Hauser Report – The June 25 fight card at Barclays Center in Brooklyn featured WBA welterweight champion Keith Thurman (Florida) versus challenger Shawn Porter (Ohio) in a battle of fighters from swing states that may well decide the 2016 presidential election. Politics aside, it was everything that a fight should be.
When Thurman dials back the hype, he comes across as thoughtful and intelligent. There’s the glib Keith Thurman and the deeper, more introspective persona.
Trainer Dan Birmingham says, “I’ve known Keith since he was kid. He started coming to the gym when he was eleven years old. I’ve been working with him since he was fifteen and I still don’t really know him. He’s very opinionated. He has an opinion about everything. And he reminds me of a hippie from The Sixties. Outside the ring, Keith is all peace and love. He’s a giver. He plays the flute, guitar, and a little piano. He would have done well at Woodstock. But when the bell rings, he’ll rip your head off.”
To that, Thurman adds, “I want to make it difficult for the writers to put me in a box and say, ‘Keith Thurman is this’ or ‘Keith Thurman is that.’”
Three years ago, at age 24, Thurman knocked out Diego Chavez and was acclaimed as one of boxing’s rising stars. He entered the ring to face Porter with a 26-and-0 (22 KOs) ledger. But some of the air had gone out of his balloon since the Chavez fight, largely because Keith had gone in relatively soft since then.
Thurman is a smart fighter with good power. Sound-bites roll off his tongue. “The number one rule in boxing,” he says, “is protect yourself at all times. When I don’t produce a knockout, it’s not my bad. It’s the other fighter’s good.” But lest one worry about a lack of action, Thurman also opines, “If two men are fighting, someone should end up getting hurt.”
Thurman-Porter was the first fight on CBS in prime time since the initial meeting betweeen Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks in 1978.
Porter, age 28, is trained by his father, Kenny Porter. Prior to facing Thurman, Shawn’s record stood at 26-1-1 with 16 knockouts. There were victories over Adrien Broner and a badly faded Paulie Malignaggi on his resume and also a loss by majority decision to Kell Brook.
Both Thurman and Porter were coming in after long periods of inactivity. Keith hadn’t fought since July 11, 2015, when he stopped Luis Collazo in seven rounds. Shawn had last entered the ring on June 20, 2015, when he decisioned Broner.
The promotion was refreshingly free of the ugly posturing and name-calling that passes these days for “marketing” in boxing. Thurman and Porter have known each other since their time as decorated amateurs. They’ve sparred and socialized together, and evinced mutual respect throughout the build-up to the fight.
Thurman was the more voluble:
* “I got lots of love and respect for Shawn. I’m happy for my success, and I’m happy for Shawn’s success. But on June 25th, my friend is about to become my enemy.”
* “When Shawn Porter was in my camp, we spent a lot of time together. He got to meet my mother. I know his father. It’s a very fun process to have a rival be so personal, somebody that you really know, somebody that you’ve been cheering for. June 25th is the only day that I’m not allowed to cheer for Shawn Porter.”
* “There really is nothing awkward in it. If anything, there’s a very very cool factor. To be really honest, there’s an extremely just super-cool factor that I remember this dude when he was a teenager. He remembers me when I was a teenager.”
* “We know each other very well. [But] we’ve never seen each other under the bright lights. Fight night is a different kind of night. He’s in the way of my dreams. I’m in the way of his dreams.”
Porter responded in kind, saying, “You see the respect. But I want to prove to ourselves and to everyone out there in the world that I’m better than Keith. And I know he has that same mindset. I’m coming for his head. It doesn’t matter that we’re friends. And I know at the end of the day it doesn’t matter to him. We both have families to take care of. We both have legacies to build, careers to continue, and goals to reach. To anybody that’s wondering if we’re too friendly with one another to take one another out; no, we’re not.”
Thurman was an early 3-to-2 betting favorite. But as fight night neared, the odds moved closer to 2-to-1. The general feeling was that the bout would reveal more about Thurman than it would about Porter (whose strengths and weaknesses as a fighter had been more clearly defined by earlier fights).
When the bell for round one rang, Thurman-Porter quickly evolved into a classic bull-versus-matador encounter.
Porter likes to apply constant pressure and outwork opponents with an aggressive mauling attack. As Paulie Malignaggi observed, “Shawn fights like a linebacker. Most guys punch their way in. He looks for physical contact first and then he throws punches.”
Meanwhile, Thurman thinks of himself as a cerebral fighter. In words that could have been taken from The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, Keith says, “If people want to move forward [engage], I’ll move backwards. If they want to move backwards, I move forward. I go with the flow. I do what I think is necessary to win. The key to victory is to not let your opponent have his way. I like to stay open-minded and see what presents itself in the fight. The game plan is victory.”
But Porter made victory difficult. He came in low throughout the night, leading sometimes with his head and shoulders, scoring off of bullrushes, hitting arms, hips, and anything else his fists could find. His best work came when he pinned Thurman against the ropes and unleashed a torrential two-fisted body attack.
Thurman’s plan had been to jab and pick his shots against Porter’s bullrushes.
“Keith will control the rushes with his jab,” Dan Birmingham had said. “Or time him and take his head off with a right hand when Shawn rushes in.”
But Thurman didn’t jab as often or effectively as Birmingham had hoped for. Instead, he fought fight fire with fire; sometimes because he wanted to and other times because Porter gave him no choice.
