September 1, 2013

KO Digest Interview: Keith Thurman - "I’m a twelve round fighter"

Knockout Artist in Action
Sometimes, one time is all it takes to make an impression on the public. Once the introductions cease and the focus shifts to the center of the ring, many fighters have frozen, tossing their game plans out the window and abandoning what brought them to the cusp of prominence. Others fall flat, proving that they never really had what it takes and that the buildup surrounding their rise was vastly inflated.

In the case of Keith "One Time" Thurman, pick any of his 21 professional fights, and one time is all it will take to get you hooked. Thurman (21-0, 19 KOs) is the welterweight division’s most exciting contender, a precision puncher not afraid to unleash a mix of "critical blows" to the body and the head.

Under the tutelage of the late Ben Getty, Thurman rose to prominence in Florida and has recently appeared on HBO, defeating Jan Zaveck and Diego Chaves in 2013. A world title shot looms in the future for the 24 year old, but he remains grounded in a calm, cool confidence that he can achieve his lifelong dream.  Thurman is a self-proclaimed spiritual man with faith in a higher power and in himself, but just like his exceptional boxing accomplishments in the amateur and pro ranks, he doesn’t flaunt it. In fact, the only thing loud about the Clearwater, Florida, native is the talking he does with his fists. If you blink during a Keith Thurman fight, you might miss it, but if the trend continues, you can bet the ascent and the stay at the top will last much longer.

KO Digest's Joel Sebastianelli: You’re 24 years old, but boxing has been a part of your life for many years. 
In fact, your first amateur fight came back in 1997. What brought you to the sport?

Thurman was influenced by his Dad and Bruce Lee
Keith Thurman: Boxing, to me at a young age, was a form of martial arts. I was interested in getting into martial arts when I was growing up. My dad took martial arts class, and I spent a lot of time with him, we’d watch a lot of Steven Seagal and Bruce Lee movies. And it was pretty much the combination of that and just being a normal kid growing up. I wanted to be strong like my dad, seeing him go through some of his moves and counters, and I just never really rushed into anything. Boxing was the first thing that opened up its doors to me at seven years old. My original trainer, Ben Getty, put on a boxing exhibition at the after school YMCA program, and that’s what got me hooked.

KOD: How soon did you know that you possessed very special, different from the other young kids who wanted to fight and that you could make a career out of this?

KT: I would say those thoughts started to enter my mind somewhere around my teen years—13, 14, and 15. I acquired three National titles and at 13 years old, I had my first knockout. That’s why, throughout the years, ever since I was 13 years old, I’ve been knocking people out. Seeing that occur, by the time I was 16 years old, I definitely remember saying to myself, “I see myself turning pro and making a career out of this.” It probably did occur before 16, but that’s when I solemnly went with it. I really believed in it being more than just a dream, but being a reality.

Thurman and late trainer Ben Getty
KOD: Early on in your training and for years after, you worked with Benjamin Getty, the famous trainer who worked with many great talents in the sport, including Sugar Ray Leonard. What did training with an accomplished man like Getty add to your skillset?

KT: Well, it made me the fighter that I am today. When you guys see me perform in the ring, you’re seeing a Ben Getty fighter perform. His background, after working with him for so many years, ultimately became my background. He had so many different sayings. “You can’t pass your homework if you don’t do the tests.” “A true champion is one who works hard.” He would just go on and on and on about what needs to be done in this game and this sport and passed down so much knowledge into me from an early age to the time I was 20 years old.

KOD: Clearly the two of your forged a very close relationship. How did his untimely death in 2009 affect you both as a person and as a fighter?

KT: As a fighter, I just knew what needed to be done. When you work with somebody that long, you really get to know them very well. To this day, I still say he taught me everything that I needed to know. I’m a very spiritual individual, and I believe that God watches over us. I do not believe he would take a man away from me that was so precious in my life if it was not his time to go. Ben suffered many things. He got Agent Orange in Vietnam, so he was in pain for that and on a heavy prescription. I just felt like it was his time to go, and I truly believe he passed down everything he needed to pass down to make sure that I would be a world champion. Standing at 21-0 with 19 knockouts, I believe that we are confirming that one victory at a time.

