Trainer insists Keith Thurman will rise to the occasion vs. Manny Pacquiao

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

LAS VEGAS — He’s had a lifetime of success as a boxing trainer. He’s guided the career, start to finish, of Hall of Famer Winky Wright. He’s built world champions and taught countless numbers of hopeless pugs how to better defend themselves.

He’s been a star, though he’s never sought attention. In back-to-back years, he was chosen as Trainer of the Year by the Boxing Writers Association of America, largely for his work with Wright and former world champion Jeff Lacy.

He’s always been an easy-going, affable sort of guy, willing to share insights into the sport that has done so much for him.

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Dan Birmingham, now pushing 70, suddenly seems a lot like one of those sage curmudgeonly trainers you heard about from the ’30s and ’40s, when boxing was one of the three biggest sports in the country, along with baseball and horse racing.

He’ll be in Keith Thurman’s corner on Saturday when Thurman puts his unbeaten record (29-0) on the line against the legendary Filipino champion Manny Pacquiao (61-7-2).

Pacquiao’s one of the best draws in the history of boxing, and he’s in yet another big fight on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, PPV) at the MGM Grand when he’ll meet Thurman for the WBA belt they both hold.

Dan Birmingham has been Keith Thurman’s coach since 2009. (Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)
Dan Birmingham has been Keith Thurman’s coach since 2009. (Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images)

Freddie Roach’s style vs. Dan Birmingham’s poise

One of the reasons for Pacquiao’s success selling pay-per-views is his trainer, Freddie Roach. Roach is never afraid to stoke the fires and unleash a few choice words in the name of selling tickets.

When Pacquiao was preparing to fight Mexican superstar Erik Morales for the first time, Roach hit him with an almost unrelenting verbal assault during the fight’s build-up. After Pacquiao conclusively ended their trilogy by knocking out Morales, Roach laughed and said he had Mexican fans wanting to kill him for his comments.

He’s been no different as Pacquiao, now 40 and a senator in his native land, prepares to face Thurman, his staunchest test since he lost to Floyd Mayweather in 2015.

He’s said Thurman is slower than ketchup, and referred to him as “Lobster Thurmandor.”

Birmingham has said little in response, but it’s largely because he’s seen what Thurman has done every day.

“Keith is not slow, I can promise you that,” Birmingham said in his gravelly voice. “It’s easy to talk and say this and say that. When that bell rings, Manny is going to find out how slow Keith is. And he’ll find out that not only is he pretty fast, he hits hard.”

Trainer: Thurman motivated to box despite inactivity

Thurman has largely been inactive the last two years, because he got married and also because of a series of injuries. His only bout since defeating Danny Garcia in a WBA-WBC unification bout in 2017 was a January bout against Josesito Lopez.

While Thurman beat Lopez, he looked vulnerable, perhaps for the first time in his career.

Pacquiao is a minus-155 favorite at the MGM Grand sportsbook, and with an influx of his fans arriving on the weekend, that number should only rise.

Pacquiao himself said he’s motivated by Thurman’s trash talk. A devoutly religious man, Pacquiao was angered when Thurman said he would crucify him.

None of the talk matters much to Birmingham, who said Thurman, contrary to a growing opinion, is still is very much motivated to box. Thurman’s ability to both box and punch has made him a rare commodity in the modern fight game, but his inactivity has made some question whether he is as serious about fighting as he once had been.

Thurman scoffed at that suggestion and said he simply got caught against Lopez in the seventh. He was nearly stopped, but he battled his way back from adversity and won the fight going away. He was pleased with his performance and what he took from it.

“It was good,” Thurman said of the Lopez bout. “I dropped him in the second round. I could have possibly had it finished in that round. They would have said, ‘Oh, Keith Thurman is back. He's devastating,’ but, I wouldn't have had a tough fight. I know what kind of champion I am and it just takes certain fights and certain challenges for me to prove how I can fight out of rough situations.

“In the seventh round I showed once again that Keith Thurman is not a punk. If you want to fight me, fight me. You want to hurt me, hurt me. If you drop me, you drop me, but you better stop me. As long as you don't stop me, I’m coming out the champion like I always do because that’s what I do: I box hard, I box smart and I’m always looking for the win. I’m always prepared to challenge myself. I was brought up in this sport. I’m a real fighter. I’m a real boxer. I’m educated and Manny Pacquiao is going to get a piece of it, one-on-one.”

That last bit about Thurman being a real fighter and a real boxer is what Birmingham chose to focus on.

Dan Birmingham trains Keith Thurman ahead of Saturday's fight in Las Vegas. (Andy Samuelson/Premier Boxing Champions)
Dan Birmingham trains Keith Thurman ahead of Saturday's fight in Las Vegas. (Andy Samuelson/Premier Boxing Champions)

Birmingham, Thurman not playing any games

He has been Thurman’s coach since Ben Getty died in 2009. Prior to that, he was assisting Getty, so he knows Thurman as well as anyone.

And Birmingham said Thurman won’t be intimidated by Pacquiao and he won’t back off if he hurts him.

“The thing about Keith is, he can box and box and he’s slick and smart and knows what he is doing in there,” Birmingham said. “But when he gets you hurt, he’s a finisher, man. He’ll get in there and beat the s--- out of you. He’s all business. He doesn’t [expletive] around. He hurts you and he gets in there and gets the job done.”

Birmingham isn’t one for hyperbole or cute one-liners, particularly not at this stage of his career and in an event of this significance. It could be a life-changing victory for Thurman, and Birmingham isn’t playing games.

Thurman is facing one of the greatest of all time, but Birmingham insisted his fighter has a unique ability to rise to the occasion. And he found a way to turn Thurman’s relative inactivity into a positive, as well.

“He hasn’t had a lot of wear-and-tear on his body and I think the time away did him a world of good,” Birmingham said. “He has been going hard with no real time off since he was 7. He got married and I think he’s rejuvenated and extremely excited to be back in there doing what he loves. Believe me when I tell you that. He is incredibly hungry to show what he can do in there.”

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