There was spirited back-and-forth action throughout the battle. When Thurman was able to dictate the distance between Porter and himself, he landed the sharper, more effective punches. Shawn kept coming forward, throwing from all angles. But it wasn’t always effective aggression.
Referee Steve Willis did a good job of letting the fighters fight. Porter was cut by the outside corner of his left eye in round four. Thurman suffered a gash beneath his left eyebrow in round nine (the first time in his career that Keith had been cut).
Thurman wobbled Porter on several occasions with sharp hard counterpunches but was noticeably hurt by a hook to the body in round eight.
Both men dug deep. It was a difficult fight to score. Thurman prevailed by a 115-113, 115-113, 115-113 margin. The judges agreed that Keith won rounds one, four, eight, and eleven, while giving a unanimous nod to Porter in the second and seventh stanzas. That left six rounds up for grabs, which they divided evenly between the fighters.
The CompuBox statistics reflected the even nature of the battle, with Thurman being credited for landing 235 of 539 punches and Porter 236 of 662.
“This is what we live for,” Keith said afterward. “This is what it was advertised to be. He weathered the storm. I weathered his storm. It was a great fight.”
As for why he got the decision, Thurman observed, “Shawn did what he’s good at. He brings it. But he brings it in a fashion that’s not fully effective. It’s seven rounds for victory. I might have dropped out of high school, but I know how to count. And math was my favorite subject.”
As for what comes next; the first point to make is that Thurman-Porter was an important fight for reasons that go beyond who won and lost. Both men are Premier Boxing Champions fighters. And PBC has been struggling.
The April 30, 2016 PBC card on Fox headlined by Andre Berto vs. Victor Ortiz attracted 1.6 million viewers, a 22 percent decline from the January 23, 2016, Danny Garcia vs. Robert Guerrero show on Fox that averaged 2.1 million viewers.
PBC’s April 29, 2016, card on Spike featuring Andre and Anthony Dirrell in separate bouts averaged 513,000 viewers (26 percent less than the 693,000 viewers that Spike’s earlier 2016 telecasts averaged).
Worse, PBC’s June 18, 2016, card on NBC featuring Andrzej Fonfara vs. Joe Smith in prime time had an 0.8 overnight rating. That was down 20 percent and 39 percent from NBC’s two most recent PBC telecasts prior to that (1.0 in April 2016 and 1.3 in December 2015). As reported by Dan Rafael of ESPN.com, “The 0.8 is the lowest for a prime-time PBC card on network television (there have been nine telecasts between NBC and Fox since PBC debuted in March 2015). According to Sports Media Watch, the 0.8 is one of the lowest metered market ratings ever for a sporting event on prime-time network television. Every NBC prime-time PBC telecast has had a worse rating than the one before it.”
Indeed, the PBC brand has been so diminished that Thurman-Porter was branded as “Showtime Championship Boxing on CBS” rather than a PBC fight.
What happens next will be instructive.
Thurman-Porter was what Premier Boxing Champions should have given the public from the start. It was the kind of fight that boxing fans expected on a regular basis when PBC was born.
The 147-pound division is boxing’s deepest. Even with Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao on leave, Thurman, Porter, Kell Brook, Danny Garcia, Errol Spence, and Tim Bradley are in the mix. Terence Crawford, Amir Khan, and Adrien Broner would be welcome additions to the fold.
Thurman has said that he wants to fight Garcia next. At the post-fight press conference after beating Porter, Keith proclaimed, “Danny Garcia, undefeated. If you loved this one, you gotta love that set-up.”
That was consistent with Thurman’s earlier statement, “I have an ‘O’ and I’m not afraid to let it go. If you can beat me, beat me.”
Meanwhile, David Avanesyan is the WBA’s “interim welterweight champion” and the “mandatory challenger” for Thurman’s belt by virtue of a desultory 12-round decision over a long-past-his-prime Shane Mosley.
One year ago, the assumption was that PBC wouldn’t need phony belts in 2016 to prop up its champions.
So what will Al Haymon (who controls PBC) do next? Keith Thurman has the potential to be a break-out star. Will PBC backslide and match him in an unappealing defense against Avanesyan? Or will it build on the excitement generated by Thurman-Porter and give sports fans another fight that we care about?
Thurman wants the big fight. Speaking of the legacy he hopes to build, he says, “Legacy is a process. You gotta ride the train. Mayweather didn’t become Mayweather overnight. It’s not one fight. It’s the continuation of fighting at this level and coming out on top.”
And he has cautioned the media, “Claiming the best is cool. There’s nothing wrong with finding the best. But to get the best is going to take a little bit more time. It’s not even going to happen this year. Mayweather was at the top for over a decade, and you want somebody to replace him. But you need to really see who’s going to be the top dog for the next three to five years. Then you got a king. I look forward to the journey and the process.”
Thurman is a very good fighter. He has not yet shown that he’s great. It would be a shame for Keith and for boxing if he were denied the opportunity to find out if he’s great.
And one thing more . . .
I don’t know how many times this has to be written before the powers that be get the point.
A fight that looks good on paper (which Thurman-Porter did) is more likely to be a good fight than one that shapes up as mediocre to begin with. Most of the fans who were enthralled by Thurman-Porter had no idea which belt was at stake, nor did they care. They didn’t want to see world sanctioning body officials in the ring. They didn’t want anything to “marinate.” They wanted to see a good fight.
It’s not rocket science. Televise good fights and people will watch them.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (Muhammad Ali: a Tribute to the Greatest) has been published by Pegasus Books in the United States and by HarperUK in Great Britain.