KOD: You transitioned shortly afterwards to working with Florida Boxing Hall of Fame member Dan Birmingham. How long did it take for the two of you to develop chemistry?

Trainer Dan Birmingham and fighter Keith Thurman
KT: What really happened was that we got into St. Pete boxing around the time I was 14 years old. Ben Getty took over Dan Birmingham’s amateur boxing program at St. Pete boxing at that time because he was highly active with me. Dan needed some help and he got Ben in the mix, and that got me in the door. Ever since then, Dan and I have been working together. Even when Ben was my trainer, he had Dan work the mitts with me. Dan never went to any of my amateur tournaments, but as soon as I turned pro, he was in my corner for my pro debut. It was just a matter of time. It was a great atmosphere and learning experience.

KOD: Although Birmingham is a notable trainer in the south, he's not a name that many casual boxing fans may recognize. What qualities about Birmingham led you to work with him and stick with him, instead of abandoning the partnership in favor of a famous trainer like so many young stars have?

KT: He was around when I was 14 years old working with me and Ben. If anybody understands me from a true individual self and from me and my boxing nature and background, only Dan would be able to do that. There’s maybe a few other trainers, but for people who don’t really know my history with Ben, I think it’s really hard for them to understand what kind of fighter I am. Dan just has that, and he has been working with me and we’ve been bonding. I think Dan is one of the best mitt men there is. We have a real good flow. He doesn’t need to tell you the combinations to throw, it is a very creative mitt work that we do. He’s just the guy I need in my corner. I believe that God provides the right people to be with you in your life to give you the experiences you need to have to become that better person that you need to be. People offered me to go somewhere else, but I also didn’t want to leave my home state. This is where I learned to box—this is everything, and I’m just glad I had a trainer like Dan to replace Ben.

Zaveck took Thurman's best and went the 12 round distance
KOD: Only two fighters have ever gone the distance with you: Jan Zaveck in 2013 and Edvan Dos Santos Barros in 2009. Zaveck was a heavy underdog in March, but showed up to fight in Brooklyn and challenged you for all twelve rounds. What made it so hard to put Zaveck and Barros away? What did they do differently than the others to hear the final bell?

KT: At that point, Barros was just tough. I knew that, prior to my match, he had only been stopped once, and it was a premature stoppage that occurred in Mexico. Nobody had legitimately stopped the dude, in my opinion, before I fought him.

It was an eight round fight, and in the seventh round I dropped him with a body shot, and he just got up and endured and the final bell went “ding.” He just moved, he was creative and he did what he needed to do to stay in the fight. Opponents find a way that makes it a little difficult to land a critical blow. Whether it’s slipping a punch, which is what Barros would do, he was popping and moving and I was trying to counter him with my left hook and he dodged it most of the night until I landed it to the body. Zaveck kept his hands up really well throughout the whole fight. There were only a few times I was able to catch him with his hands down. He kept his chin tucked and he had this little turtle shell defense that was really tight. He would try to smother me at times, and it was really hard to get that one punch in. My nickname is “One Time,” and I’m always looking for that right angle, that right position to land that one critical blow that can shake anybody or change the aspect of any fight. Some fighters make that very difficult.

KOD: Who gave you the nickname “One Time” and how did it come about?

KT: It’s one of the things that I took from my father. He told me a story once when I was in the amateurs about his boxing experience. It wasn’t anything really legit, it was more like backyard brawling, but somebody threw out the nickname “One Time” due to how he used to place his body shot. We all know how devastating body shots can be, and I just took it. My name is Keith Thurman Jr., and I figured I’d take on the name “One Time” due to my father. I thought it goes good with our name. It’s a great name and when I start thinking about it, it represents boxing the best. “One Time” is what the fans are looking for, what every fighter needs to be looking out for. 

Thurman training hard to be a champion
KOD: With 19 of your 21 wins coming by knockout, most of your fights have been relatively short. When opponents take you deep into fights and really challenge you, is that actually a blessing to get that experience at this stage of your career? 

