Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Keith Thurman: Buy or Sell?

It's no secret that many boxing fans have latched onto Keith Thurman over the last few years. The undefeated welterweight from Florida features a dazzling knockout percentage (81%), exuberance in spades, the desire for greatness and a refreshing honesty in interviews. At 26, Thurman has become one of the jewels of manager Al Haymon's stable. He's on the precipice of becoming a major star in boxing. However, there may be a serious problem: has he plateaued? 

Although Thurman has been elevated to a "full" champion at 147 lbs. by one of the sanctioning bodies, in truth, he hasn't faced the best in the division. Mayweather, Pacquiao, Bradley, Brook and Porter have all proven themselves against better opponents (Amir Khan has faced a similar level of fighter that Thurman has at the weight). Even though Thurman has plied his trade against only the "B-level" at welterweight, he has been stunned numerous times in the ring. Diego Chaves hurt him early in their fight, Jesus Soto Karass rocked him in the first round and on Saturday, Luis Collazo almost knocked him down with a body shot in the fifth round. Although Soto Karass and Chaves are solid-enough punchers, Collazo is no one's definition of a heavy hitter. Certainly, any fighter if hit with the right shot could get dazed or stunned, but Thurman has yet to face a top puncher in the division. This is a cause for concern. 

In another notable trend, Thurman's true "one-punch" power – his nickname is "One Time" – seems to have deserted him as his competition has improved. He's had only one true knockout in his last five fights (two fighters also refused to answer the bell between rounds). In part, this development can be attributed to a stylistic change. Instead of winging power shots with reckless abandon on offense, Thurman is now more reliant on his boxing skills and athleticism. In addition, he seems less inclined to take risks in the ring. He was content against Leonard Bundu and Collazo to circle the ring, box at moments and limit prolonged exchanges. 

However, there are many positives to take from Thurman's development as a fighter. Working with Dan Birmingham, a truly excellent trainer, Thurman has shown a willingness to learn and he has made several technical improvements since his HBO debut in 2012. His footwork and balance have become plusses. He is now far less out-of-position when he throws power shots. Correspondingly, he leaves fewer opportunities to be countered. His right hand has become more compact and he no longer telegraphs the shot. In addition, he has worked on making his jab a real weapon. He also protects his chin much better. These advances are not insignificant. 

But, fans initially fell in love with a crude and fearless slugger, a guy who would take a big shot to land one. Thurman craved knockouts. Now, he seems satisfied with wins of any stripe. Sure, he would like to impress but these days he fights similarly to a favorite would in the early rounds of the NCAA college basketball tournament, "Survive and Advance." Big fights can only come for Thurman if he keeps winning. In Haymon's crowded welterweight stable, a bad loss could stall his momentum for a prolonged period. Maybe Thurman is just executing a smart business strategy as he waits for larger opportunities but what endeared him to boxing fans was that he understood what they wanted; power and vicious stoppages. Boxing fans have seen enough businessmen take over the sport in recent years; they hoped that Thurman was cut from a more entertaining cloth. In his current iteration, Thurman isn't growing his fan base. 

Now, much of the romanticism surrounding his potential is gone. He no longer seems to be a force of nature. Thurman's already proven to be vulnerable in the ring against limited fighters. His opting for caution and intelligence in the ring has deprived fans of seeing the type of devil-may-care attitude that led to his initial support. 

The jury is still out. Since Saturday's fight with Collazo, I've had to recalibrate my opinion on Thurman. I once believed that with his power that he could be a threat to any welterweight in boxing. However, I'm not sure if that version of Thurman still exists. A true knockout puncher needs to stay in the pocket long enough to trade bombs. He has to trust his chin and take the necessary risks to land the big shot. In short, it's possible that Thurman's temperament has changed. And certainly, Thurman's propensity to get hurt could come into play against a rugged body puncher like Porter or a sharpshooter like Brook.   

However, I remain a Thurman enthusiast for one important reason: his character. Certain fighters have intangibles that continually propel them to victory (Bradley is also an example). Thurman's lifestyle and conduct outside of the ring afford him every possible chance of performing at his best in the squared circle. He has never had problems making weight and he has stayed far away from the police blotter. That he has recovered from getting hurt speaks to his conditioning and determination. In addition, it takes a certain amount of humility for a young knockout artist to admit that he doesn't have all the answers and to come back to the ring with additional ones. Thurman's shown a willingness to learn and I believe that his desire to be great has placed him with an ideal mentor in Birmingham. 

For now, it's clear to me that Thurman is caught in between styles. He hopefully will consolidate his considerable offensive skills and meld his power, technique and athleticism to become a consistent, high-level fighter. It's also possible that it never comes together for him. Thurman can be a very cerebral fighter and that attribute in overabundance can lead to hesitation and paralysis-by-analysis. In short, the clock hasn't fully clicked on for Thurman in the ring. He's still figuring out when to engage, when to box, when to go for the kill and how to do so without putting himself in unnecessary danger. 

Thurman won't have too many more fights in which to develop. He'll soon face a tough, world-class welterweight and the stakes will become exponentially higher for him. With a few top wins, he could emerge as one of the true stars of American boxing. However, this sport has also been littered with significant talents who fall short at the elite level.

The next 12 months of Thurman's career will be fascinating to watch as boxing fans will learn what his real ceiling is in the sport. I'm banking on Thurman's character and his desire to be great. His raw tools are there and he has a good team in place. However, it must be pointed out that intangibles aren't always set in stone either. If he understands that there is still a gap from his current form to elite status and that he needs to keep improving, then he will be in good shape to compete against the best at 147. However, if he starts to believe in his own headlines or if he gets a little too comfortable with his money, then all bets are off. Stay tuned. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter, SN Boxing on Facebook
Contact Adam at saturdaynightboxing@hotmail.com 

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