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Keith Thurman is finally catching up with Manny Pacquiao

Clearwater’s undefeated champion looks to secure legendary status against Pac Man.
World Boxing Association welterweight champion Keith Thurman spars at the St. Pete Boxing Club recently. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
World Boxing Association welterweight champion Keith Thurman spars at the St. Pete Boxing Club recently. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Jul. 13, 2019
Updated Jul. 14, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The champ pulled up to the St. Pete Boxing Club. A fan spotted him from across the street and made his way to “One Time” Thurman’s BMW. They exchanged words and smiles. Keith Thurman pressed some money into the man’s hands.

“He’ll be back tomorrow,” Thurman said. “I’ll help him again.”

That is one thing you need to know about Thurman, the 29-0 WBA world welterweight titleholder. The Clearwater native has never forgotten where he came from. He’s a local treasure.

For the record, Thurman isn’t moving to Montreal.

“Hell, no,” he said, grinning. “Too cold, baby.”

Thurman, 30, is warming to his next task. With two-a-day workouts, he is readying for the biggest fight of his life, at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the kind of fight Thurman has been chasing his whole life, the kind that makes greatness: 12 rounds against legend Manny Pacquiao for the world super welterweight championship.

Pacquiao is guaranteed $20 million. Throw in pay-per-view and Thurman will enjoy the first eight-figure payday of his career.

Keith Thurman, left, is shown in a mirror as he warms up before he spars at the St. Pete Boxing Club. He is also shown in a older boxing poster, right. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Related: RELATED: Keith Thurman, Clearwater’s boxing world champion, wants to make sure you haven’t forgotten him

The fight is Saturday, July 20, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Neil Armstrong is still the titleholder as first man down the ladder and onto the lunar surface. Which brings us to another thing you need to know about Thurman.

“Never happened,” Thurman said.

What, the moon landing?

“Never happened.”

Thurman stopped bouncing around the ring, throwing jabs.

“The real question is we did it once and it’s 50 years later and we haven’t done it again,” he said. “When they asked Obama about it, they said the technology didn’t exist. As if it’s lost technology, as if 45 years ago we built the pyramids and we can’t refigure it out. C’mon. The technology doesn’t exist because it never existed.”

Thurman’s trainer, Dan Birmingham, smiled.

“The moon walk was televised, wasn’t it?” Birmingham said. “But that’s Keith. He looks at things different. He thinks outside the box. He has a lot of ideas about life. But he’s inside the box when he’s in here.”

Inside the box, Thurman continues to stalk greatness. For six years, as he built his career, fighting either Floyd Mayweather or Pacquiao became paramount.

Keith Thurman gets taped up by Dan Birmingham, co-owner of the St. Pete Boxing Club, in preparation for his July 20 title bout against Manny Pacquiao. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)

Mayweather is safely ensconced in retirement with a perfect record and bank account. So it’s Pacquiao, 40, who is clearly on the back side of his illustrious career, but who just as clearly is one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in history, having won 12 world titles. He is still boxing’s only eight-division champion. He brings aura, especially in his native Philippines, where he serves as a senator in its congress.

How many people get a chance to punch a politician right in the mouth?

“He’s a legend,” Thurman said. “I get the last remaining legend. He’s like a dodo bird. He’s like a dinosaur. He might be old, but he’s not extinct. That’s my job, make him extinct.”

“He’s a quick-footed, quick-handed southpaw with a huge heart,” Birmingham said. “Pacquiao brings a whole nation, a whole continent, a whole following.”

Related: RELATED: Keith Thurman vows to end Manny Pacquiao’s career

Thurman brings himself.

“It’s a defining fight for his career and his legacy,” Birmingham said.

“He’s my dog, man. Keith is my own world champion,” said St. Petersburg resident Winky Wright, a former two-time light middleweight champ. Wright’s defining fight was a dominating win against Felix Trinidad in 2005.

“Pacquiao is one of the greats, but this is Keith’s time. These are the kind of fights you need to win to leave a legacy. Keith needs this fight, definitely.”

Thurman’s workout on this day seemed to reflect that.

“Time to go! Time to go!” he shouted as he danced in the ring. “Game over, baby, game over. Stick and move. Stick and move. Boxing at its finest, Keith ‘One Time’ Thurman.”

Afterward, he said, “A lot of fighters have skills, they have talent. The one thing that you can’t train is a strong mind. Right before a fight, backstage, you can train hard, but you don’t really know what the other guy’s confidence is. It’s called punkin’ yourself out. You let your mind get to you. You punk yourself out.

“For me, to step in like a lion, I go back into my history. I go back to my running 6 miles a day. When I’m on the spin bike an hour every night. When I’m hitting the heavy bag, when I’m hitting the mitts with Coach Dan, when I’m averaging over 150 punches per round, that gives me confidence that I’m prepared. We’ve never not been prepared — never. It’s a gladiator sport, right? To beat a lion, you have to have the heart of a lion.”

Keith Thurman spars with fighter Robeisy Ramirez. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)

Thurman has done his share of talking heading into the fight, predicting destruction for Pac Man in the neighborhood of six rounds or fewer.

“I just want to poke the bear,” Thurman said. “I’ll shake his hand after. But now it’s time. I just want to serve him up, medium rare, you know?”

Whenever Thurman doubts himself, he goes back to the late Ben Getty, the trainer who first took Thurman under his wing.

“I always think about Ben because it’s a ritual,” Thurman said. “He’d say the same thing again and again like a broken record. Before every fight. And Manny is going to get what Ben always wanted: ‘From the bell, go out there and hit him, boy. Show them your power. Hit him, boy.’

“Manny has fought a lot of great fighters. I don’t think he’s fought a lot of boxers. I consider myself a boxer-puncher, definitely not your average fighter. His past competition isn’t really preparing him for Keith Thurman.”

Related: RELATED: Love, legacy in the air for boxer Keith Thurman

Thurman isn’t an old 30. At one point he missed 22 months because of various injuries. He has fought only once in 28 months, a win in January over Josesito Lopez.

“I want to remind the world who Keith Thurman really is. I want to remind Keith Thurman who Keith Thurman really is,” he said.

If Thurman beats Pacquiao, there’s a matchup with the winner of the Errol Spence-Shawn Porter fight to unify the WBA, IBF and WBC titles.

That’s for then.

“This is the big one,” Thurman said. “We get a KO here, we make Ben Getty proud. We make 23 years of hard work all worth it.”

He doesn’t know how far into his 30s he will fight. He doesn’t want to be doing this at 40, like Pacquiao. Will that be enough? Will Thurman, who has been married for two years and wants a family, step away? Does he find a tree and play his guitar or flute?

“I’m a hop-around kind of guy,” Thurman said. “I jump into hobbies, and I jump out of them. I’ve never stayed doing anything for a long time except boxing, 23 years in the game. If I had been playing guitar for 23 years, I’d probably have a few gigs and wouldn’t have to be getting punched around.

“I love travel. That’s a hobby right now. I want to do some stuff in America, see things here. Maybe rent a driver and an RV. I want to see the redwoods. Bucket list. Something that’s been there forever, one of the wonders of the world.”

Saturday is Thurman’s forever. Beat Pacquiao and his legacy in boxing will last as long as Armstrong’s footprint on the … well, you know.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029.

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