LAS VEGAS — On Keith Thurman’s first appearance on boxing’s biggest stage, he knocked out Orlando Lora on July 21, 2012, at 1:37 of the sixth round of a one-sided bout in his debut on HBO. He raised his record to 18-0 with his 17th knockout and let it be known the welterweight division had a new star.
When the fight ended, Thurman called out all the top names at welterweight, including the biggest name at the time, Floyd Mayweather Jr.
“Floyd Mayweather, you’re undefeated, but I think I can defeat you,” Thurman said in the ring to HBO’s Max Kellerman. “We want everybody in the welterweight division, baby. If they call you a world champion, come get some of Keith ‘One Time’ Thurman.”
In the ensuing seven years, Thurman has won both the WBA and WBC welterweight titles and has gone 11-0 with five knockouts.
But it won’t be until Saturday, the final day of those seven full years, that he lands the mega-name he was hoping to get in 2012.
Thurman will fight Manny Pacquiao for the WBA welterweight title in the main event at the MGM Grand Garden (10 p.m. ET, PPV).
Much has been made of Thurman’s size, though he’s only an inch taller and has just a two-inch reach advantage on the Filipino legend. If Thurman is to pull the upset — the MGM Grand sportsbook has Pacquiao as a -160 favorite, with Thurman at +140 — it won’t be his size that does it.
It will be his speed, his power and his instincts in the boxing ring. More than a decade ago, he was only 16 when he sparred then-world champion Winky Wright in St. Petersburg, Florida, as Wright was preparing to face Felix Trinidad.
Wright, now retired and a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame, was duly impressed.
“What I learned that day is that Keith Thurman can fight his ass off,” Wright said Friday.
He’ll have to do just that to beat Pacquiao, who ranks among the greatest fighters of all-time and second in his era only to Mayweather. Thurman has all the physical tools to defeat Pacquiao, but the question seems to be how committed he is to boxing. Because of a series of injuries and getting married, he’s only fought five times in the last four-plus years.
He’s already said he’s not planning to fight again after the Pacquiao fight.
Pacquiao is a boxing lifer who, with more than 24 years as a pro, still relishes not only the fights but everything that goes into preparing for them. He spoke the other day of his vast collection of VHS tapes he collected when he was a young boy growing up in the Philippines. He talked of watching Roy Jones fight in the 1988 Olympics, when Pacquiao was just 9, and Oscar De La Hoya in the 1992 Olympics, when Pacquiao was only 13.
“I really love boxing,” Pacquiao said. “I’m happy doing this, especially during training camp. … Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been watching fights, until now.”
He mentioned fighters such as Jones, De La Hoya, Pernell Whitaker, Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Livingstone Bramble as among those he enjoyed seeing.
It’s obvious that not only does he have a talent, he has a passion for it.
That fire seems missing in Thurman, at least to anywhere near the degree it exists in Pacquiao. That leads to the question of, when things get tough, if he will want to win badly enough to push through adversity.
His trainer, Dan Birmingham, scoffed at the suggestion and said, “Believe me when I tell you, that’s very much not the case and he wants this badly.”
Thurman’s route to winning the fight is keeping a jab in Pacquiao’s face, controlling the distance and preventing Pacquiao from getting inside and using feints to create openings for him to counter Pacquiao.
Thurman is one of the best counter punchers in the game, and his jab isn’t just a rangefinder, it’s a weapon. Though Pacquiao is probably quicker of both hand and foot, Thurman won’t be totally outgunned in that area.
Pacquiao has a habit of doing a little hop as he works himself into punching range, and that’s when it’s going to be important for Thurman to get off his jab, to disrupt Pacquiao’s timing.
“I’m sure Keith and Dan have watched it over and over and they are prepared for it and know what they need to do when Manny does that,” said WBC welterweight champion Shawn Porter, who is working as part of the broadcast team for Fox.
It would also benefit Thurman to make a commitment to the body.
Pacquiao, though, seems in better shape than he’s been in in years, and has been loose and relaxed throughout his camp. He’s been much more outgoing as the Thurman fight has approached than he’s been in a long while.
There’s just a good vibe around him that I can’t recall seeing in more than 18 years of covering Pacquiao bouts. He’s faced better competition than Thurman and he’s been in every situation he could possibly face.
In a close fight where the tiniest things could make a difference, they could be what separates him from Thurman.
Thurman has the tools to win this fight.
Pacquiao has the desire, as well as the tools, so look for him to pull out a decision victory.
More Pacquiao-Thurman coverage from Yahoo Sports: