman, who has been in boxing since childhood, it isn't easy to start over and rebuild. Losing to a past prime 40-year-old Manny Pacquiao in a fight of the year candidate could have been discouraging, but the fight sold 500,000 pay-per-views. Thurman is likely better known now than before the fight with the southpaw Filipino. There are numerous past pugilists that Thurman could have modeled himself on how to respond to a loss.
In the 1990s, Marco Antonio Barrera, following two losses to Junior Jones in 1996 and 1997, stepped back in the ring four times in 1998 and three times in 1999. This led to a title match against Erik Morales in February 2000, arguably the best fight of the decade, springboarding Barrera to the greatest heights of his career. The three-division Mexican champion would again have to rebuild following a loss to Manny Pacquiao in 2003, once more moving to a trilogy bout with Morales and more world titles.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, all-time great middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins returned multiple times after losses to win world titles. Losses to fighters like Jermain Taylor, Joe Calzaghe, and Chad Dawson were followed by wins over Antonio Tarver, Kelly Pavlik, and Tavoris Cloud. The Philadelphia legend was willing to take risks in competing in fights where he was the underdog.
Thurman's predecessor as the head fighter of the St. Pete boxing club, Ronald “Winky” Wright, had to claw his way out of obscurity fighting outside the United States, taking losses to Harry Simon and Julio Cesar Vazquez. Even after a controversial, tightly contested loss to Fernando Vargas, Wright continued to press forward until he finally got his opportunity against Shane Mosley.
However, as one of the primary pugilists under Al Haymon's Premier Boxing Champions banner, Thurman has an ace up his sleeve that most fighters don't. He can afford to sit on the sidelines for a big fight to manifest. A Hail Mary may have presented itself as ESPN first reported that a match between Errol Spence Jr. and Thurman could occur this upcoming April in the junior middleweight division.
The former unified welterweight champion last competed at junior middleweight over ten years ago in 2012, stopping Carlos Quintana in four rounds. Despite the confusing condition of fighting above welterweight without any of Spence's titles on the line, this fight will put him back into the elite ranks and onto the path toward the Hall of Fame, which may have passed him by over the last few years.
Spence and Thurman have a tenured and adversarial history. The Texas southpaw has accused Thurman of avoiding him in the past. A Spence-Thurman match in 2016 before the southpaw first won his world title over Kell Brook in 2017 would have been seen as a fight between a pseudo-prospect and a young champion. However, Thurman's inactivity for most of 2017, all of 2018, and then the loss to Pacquiao prevented a unification bout from taking place that, in all likelihood, had the potential of being a colossal pay-per-view.
“If we fought back then it would have meant nothing,” Thurman said when asked about a fight with Spence. “And if we fight today, it puts the cherry on the top of his legacy or mine, and that's that.”
Certainly, the story of Keith Thurman isn't unique to an era where fighting on social media takes place more than in the ring. When more than half of the top-ten fighters on the pound-for-pound list fight less than twice a year, Thurman isn't the only fighter who has yet to be able to capitalize on successes. But he is one of this era's most prominent casualties. Thurman is a star, but he had the potential to be a name outside of boxing.
“I love boxing,” Thurman said in an interview with Marcos Villegas of Fight Hub TV in early 2022. “I fight with a passion. Every time I'm in the ring, I'm living my dream. And that's what I remind myself. I chose this path. Nobody chose it for me. I continue to walk this path. My favorite thing in life is to participate in this beautiful sport called boxing. So, I don't worry about outside perspective on who Keith Thurman is.”
It's been said that winning cures everything. Thurman coming away with a victory over Spence alleviates the lost time inside the ring. Whether it was planned or not, waiting in the wings for a fight to emerge could pay off in the end for Thurman, firmly putting the past behind him.