Elite: Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia Fight for Respect, Legitimacy and Buzz

28 Feb Elite: Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia Fight for Respect, Legitimacy and Buzz

Elite: Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia Fight for Respect, Legitimacy and Buzz

The Matchup:
March 3rd, 2017. Keith “One Time” Thurman of Clearwater, Florida and Danny “Swift” Garcia of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania will meet at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York to unify the WBA and WBC welterweight titles. But in reality, these two pugilists are fighting for much more than belts or titles. In the case of both men they are fighting to regain lost career momentum, and that hard to quantify “buzz factor” amongst boxing fans.

For Danny Garcia, few young champions could claim the respect and legitimacy he had earned after his victory over Lucas Matthysse in 2013. Matthysse was the unquestioned boogeyman of the 140-pound division and a heavy betting favorite over Garcia. Some even suggested that Garcia was afraid of Matthysse. In beating the Argentinean powerhouse, Garcia had proven his championship pedigree and willingness to fight anyone. But the tables turned for him almost overnight. Fights against Rod Salka, Mauricio Herrera, Paulie Malignaggi, and even Robert Guerrero were considered “cherry picks,” earning Garcia the nickname “Cherry Garcia.” To make matters worse, one of the cherries picked, Herrera, appeared to beat Garcia soundly, only to watch him get the decision. Many fans also thought he lost to Lamont Peterson despite getting the decision. The Garcia brand is definitely not what it was; the perception now is that he is kept away from tough opposition and protected on the scorecards. A fight with Thurman is an about gaining face for Team Garcia, as the dangerous and avoided “One Time” is no one’s “Cherry Pick.”

Keith Thurman’s situation is more subtle, but similar. Closing out 2014, Thurman was one of the most avoided fighters in boxing. His combination of speed, power, athletic ability and bad intentions had generated buzz in the boxing community and made him a boxer other fighters were not anxious to get in the ring with. He was, along with Gennady Golovkin and Sergey Kovalev, one of the most exiting fighters in boxing. In the intervening two years though, “One Time” has been less active than optimal and his knockout percentage has dropped off. He was impressive in dropping and beating up the rugged Robert Guerrero, but almost got dropped by a Luis Collazo body shot before winning via unspectacular TKO. His only fight in 2016 was a thriller with Shawn Porter, but the expectation from Thurman was for a more dominant performance against the determined but crude Porter. Inactivity and less-impressive performances have stalled “One-Time’s” career momentum. To further exacerbate the situation, another fighter, Errol Spence Jr., picked up Thurman’s buzz and ran away with it, fostering the impression that Keith Thurman was last week’s news. A fight with the undefeated Danny Garcia, on network television, is a high-profile opportunity for Thurman to re-impress the boxing world and sporting public against a big-name opponent.

Both men, for their own reasons, will be looking to get it all back–buzz, respect, legitimacy–in one night. It is a really good match-up, the kind that excites boxing fans, both hardcore and casual. The kind that interests casual sports fans watching on network (free) TV. When it is over, the winner will very likely be considered an elite level prizefighter. Upper echelon. And the loser confirmed as being at least a level below that.

The Breakdown:
On paper, Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia are very similar fighters. Both are undefeated, Thurman at 27-0-0, 22 KOs, and Garcia at 33-0-0, 19KOs. Thurman holds the higher KO percentage at 79% compared to Garcia’s 58%. This seems accurate, as Thurman is, out of the two, the more pure power puncher. The tale of the tape is a mirror image. Both men stand 5’9″ with a 69-inch reach. Depending on the source, Garcia may be a half inch shorter in both departments, but still, nearly identical. Thurman, however, is the slightly bigger guy. “One Time” has fought his entire career as a welterweight, and even competed at junior middleweight. Thurman is a big welterweight for whom making the 147-pound weight limit requires planning and discipline. Danny Garcia fought at 140 pounds for the bulk of his career, and has only recently grown into a full-fledged welterweight. Garcia, though, had for years been having great difficulty trimming down to the junior welterweight limit, and appears very comfortable at 147. Given their similarity in stature, the size difference in favor of Thurman should be a small one.