KT: I already did have it. We train hard, man. We do the work in the gym, and it’s my job to perform and get the guy out of there. Some people can’t take it, and if they can’t take it, that’s not my problem. For those that can take it, we just have a greater performance to put on. I’m prepared to go for the whole show. With the Zaveck fight we proved that, with Diego Chaves we proved that—I was well conditioned in that fight—and that’s what it comes down to. You have to be in shape if you want to be a champion.

KOD: Which fight are you most proud of at this point in your career and why?

KT: There’s really not a fight, I’m just excited to be where I’m at and in the position that I’m in. I’m proud of myself for the overall progress, of the transition from amateurs to the pros, achieving the dream that I set out to achieve, and doing what my original trainer, Ben Getty, told me I would be able to do. I see it as one big blessing, and I’m happy to be performing and entertaining the fans in the sport of boxing. 

KOD: You've been described as a knockout artist. As a fighter who so clearly craves knockouts, how do you define that in your approach to training? What are the actual artistic tools of a true knockout artist in professional boxing?

Thurman is a powerful counter puncher
KT: Balance, distance, and timing. Counters are the most devastating punches because you add on the velocity of the person coming into the punch. That’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for a devastating counter and a well-placed blow. The way I look at it is that I’m a twelve round fighter. My last two fights have been scheduled for twelve rounds, so that makes me a twelve round fighter. Every fight from here on out is twelve rounds. If it ends in one or two, that’s just the outcome, but I prepare myself for twelve rounds. Everybody from here on out is going to have to go twelve rounds with Keith “One Time” Thurman.

KOD: What exactly does that rush of satisfaction immediately after a knockout blow or big punch feel like? 
What does it feel like to land that “perfect punch?”

Thurman was more than happy to hurt Chaves
KT: It just feels great! It's hard work in action. It’s what you want to see and what I went there to do. I pride myself on knockouts and I don’t want to be at the end of the fight with my hands just raised up to the scorecards. I want to make sure that somebody got hurt this fight, that somebody went out and there was a solid winner. That’s what I come to do.

KOD: Several months ago, KO Digest profiled you as a Boxing Up and Comer, and in the interview, you were very clear in your desire to fight Paulie Malignaggi. A lot time has passed since then and the landscape of the division has changed along with it. Is that still a relevant match up for you?

KT: It could be but boxing is such a shape shifting sport. They always ask you “who’s next?” but in my mind, everybody and anybody is next. Especially when you’re as young as I am and you’re ready to go. It’s the same speech. We’ve got to talk to the team and see what’s going to happen. We take the journey just one fight at a time.

KOD: You’ve expressed that you’re an “old school fighter.” How do you go about carving out an old school career in a modern boxing landscape that is littered with too many champions and nonsense interim titles. How does that jibe with your desire to be like the old school fighters? 

Money Mayweather is a champion in charge
KT: To me, you’ve definitely got to play by the rules of the new generation, but there’s still a “teamship.” There are still those who are at the top, and they have a little bit more control. It’s all about getting in that position, climbing up the ladder, going after the team, getting a belt and having an easier time of making the fights you want to make. The champion, whoever has the belt, has an easier time in my opinion of getting fights.

KOD: You have a zero in the loss column right now. How much does staying undefeated mean to you, and how far are you willing to go to protect that record?

KT: It means a lot to be an undefeated fighter because that’s how you tend to build a legacy, but, I’m not really worried about protecting it. I feel like that’s my job as a fighter when I step in the ring, and that’s when I’m supposed to protect it—in that moment. Coming from an amateur background with six or seven National titles, tournament after tournament, you have to fight whoever showed up. Here I am—I showed up to everyone in the top ten. I’m pretty much on that list. Keith “One Time” Thurman is just ready to step back in the ring with anybody on the list. I’m down for whatever, so we’ll see. I want to move up the ladder in competition.

Andre Berto, Al Haymon, and Floyd Mayweather
KOD: One of the most controversial figures in boxing right now is Al Haymon. How did your relationship with him jump start your career? Fighters love Haymon, but a disconnect exists with the general public, who dislike the man. What do fans misunderstand about him? What doors of opportunity has Al Haymon opened for you specifically?

