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Rising welterweight boxer Keith Thurman still hurting over mentor's death

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

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Keith Thurman celebrates his 12 round unanimous decision win over Jan Zaveck. (USA TODAY Sports)

I have a dream, Keith Thurman says. It is, more or less, a variation of the same dream – always vivid, rich in details, completely unforgettable.

With a fight approaching – Thurman meets hard-nosed Jesus Soto Karass on Saturday in San Antonio for the interim WBA welterweight title in the co-main event of a Showtime-televised card at the Alamodome – Thurman expects to relive his dream several times this week.

Though it's not a nightmare, it's a dream that Thurman wishes he didn't have.

He dreams of his late trainer, mentor, and close friend, Ben Getty, a hard-nosed man who was the janitor at his Florida elementary school and who introduced him to boxing.

Thurman and Getty were, in many ways, the odd couple, of diverse backgrounds and upbringings, but they developed a bond that lasted for the rest of their days together, until Getty's untimely death.

Before he met Getty, Thurman never thought of being a fighter. Thurman's father, Keith Jr., was sort of the Kimbo Slice in his day, and would regale his young son as they watched Bruce Lee and Steven Segal movies with stories of his backyard brawls in Ohio.

The young Thurman loved martial arts, and used to practice karate moves with his father as they watched the movies together.

But one day, Thurman had a chance encounter with Getty. Getty was the head janitor at Thurman's Clearwater, Fla., elementary school, but was also a boxing trainer of some note.

Getty had worked with boxing Hall of Famer Sugar Ray Leonard and was the head trainer of 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Kenny Gould.

Getty put on a boxing exhibition after school at the local YMCA that Thurman attended by chance. At just 7, Thurman found his life's calling, as well as a second father and lifelong friend.

"Ben impacted my life in so many ways, so, so many ways," Thurman says.

Pictures of Getty with famous boxers dotted the walls of the St. Petersburg, Fla., gym where Getty trained fighters. He'd regale the young Thurman with stories of his boxing past, but it all seemed overwhelming to the impressionable boy.

"I was really young when I met Ben, and his stories, to be honest, sounded like fairy tales to me," Thurman said.

He would soon learn they were very real. Thurman learned to box with Getty, who quickly realized his vast potential. Thurman wasn't very good at first, and got beaten up often, but he kept coming back for more.

He wasn't intimidated, even as a 7-year-old. He was scrappy and determined and, mostly, willing to learn.

He learned well, because he was the runner-up at the Olympic Trials, losing a spot on the 2008 team in Beijing to Demetrius Andrade.

He turned pro in late 2007 and under Getty's tutelage, reeled off eight consecutive first-round knockouts. He'd developed a relationship with Getty much like the one that Mike Tyson had with his mentor, Cus D'Amato.

Getty unexpectedly died on May 31, 2009, and Thurman was inconsolable when he found out. Now, more than four years later, Thurman is a world champion, a star on the rise, yet he's never forgotten Getty.

"It still affects me to this day," Thurman said of Getty's death. "He really was a big part of my life. I always felt like a strong, independent-spirited individual and I never really understood how one person in life could have such an impact upon you. I really miss Ben. I miss Ben every single day of my life.

"I have dreams about him. I normally have at least one dream about him getting close to every fight. For those who remember their dreams at night, dreaming does feel real when it happens to you. The visions you encounter, the things that you go through, even the emotional feelings, they feel very real. They feel like they're happening, like this conversation right now."

And in the dream, Thurman speaks.

"Every time I see him, I ask him, 'Where have you been?' " Thurman said. "I see him in such vivid detail, as if he hasn't aged, as if he was just on vacation. I remember one morning, waking up feeling like I was actually going to see him in the gym the next day.

"It really hurt. It really hurt me really bad when I realized he wouldn't be there. But with my faith, I hold onto the spirit that I remember of Ben Getty."

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Keith Thurman lands a punch against Jan Zaveck. (USA TODAY Sports)

Getty recognized Thurman had extraordinary power early on – Thurman scored three standing eight counts in his amateur debut in just the first round, which then was only one minute long – and encouraged him to use it. But he also preached the art of hitting and not getting hit.

Getty used to tell Thurman, "Show him your power, because as soon as you show them your power, they'll get scared and start to move backward."

And largely, that's what happens in most Thurman fights. He's now 21-0 with 19 knockouts and on the verge of stardom.

He called out the great Floyd Mayweather Jr. after his first fight on HBO in 2012, because he wanted to make a statement. He wanted to be like the old-school fighters he had researched, and loved the anytime, anywhere attitude they carried.

He wanted to be like that and has always been eager to push himself to the highest level. It's that attitude, and his punching power, that give him star potential.

He's a well-spoken young man who is an avid reader and has a great interest in science and the universe. He injured his hand during a 2010 fight with Favio Medina. He suffered a deep bone bruise that wouldn't seem to heal. It cost him all of 2011.

He finally had to see an acupuncturist before he got relief.

As he was idle at home, watching television and reading books, he began to ponder his place in the boxing universe. He'd signed with powerful manager Al Haymon, who had the connections to get him onto television and into profitable, high-profile bouts right away.

Thurman, though, was unable to do anything. And it was then that he realized he was a star-in-waiting, or a dormant star.

"It's very interesting to me that they call celebrities stars," Thurman said. "I'm a big fan of anything on a universal level, when it comes to science, the Big Bang Theory, stars, cosmos, quasars, all of that. I said it is so interesting that they call celebrities stars, because stars are born. When stars are first created, they're dormant. They're sitting there just doing nothing but floating around in space.

"But then out of nowhere, a spark occurs and then the star is ignited. That's where the star starts to shine. I could say I got my spark on my first HBO appearance. I told myself back then, with my faith, 'You will have your opportunity to shine.' If you look at the sport of boxing, or any industry where stars exist, just like out in the universe, every star has a different life span. Some burn forever and some burn like short fuses. They're here and then they're gone."

He laughed, because his star took longer to ignite than he expected, or wanted, but he knew in those dark days on the sideline in 2011, when his only income was a $1,000 a month stipend from Haymon, that he would sooner or later make it.

"I was at home and had no up-and-coming fights, and I said to myself, 'You know, you are a dormant star who is about to shine, and when you shine, it will be bright and it will be for a long time,' " Thurman said.

And now, he's got the chance. Everyone loves a puncher, and Thurman punches with the best of them. Everyone loves an action fighter, and Thurman's bouts are routinely action-packed.

His association with Haymon and Golden Boy Promotions puts him on the precipice of greatness, if he can handle things in the ring.

No matter how big he gets, though, he vows that he'll never forget where he came from or the man who helped put him on the path to stardom.

"When the final story of Keith 'One Time' Thurman is told, it won't be able to be told without mentioning Ben Getty," he said. "Ben Getty had a great impact, and a tremendous influence, on every area of my life. And I'll remember him and honor him every day for the rest of my life.





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