Stylistically there are similarities as well. Garcia and Thurman are both, technically, boxer/punchers. A closer look would reveal that Garcia is more of a stalking puncher/boxer and Thurman more of a pot-shotter, boxer/pure puncher. Both men are capable of throwing power punches in combination. Thurman does it with greater frequency, while Garcia relies more on the big single counter-shot landed during an exchange. Usually the left hook, but his right hand is potent too. Both men have good jabs, but neither relies on it as a centerpiece of his attack. In contrast, Thurman is an exceptionally athletically-gifted fighter. He is quicker, more agile than Garcia, and moves better on much faster feet. Thurman is the harder puncher and probably physically stronger. Keith Thurman, from the standpoint of raw physical ability, may be the most athletically-gifted in boxing. Garcia is more of a “lunch-pail” fighter. A “bricklayer.” Blue collar in style, not fancy. The late, great Emanuel Steward described Garcia on one HBO broadcast as an “all-a-rounder.” A throwback fighter. Not outstanding in any one area, but competent in all, and with a good chin. It was a compliment, and a good description of Danny Garcia. An excellent puncher, but not huge. A competent but not pure boxer. Solid chin, very durable. Good intangibles.

If Thurman has an edge in athleticism, Garcia has one in quality of competition. Keith Thurman has a decent resume, but there is no doubt that Danny Garcia has faced more top-shelf opposition: Erik Morales, Lucas Matthysse, Amir Khan, Lamont Peterson and Zab Judah. Mitigating this edge slightly is the fact that these opponents were not welterweights, and two (Morales and Judah) were very far past their primes. In the case of Barrera, in addition to being at the end of the line, he fought Garcia three weight classes above his best weight (featherweight). Thurman will be the biggest, hardest punching, good fighter Garcia has ever faced. “One Time” has more experience against welterweights. Of course the direct comparison of common opponents doesn’t mean much, but for what it’s worth, Thurman was much more dominant physically, and impressive, against Robert Guerrero, whom they both fought, than Garcia.

Neither man, at this stage, is a perfect fighting machine. They are made up of strengths and weaknesses. Both have exceptionally good timing and are naturally able counter-punchers. Thurman is quick reflexively, and an extremely powerful puncher. If anything, his punching power is underrated. Garcia is himself a strong puncher, capable of sleep-inducing power shots. Garcia has shown the ability to keep his composure under heavy fire (Khan and Matthysse) and long odds. In terms of shortcomings, Thurman sometimes fights like a pitcher with a great fastball but no sinker, slider or change-up. Everything he throws is a fastball. Sometimes he neglects to mix-up the speed and power of his punches, making himself more predictable. Thurman is a good feinter, but often doesn’t bother. “One Time” has been hurt to the body in at least one recent fight (Collazo). Shawn Porter may have bothered him a little with a body shot too. Although one could argue that the Collazo punch that hurt Thurman would have dropped most fighters since Luis Collazo has proven dangerous many times, it has to be assumed that Thurman may be vulnerable to the body until proven otherwise. As for Garcia, his biggest shortcoming as a boxer is that he is very slow for a world class, elite level welterweight. Particularly of foot. Danny Garcia has consistently struggled with slick, mobile boxers–slow footedness is the biggest reason why.

Intangibles? A slight edge for Garcia. He’s been the underdog in a big fight against a highly dangerous opponent before (Matthysse), and turned in a career-defining performance. Corner? Keith Thurman has the advantage in this department. At times against Shawn Porter, Thurman-trainer Dan Birmingham gave “One Time” contradictory advice, but overall he is a good corner man, and he and Thurman work well together. Besides, anyone would be better than Angel Garcia. Heart? Desire? Both men have shown plenty of that. A wash.

The Stakes:
Obviously, the Keith Thurman/Danny Garcia welterweight championship fight is a title unification match. The winner will be able to claim two of the big belts, WBA and WBC, in addition to having a strong claim as the top man in the welterweight class. In a larger sense, or in a world without sanctioning bodies, there is a three-man conversation, involving Thurman, Kell Brook and Earl Spence Jr., over which one is the top man in the division. Danny Garcia, a former junior welterweight champion, is generally considered just outside of this top tier, and is fighting Thurman in an effort to force his way into the debate. The winner of Thurman/Garcia will, for a brief moment, probably have the best claim to welterweight supremacy, but Brook and Spence Jr. are scheduled to fight on May 20th in England. The winners of Thurman/Garcia and Brook/Spence Jr. will have to fight each other to really crown a king.