KT: The networks. He got us in with the networks, and we just come to perform and they like our performance. He gives you that opportunity, the one that a lot of fighters deserve. I think a lot of fans misunderstand the business aspect of boxing. Al Haymon is someone who opens up opportunities for people. He does his best to represent his fighters, and if you were in our position, you would want to be associated with a guy like him. He does his best to get his fighters out there if you put in the hard work.  

KOD: As an amateur, you trained with Andre Berto. Have the two of you continued any sort of relationship? 

KT: We go way back. I used to be in the gym watching him work before I could even step in the ring with him. We had some guys from our gym come to spar him, and as I got older and got closer to him in size, my trainer, being the man that he was, threw me in with the dogs and Andre Berto was it. I remember working with him when I was a teenager, almost up to the beginning of my pro career. He’s just a great guy and a hard worker. I don’t talk about the steroids, I don’t buy into that. I think if there’s a trace amount, then something happened to one of his products. He works hard, he’s a good dude, and we go way back. There’s a lot of boxing history there.

KOD: How would he feel about being matched against Berto if the matchup was proposed? 
Is there too much history between the two of you for you to ever seriously consider it? 

Robert Guerrero and Andre Berto beat each other up
KT: If it presented itself and was for a worthy cause, I don’t have a problem with it. I thought about it when I was 14 years old that it was a possibility. But, there are a lot of people in the welterweight division to go after, so we’ll just see if it happens. If that’s the fight they're going to make, then they're going to make it.

KOD: When you see fighters that you have become close to losing in a fight and getting beat up in the ring, how does that affect you? To cross sports, racing drivers say that if you’re concerned about the dangers of crashing, then you shouldn’t be driving. In boxing, do you get worried seeing others get knockout out, or do you block that out of your mind and focus solely on winning yourself?

KT: To a certain extent, boxing is not a team sport. We have the individual collection of people that help a fighter achieve his goals, but when it’s all said and done, it is an individual sport. When two men step in the ring, one man is going to be victorious. That’s the world we live in with the sport of boxing, and we just have to go with it. Certain people tell a fighter that they should take some time off and come back strong, but everybody is a little different. Some people rush and sometimes things happen. The word comeback is there for a reason, because some fighters do come back.

KOD: Monetary incentive bonuses have been popular in mixed martial arts for several years, and bonuses like “Fight of the Night” and “Knockout of the Night” are starting to make their way into boxing. Do you think these potential paydays encourage better fights?

KT: It’s not a bad idea. It's always good to know there is some form of bonus or extra reward. Every fighter is different. Most say that they’re focused on the fight, and in reality that’s all you need to be. But whenever I perform, I’m not just focused on the fight, per say, but I’m focused on performance overall. I want to give an overall great performance, and that’s just how I step into the ring and think.

"One Time" makes his dreams come true
KOD: Is switching weight classes or a catchweight fight things you’ve pondered? What weight class do you feel most powerful at?

KT: I feel most powerful at welterweight. It has been my dream to compete and get my hands on a welterweight world title for a long time, so that has been my goal. A lot of fighters move up and I know there is great competition in the next weight class, so we’ll see where my career takes me.

KOD: There is a big fight coming up in September between Floyd Mayweather and Canelo Alvarez. When watching a bout like that do you enjoy it as a fan, or do you focus on scouting the fighters as though they are future opponents?

KT: When I watch a fight, I look at the conditioning, their ring habits, how predictable they act in a fight, and I break it down because they are possible opponents. It’s going to be a great fight and I’m going to be glued to it looking at both of their moves. I think Canelo is getting better as he has been performing here in the United States—he’s young and dangerous. Floyd is still not looking 36, he showed that in the Robert Guerrero fight and his movement and skill level looked great. Let’s see what happens, this is a great fight.

The Future of Boxing

KO Digest Interview conducted by Joel "The Future" Sebastianelli

Joel joined KO Digest in January 2013 and has been a fixture on press row in the New England area for three years. In 2012, he served as the host of “The Boxing Fix” on Leave it in the Ring Radio.
Sebastianelli is the future of boxing journalism and broadcasting.  

Joel can be found Tweeting on Twitter @JJSebastianelli