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Voices in ear and heart exhort Clearwater boxer Keith Thurman to continue climb

Clearwater welterweight Keith Thurman, above, is trained by Dan Birmingham now after the death of Ben Getty last year.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

Clearwater welterweight Keith Thurman, above, is trained by Dan Birmingham now after the death of Ben Getty last year.

The ponytail is longer, the beard thicker, the punches, well, the punches are the same.

Keith Thurman is still bringing it.

Jab. Jab. Hookhookhook. Uppercut.

Back off, move around.

Attack.

Jab. Jab. Hookhookhook. Uppercut.

The only thing missing is Ben Getty's bark, exhorting his fighter to throw harder, punch faster, move quicker.

"Come on, Keith," he'd say. And then, a little louder and with a little more bite, he'd say it again.

Getty, the Clearwater trainer who discovered Thurman when Thurman was 7 years old, passed away suddenly last year at 63. But you can still hear him, and when you look in the ring at Thurman doing all the things he taught him, you can still see him.

• • •

Dan Birmingham slides around the ring with Thurman, his mitts absorbing the young fighter's blows. Occasionally, Birmingham will flick a punch at Thurman, a Clearwater fighter who trains at the St. Pete Boxing Club. Thurman easily ducks each Birmingham punch and comes back with three of his own.

A two-time trainer of the year, Birmingham is best known for helping take Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy to world titles. The three of them put Tampa Bay boxing on the map, turning it into a fighting hotbed from 2000 to 2006.

But Wright, 38, appears unlikely to fight again. Lacy's future is unclear, and he is no longer trained by Birmingham. Both lost their world titles in 2006 for good.

In the gym where they trained for their finest moments, in the very same ring, Birmingham and Thurman slide from side to side.

It is the perfect union.

The trainer needs a fighter, the fighter needs a trainer.

• • •

Thurman, who fights Friday against 32-year-old Cuban Stalinn Lopez (7-0) at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif., is a few months from his 21st birthday and has been boxing for 14 years.

This is the first year without Getty, who always promised that his protege would one day be a world champion.

Thurman has not disappointed. He is 12-0 with 11 knockouts and is poised to enter the rankings at welterweight within the next year.

Managed by Shelly Finkel, he hopes to have a title shot lined up shortly thereafter.

Birmingham helped with Thurman for years, all the way back to his amateur days, offering his gym to Getty and his boxers for Thurman to spar with.

When Thurman turned pro in 2007, Birmingham assisted Getty, a longtime friend.

"I can remember when I was 14 years old, when I was in this gym working with Jeff and Winky and Chad Dawson. Ben was old then, and I knew in reality that one day he may be gone," Thurman said. "I said to myself back then, I don't see myself with any other trainer than Dan."

• • •

Thurman still leans on the lessons Getty taught him. He says he consciously reaches back when he needs to tap into that strength.

Birmingham, who is regarded as a defensive-minded trainer, is refining those lessons. While Getty reveled in Thurman's significant punching power and killer instinct, Birmingham is hoping to add a protective layer to Thurman.

"I want to have eyes like a shark, but also eyes like an eagle," Thurman said. "I want to be able to see things coming before they come, and when I can tell I have you bleeding or on the ropes, I want to be able to execute and finish the job."

Ultimately, Thurman and Birmingham hope they can team up to create a fighter with the defensive smartness and counter-punching style of Wright and the ferocity of aggressiveness of a young Lacy.

And maybe, give Tampa Bay another champion.

FAST FACTS

Thurman vs. Lopez

Who: Keith Thurman (12-0, 11 KOs) vs. Stalinn Lopez (7-0, three KOs)

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Pechanga Resort and Casino, Temecula, Calif.

TV: Telefutura

The skinny: Thurman ends an eight-month layoff in what is expected to be his toughest fight, an eight-round welterweight battle. Thurman hasn't fought since knocking out Leonardo Rojas in November. Lopez, 32, won a six-round decision over Marcus Willis in May at the DoubleTree Westshore in Tampa.

Voices in ear and heart exhort Clearwater boxer Keith Thurman to continue climb 07/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 1:12pm]

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