Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Pacquiao-Thurman: Keys to the Fight

One of the most exciting matchups in the welterweight division takes place on Saturday between boxing legend Manny Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs) and undefeated titleholder Keith Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Thurman has spent half-a-decade looking forward to his first mega-fight. And although he was out of the ring for 22 months before returning in January, he now has the signature opportunity of his career. Pacquiao at 40 continues to soldier on. While he no longer has the electrifying movement of his halcyon days, his dominant victory over Adrien Broner earlier this year indicated that he still is one of the best welterweights in the world.  

Thurman's status has suffered over the past few years. Once one of boxing's ascendant young stars; injuries, inactivity and questions about his commitment to the sport have dulled some of his earlier shine. In addition, Thurman's ring identity has changed, transforming from a fan-friendly seek-and-destroy fighter to now one who relies on boxing skills and movement. His victories over Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia attest to his talent, but perhaps his fighting style didn't curry favor with a portion of boxing fans. Nevertheless, Thurman has drawn solid TV ratings wherever he has boxed and has sold a fair amount of tickets when matched competitively. 

Photo Courtesy of Premier Boxing Champions

Pacquiao, a senator in the Philippines, remains a national hero, but has also seen his reputation wax and wane among boxing fans over the last half-dozen years. The lofty heights of his prime were long ago and his listless performance against Floyd Mayweather in 2015 and a loss (although certainly debatable) to the unheralded Jeff Horn in 2017 confirmed the end of his best years. Like Thurman, many corners of the boxing world have at times questioned his commitment to the sport.

Regardless of past criticisms, boxing fans have embraced Pacquiao-Thurman.  Both are coming off of wins and stylistically this fight presents an almost even matchup on paper (Thurman started off as a slight favorite with the bookies, but now he's the small betting underdog.) So what will it be? Will Pacquiao’s big-fight experience and punch accuracy be enough to put him over the top? Will Thurman's edges in athleticism and punch volume lead to victory? Below will be the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article. 

1. Will the Pacquiao and Thurman from earlier this year be the Pacquiao and Thurman in the ring on Saturday? 

It's no secret that Keith Thurman was in significant trouble against Josesito Lopez in January. After building a big lead early in the fight, which included an impressive knockdown, Thurman had to survive some harrowing moments in the second half of the fight. At multiple points, especially in the ninth, he seemed a shot or two away from getting knocked out. In the end he won via a majority decision. 

There's a glass half-full and a glass half-empty way to interpret his performance. On the positive side, he remained on his feet and even rallied to have a decent 12th round. His resilience demonstrated tremendous character and intestinal fortitude. However, Lopez, as rugged as he is, would never be described as an A-list talent in the sport. If Thurman can't avoid Lopez's big shots, how will he do against an opponent with even better power and more accuracy? After the Lopez bout, Thurman admitted that he had ring rust and vowed that he would be better in his next fight. But will Thurman improve from his January performance or, after a long time out of the ring, has he forever lost the reflexes and sharpness of his youth? 

As for Pacquiao, he looked fantastic in defeating Broner earlier this year, hurting him a number of times and pulling away with a wide unanimous decision. Pacquiao still employed a number of clever angles to land his power punches and utilized his sometimes-forgotten right hook as a weapon. But let's also not tell tall tales. Broner barely let his hands go and refused to engage throughout large portions of the fight. In the end, he tried to survive and he proved to be a compliant "opponent." But against a determined foe who is there to win, will Pacquiao have the same level of dominance? It's unlikely, but he only needs to get the better of seven rounds to win the fight. 

2. Pacquiao can't fall behind early. 

Keith Thurman is a rhythm and confidence fighter. When in "boxer" mode, he can comfortably win rounds with quick shots and a lot of movement. Although he doesn't sit down on his punches like he did earlier in his career, he still features enough sizzle with his straight right hand, left hook and right uppercut to impress judges. In addition, his jab has become a real weapon. 

As Pacquiao has aged, he no longer fights with the frenetic pace of his youth. His offense is now more measured. But he needs to match Thurman's intensity in the early rounds because there's another thing that Pacquiao has seemingly lost in his advancing years: knockout power. If Pacquiao is down significantly at the half-way point of the fight, the rest of the bout could wind up being academic; he's only had one knockout in his last 15 fights. Now of course this is boxing and anything can happen, but Pacquiao can't assume that the knockout will come. He must contest the early rounds. He needs to disrupt Thurman's confidence and ensure that the fight remains close going into the back half of the match, where his composure, pacing and experience should come in handy. 

