Undefeated Keith Thurman fighting Josesito López, ring rust in return

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Keith Thurman (L), Lennox Lewis and Josesito López (R) attend Fox Sports and Premier Boxing Champions Press Conference Experience on Nov. 13, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
Keith Thurman (L), Lennox Lewis and Josesito López (R) attend Fox Sports and Premier Boxing Champions Press Conference Experience on Nov. 13, 2018 in Los Angeles. (Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

Early in the first round of a 2014 fight with Keith Thurman, Leonard Bundu switched from a conventional stance to southpaw. At 40 years old, Bundu had 14 years on Thurman and much more experience at the highest level of boxing.

Southpaws are frequently difficult for conventional boxers to handle, and when a right-hander switches unexpectedly into a left-handed stance, it can cause confusion.

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Thurman, though, showed the poise and wisdom of a grizzled veteran. When Bundu switched left-handed, he did, as well. He baited Bundu and dropped him with a perfect counter left, the first serious punch of the fight he threw. The crowd at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas roared.

It wasn’t the last time that crowd would make its feelings known during that fight, but it was the last time it cheered in unison. Thurman thoroughly outboxed Bundu over the next 11 rounds and won every round on all three cards to take a unanimous decision. The crowd wasn’t impressed and boos filled the arena.

Never, though, did it deter Thurman, who fought with the understanding that he could land a shot against Floyd Mayweather in his next bout.

“I had a lot of booing — a whole lot of booing — throughout that match but I didn’t let those boos dictate how I was going to be victorious,” said Thurman, who returns to the ring on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the first time in nearly two years when he meets Josesito López for the WBA welterweight title in the main event of a show televised by Fox.

“I always flash back to the words of my original trainer, Ben Getty: ‘Smart fighters win; dumb fighters lose.’ He never said, ‘Strong fighters win; weak fighters lose. Fast fighters win; slow fighters lose. Smart fighters win. Dumb fighters lose.’ I learned from him to make smart decisions in that ring and not to let anyone else, especially a crowd, dictate to me how I should fight.”

The irony is that Thurman has been one of the sport’s most telegenic fighters. His power is among the best in the welterweight division and he has both the understanding to set up shots and the speed to get through narrow openings.

He hasn’t fought since taking a split decision over Danny Garcia on March 4, 2017, in Brooklyn, a bout that drew a peak audience of 5.1 million on CBS. Before that, he defeated Shawn Porter in a compelling battle on June 26, 2016.

He had surgery on his elbow, injured his right hand and got married since fighting Garcia, accounting for his inactivity. Lopez wouldn’t under most circumstances be expected to provide a serious threat, but it’s always hard to predict how a fighter will fare with a long time out of the ring.

Thurman said he’s seen the effects of his lay-off in his preparations.

“This training camp has just been basically re-amping everything,” he said. “I can definitely tell I’ve been out of the ring and out of touch with the sport for a long time. At the same time, though, I’m Keith ‘One Time’ Thurman and I know this sport like the back of my hand. I’m grateful being back doing what I love to do.”

He’s 28-0 with 22 knockouts and is a massive favorite to remain unbeaten by defeating Lopez. If he wins, he’ll be the front-runner to face Manny Pacquiao later this year, assuming Pacquiao doesn’t fight Floyd Mayweather.

Pacquiao seemed to indicate that he isn’t all that optimistic by taking a little jab at Mayweather, who watched him dismantle Adrien Broner on Saturday at the MGM Grand Garden from a front-row ringside seat.

“I only want to continue to fight the best,” Pacquiao said. “If Floyd can no longer fight at my level, then of course he should stay retired.”

In the locker room following the fight, Pacquiao said “of course” he would be interested in a fight with Thurman if Thurman won and a Mayweather fight couldn’t be made.

“The reason I signed [with the Premier Boxing Champions] is to be able to get all of those fights for the fans,” Pacquiao said.

Thurman would be eager for the challenge if it presented itself. He’s become one of the smartest fighters in boxing and is a master at not only coming up with a sharp game plan, but also at making adjustments on the fly.

He said he spent a lot of time observing Mayweather and watching how he did things.

“Some of the greatest life lessons come from hands-on experience,” Thurman said. “But I’ve also learned from spectating. I learned a lot from Floyd Mayweather even though I never got to spar him and I never really sat down with him. I was at every single one of his fights at the end of his career minus the Conor McGregor fight, which I’m glad I missed and there was no need to attend. I saw him fight Robert Guerrero and [Andre] Berto and of course Canelo [Alvarez] and [Shane] Mosley, all of those fights in the last five or six years he had.

“And he fought opponents with a lot of different styles and different ways of doing things, and I was able to learn from how he reacted and adjusted and little things he would do to make things easier for himself. I also learned a lot from Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy and Chad Dawson and Antwun Echols, and I think what I saw from all of those guys was how to put the pieces of the puzzle together and not being stubborn about wanting to win in one way or one fashion.”

Thurman is one of the most compelling figures in the sport and it’s better for having him back in it.

If he was focused solely on being a crowd favorite, he could easily emulate Arturo Gatti and with his fast hands and punching power, would make big money and assemble a massive fan base.

But he has evolved from a guy who simply tried to overpower and outgun his opponent into one who can win in just about every way there is to win.

“When I was a teenager, I was strictly a power puncher and Mike Tyson was my favorite fighter,” Thurman said. “But as I developed and I began to watch the fights more seriously and looked into Muhammad Ali and watched Mike Tyson lose, what I realized was to be great, you have to be more than one-dimensional, and that’s the kind of fighter I’ve strived to be. Yes, I’m a puncher, but I’m also a boxer. I can fight you from many different dimensions. I can fight from the inside. I can fight from the outside.

“I can fight if I’m only throwing 10 punches a round and I can fight you if I’m trying to throw 100 punches a round. I love diversity and the more I’ve grown in the sport of boxing I’ve come to believe that diversity is a key to not just being a champion but to becoming a champion who is going to be difficult to beat.”

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