Fennelly: Clearwater boxer Keith Thurman set to defend welterweight title

Keith Thurman, left, lands a left punch on Luis Collazo during a 2015 bout at the USF Sun Dome. Thurman won by technical knockout. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
Keith Thurman, left, lands a left punch on Luis Collazo during a 2015 bout at the USF Sun Dome. Thurman won by technical knockout. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published June 25, 2016

He has run out of fighting words. Not that there were that many between Keith Thurman and his opponent tonight. Thurman and Shawn Porter have known each other since their amateur careers. Porter came to the St. Pete Boxing Gym two years ago to train and spar with Thurman. They're friends as much as boxers can be friends when they crave the same thing.

"But we've never seen each other under the bright lights," Thurman said. "You know, fight night is a different kind of night."

It's a night the 27-year-old Thurman needs to own. This is the brightest the lights have ever been for the Clearwater resident. Thurman, 26-0 and the reigning WBA welterweight champion, puts his title and future on the line tonight at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., in prime time on CBS, when he faces former welter­weight champ Porter.

"Mayweather is gone. Pacquiao is gone," Thurman said. "There's no better time than this time for this fight to go down."

Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao might not be totally gone. Just hold out enough cheese and they'll return. Hey, it's boxing.

Without Mayweather, there's a crowded welterweight field. In short, a void.

"Keith is the man to fill that," said Dan Birmingham, Thurman's trainer. "He wants his name in those lights. He's the next Mayweather. This fight is part of it"

"He has all the talent, but you can't call him a 'great' fighter until he does great things," said former junior middleweight champion Winky Wright, who lives in St. Petersburg and used to spar with a 15-year-old Thurman. "This fight is one of those things."

Thurman last fought 11 months ago, winning by TKO over Luis Collazo in Tampa, despite the fact that Thurman, even according to his own media notes, "experienced more agony than ever as a professional from Collazo's crippling fifth-round left hand to the liver." Livers everywhere covered their eyes. Thurman still won in seven rounds.

Now he has to keep winning.

A lot of people crossed Thurman's mind as he prepared for this fight, among them the late Ben Getty, who spotted a 7-year-old Thurman while holding an exhibition at Thurman's elementary school and became his first trainer.

"It's a beautiful thing," Thurman said. "I've been doing this since I was 7 years old. It's a 20th anniversary for me, 20 years being focused on boxing."

It's not a night to step back. Jeff "Left Hook" Lacy comes to mind. Like Wright, Lacy is a former world champion trained by Birmingham. Like Wright, Lacy also sparred with a young Thurman. Lacy's future was super bright 10 years ago when he took his perfect record and super middle­weight belt to England — into the whirring blades of Joe Calzaghe. Lacy's career faded from there.

That's the thing about the bright lights. They can punish, too.

Thurman-Porter was pushed back two months after Thurman's car lost a fight with a rained-on U.S. 19 ramp and struck a pole. TKO by air bag. Thurman's neck took six weeks to recover. At one point, Porter's camp implied that Thurman also had a serious case of cold feet.

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"The words before the fight, they're just words," Thurman said. "If they feel I'm scared, that should give them more confidence. And hopefully he confidently walks into a right hand and gets knocked out."

To the bright lights we go.