3. Thurman needs to limit prolonged exchanges.

Although Thurman has considerable hand speed and power, he has gotten himself into trouble throughout his career during prolonged exchanges. Fighters as diverse as Jesus Soto Karass, Diego Chaves, Robert Guerrero, Danny Garcia and Josesito Lopez have hurt him during these exchanges. Whether it's Thurman's lack of respect for his opponents, falling in love with his power, or a combination of both, he provides opportunities for his opponents to land their best shots. 

Thurman must respect Pacquiao’s ability to counter, specifically his straight left hand and right hook. Hitting-and-running will be his best way forward to avoiding big shots and piling up points. The less he engages in a war, or even prolonged skirmishes, the safer he will be and the likelier that he will win the fight.  

4. What happens when Thurman gets hurt? 

Thurman displayed some troubling signs in his last fight against Lopez. It's not just that he got tagged, but it's how he reacted after getting hurt. He didn't tie up and instead often backed straight up, allowing Lopez to follow him with additional big shots. He spent too much time languishing on the ropes. Yet there were other points where he literally ran around the ring burning off tons of energy. That Thurman was able to survive is beside the point. What happens if he gets hurt in the third round? He can't run around the ring for nine rounds and expect to win the fight. 

Some of these, frankly, amateurish habits were concerning from a veteran fighter like Thurman. When hurt he layered bad choices on top of bad choices. He needed to tie up, to break Lopez's momentum, but in the moment of truth, he exacerbated a bad situation.

Photo Courtesy of Premier Boxing Champions

As noted earlier, Pacquiao is no longer the wrecking machine of yesteryear, but he certainly possesses enough power to hurt opponents. In the latter stages of his career he's been content to cause damage, and then let the rest of the fight play out, but I'm not sure if he has that luxury against Thurman. Yes, wounded prey can be dangerous, and chasing after a hurt Thurman does involve risk, but there are no guarantees that Pacquiao will have multiple bites at the apples against a weakened foe. It's certainly possible that Thurman can catch a second wind and continue to box-and-move his way to a win. Pacquiao has to attack a wounded Thurman with urgency.

5. Fresh legs vs. veteran savvy. 

Thurman has a nine-year age advantage over Pacquiao and is the fighter with the superior foot speed. Even after he was out of the ring for nearly two years, he displayed a great motor. And if Thurman is determined to stink out a win via running, I'm not sure that there's much Manny can do about it at this stage of his career. Fortunately for Pacquiao, Thurman remains a fighter caught in between styles. Part of Thurman wants to entertain, while the other realizes what he needs to do to win. 

Pacquiao’s main advantage in this fight will be his big-fight experience. He understands the grueling nature of a 12-round clash against top opposition. He has significant advantages in poise and pacing. There will be points where Thurman will stop running around the ring. Thurman will allow Pacquiao into the fight during a mano-a-mano fight sequence. And Pacquiao has the experience to take advantage of these opportunities. 40-year-olds shouldn't be able to compete with among the best in a division, especially at welterweight, but Pacquiao is a historic exception. Although his athleticism might have atrophied to a degree, his exceptional boxing craft and Ring IQ remain. He probably has forgotten more about boxing than Thurman will ever know. Of course, knowledge and the physical application of that knowledge are two different notions entirely. 


As I said on my recent podcast, I think that the fight will be Thurman's to lose, but he very well could lose it. Thurman's athleticism and willingness to box in an unpleasing style will be big assets. With that said, he will deviate from his game plan at some point. Either due to machismo or overconfidence, he will stand in the pocket a little too long and Manny will hit him with a counter shot that will rock his world. At that point all bets are off. 

I think that the fight will ultimately be decided by when (not if) Pacquiao hurts Thurman. If it's early in the bout, Pacquiao can step on the gas and continue to do damage. But if it's in the back half, it may be too late for Pacquiao to take it on the cards. It will be essential for Thurman to stay with the game plan and limit exchanges – the less that he freelances the better off he will be. When the final scores are tabulated, I think that Thurman will have garnered just enough rounds on the cards to win a decision, but I expect Pacquiao to have the better moments in the fight. On a round-by-round basis, Thurman will squeak by, but Pacquiao will be what we remember after the weekend. 

Keith Thurman defeats Manny Pacquiao by unanimous decision...and the crowd boos. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

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