Heading into this contest, the expectations game for “One Time” and “Swift” will be very different. Thurman is justifiably the favorite. In order for him to elevate his status and cement the respect of fight fans, he needs to be impressive. The best outcome would be an eye-popping, highlight-reel blowout, complete with an Angel Garcia nervous-breakdown moment. Probably not likely, but a dominating, impressive win would do the trick. For Keith Thurman, eking out a tight victory in a close fight would almost certainly equal a loss in the expectations game for a fighter trying to re-establish the “buzz” he had a few years ago. Danny Garcia just needs to win. Period. Garcia, unlike Thurman, cannot lose by winning. Close, nip-and-tuck, come-from-behind–doesn’t matter. A legitimate victory of any kind over Keith Thurman would be the cherry (there’s that word again) on top of Garcia’s cake. A career moment that would re-establish, for him, the momentum and fan respect he had after beating Lucas Matthysse. The worst outcome for Garcia would be to lose the fight but receive the decision. He would be Danny “Gift” Garcia for the rest of his career and beyond.

While losing wouldn’t be desirable for either man, it would be more devastating for Keith Thurman. Garcia could lose, perform admirably, make it close and gain respect. For Thurman it’s likely that a loss would leave him permanently diminished, prevent him from ever regaining the buzz, or being considered truly elite again. Even if he were to win another belt he’d be seen as a bit of an “also ran.”

Questions and Answers:
Is Keith Thurman currently underrated? Or was he overrated? That may be the most pressing unknown. Before his bout with Leonard Bundu, in which he fought an inexplicably cautious fight that allowed Bundu to last the full twelve, Thurman was one of the most avoided fighters in boxing. The “Thurman Buzz” was palpable amongst boxing fans. The Bundu match was the beginning of his fall to Earth. He followed with an impressive victory over durable veteran Robert Guerrero, but Guerrero also went the distance. Then came Luis Collazo, who hurt Thurman with a massive body shot before deciding to quit on his stool a few rounds later. Following a period of inactivity, Thurman engaged in a fight-of-the-year-candidate war with Shawn Porter. “One Time” won the fight, but it was very close, and although he did stun Porter a few times, he never put him down. It could be argued that the Bundu fight was a learning experience, and Guerrero has a cement-head and never gets knocked out (Thurman did hurt him worse than anyone else). Collazo also doesn’t get knocked out, has a ton of experience, and is a proven dangerous puncher. (Ask Sammy Vargas about that.) Exposure to the Thurman power caused Collazo to call it an early night. Porter too is about as sturdy as a fire hydrant, and fought the fight of his life against Thurman, way over his head and a much more determined effort than he offered up in his loss to Kell Brook. The other hypothesis is that as Thurman has stepped up in competition, his power has become less dominant. The Garcia fight should provide an answer.

Can Danny Garcia handle Keith Thurman’s fastball? How will Garcia handle fighting someone who can box, move and also hit back with big-league punching power? Can Garcia, a slow starter, survive a quick start by Thurman? How about Garcia’s power? Will he be able to hurt Thurman? Consistently? Garcia was able to handle Lucas Matthysse’s power and quick start. Matthysse, in a single shot, may hit as hard as Thurman, but it is likely that “One Time” will catch Garcia more cleanly and with greater speed than Lucas. Will Thurman get careless and walk into a “no look” left hook? Can Garcia get to Thurman’s body, or will he leave himself open by trying? Will Garcia suddenly discover the ability to cut off the ring, or will Thurman’s movement frustrate and confuse him? Which fighter will commit to the jab in a serious way, if either?

What to Expect When You’re Expecting:
Expect an excellent fight. Do not expect it to be fought at the breakneck pace of Thurman/Porter, but it should offer a higher skill-level in exchange for sheer volume of action. Garcia may pursue, but he is a steady pursuer, not a frantic windmill like Porter. Expect Thurman to try to start fast, but also to box early. He’ll be on the lookout for Garcia’s left-hook counter. Garcia is likely to start slowly. He will look to avoid getting hit by anything really big ,early. He will want to get a feel for Thurman’s speed and power, his rhythm. To be successful against Thurman, he will need to land heavy, fight-changing counter-punches in exchanges. Punches that “One Time” doesn’t see coming. This will require timing. If Thurman is going to overwhelm Garcia with speed and power, we should see indications of that pretty early. Even if he is behind a few rounds on the cards, if Garcia is still standing and relatively uninjured after six, then he is right where he needs to be to make a late run. As for predictions, this writer is going to pass on that this time. On paper this should be a coming-out party for Thurman. An opportunity to be spectacular and impressive on national TV against a big-name opponent. However, there is something about Danny Garcia. He is rarely spectacular in doing it, but he wins. So far, always. He has that quality. Whoever wins, it should be a good night for the sport. The contest should draw a nice rating; both pugilists have been on network television before. The fight itself has a high chance of being entertaining. This is exactly the kind of boxing match that I really look forward to.

Michael Atkins
Michael Atkins