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Clearwater boxer Thurman takes next big step

You have to start somewhere, and for Keith Thurman, that's as the WBO's NABO light middleweight champion.

Never heard of it? It doesn't matter.

On his way to bigger and better things, Winky Wright's first title was the NABF light middleweight championship.

The first pro belt Jeff Lacy put around his waist was the WBC Continental Americas super middleweight title.

And Antonio Tarver won the NABF and USBA light heavyweight straps on the same night.

Those titles became mere footnotes as the trio of Tampa Bay fighters became well-recognized world champions.

For Clearwater's Thurman, his first professional belt could become much the same.

"It's not a world championship belt," the 24-year-old said of his North American Boxing Organization title at 154 pounds, "and it was for a 10-round fight. But it shows that you're one step closer to being that world champion."

Thurman, undefeated at 19-0 with 18 knockouts, takes another big step tonight when he takes on tough Slovenian Jan Zaveck at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

The fight will air live on HBO; the broadcast begins at 9:30.

The winner gets something better than a belt — status as the mandatory challenger for World Boxing Organization welterweight champion Tim Bradley.

Bradley is defending his title for the third time next week against Rulsan Provodnikov.

In the aftermath of his two most recent fights, Thurman has called out just about every fighter in the game — after beating Carlos Quintana in November he called out "the whole world of boxing" — but he and his management team appear to be focusing on Bradley, who is coming off a victory over Manny Pacquiao.

Thurman, whose only ranking is No. 4 by the World Boxing Association, would be willing to come back to Brooklyn should he win to fight WBA champ and hometown boy Paulie Maglinaggi as well.

"I will be surprised, as long as all goes as planned and we keep racking up these KO victories, if I do not get my title shot by the end of the year," Thurman said. "It should happen. In the world of boxing, you really never know what's going to happen. But they're going to have to deal with me sooner or later."

Dealing with Zaveck should be Thurman's toughest test to date.

While he looked impressive in dropping Quintana in the first round with a left to the body, then finishing the former champion off in four rounds, Thurman has yet to be in a difficult struggle some feel Zaveck (32-2, 18 knockouts) will provide.

Thurman said he is prepared for anything.

"I do not see myself as a 100 percent complete fighter," he said. "In camp, we (he and St. Petersburg trainer Dan Birmingham) normally focus on what I believe will be necessary to win the fight. We're just trying to get the knife as sharp as we can."

Zaveck, the former International Boxing Federation champ, lost his title in a 2011 fight against Andre Berto when the bout, on its way to being a fight of the year contender, was stopped because Zaveck's right eye was punched shut. But Berto took a lot of damage from Zaveck.

"I watched him on tape, and I saw that, yes, he's a skillful fighter, but when he's in with anyone with any power, he will back up," Thurman said. "I plan on taking it straight to him to show everybody I'm confident in the ring."

Thurman is coming off of a defining performance. He showed power quickly in dropping Quintana with a body shot, but he also showed the patience and restraint of a veteran in getting his opponent out of the ring. Thurman stayed on top of him, did not allow him time to recover and did not throw any wild punches in eventually finishing him.

Quintana, who admitted beforehand he was looking past Thurman to bigger fights, retired after the loss.

That victory helped silence some critics, who still question Thurman over the quality of his opposition and the speedy route up the HBO ladder his manager, Al Haymon, has arranged for him.

Now he plans on trading his current belt for a shot at one that says world champion on it.

"I was real proud of that performance, because of the critics," Thurman said. "I got a name, and I got a belt."

John C. Cotey can be reached at cotey@tampabay.com or on Twitter @JohnnyHomeTeam.

. FAST FACTS

'World Championship Boxing'

When: 9:30 tonight

Where: Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Who: Clearwater's Keith Thurman (19-0, 18 knockouts) fights Slovenian Jan Zaveck (32-2, 18 KOs) on the undercard of the IBF light heavyweight title fight between Bernard Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 KOs) and champion Tavoris Cloud (24-0, 19 KOs).

About the bout: Thurman's fight with Zaveck is a WBO welterweight title eliminator, with the winner earning mandatory status for champion Timothy Bradley. Thurman is coming off his most impressive win, a fourth-round TKO over veteran Carlos Quintana. Hopkins, who is 48, is trying to break his own record for oldest fighter to win a world title. Hopkins was 46 when he beat Jean Pascal in 2011.

Clearwater boxer Thurman takes next big step 03/08/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 10:26pm]

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