Think of something that is perilous and requires great caution—performing heart surgery, or defusing landmines. This is what it’s like fighting a puncher. You wouldn’t call it fun, but sometimes it has to be done.
In boxing, a “puncher” is someone whose primary characteristic is that they can hurt you. A “boxer” is someone whose primary characteristic is their technical skill. At the highest levels of the sport you find lots of people who can do both, which is unfortunate if you are the hapless opponent. The basic prescription for defeating a puncher is to box him, and the basic prescription for beating a boxer is to hurt him. A fighter who is too dangerous to trade punches with but too skilled to be out maneuvered presents quite a quandary. While you are pondering the quandary, he knocks you out.
Welterweight is the most talent-laden division in the sport of boxing, and on Saturday night in Brooklyn, two of the most dangerous undefeated boxer-punchers in that division met. The fight was notable for the fact that it was hard to assign an advantage to either man. Public opinion was split (allowing me to win many bets—thank you). Danny Garcia, from Philly, whose thick eyebrows and goatee and perpetually angry father are reminiscent of Satan, has ridden a remarkably pat style to a 33-0 record. He’s technically sound, but flat-footed; like many power punchers, he has little bounce or shuffle. He prefers to counterpunch, and he can hurt you with either hand. Garcia wants you to walk to him and trade, so he can knock you out. Fighters who oblige him tend to get their necks spun around in an inhuman manner with a left hook.
Keith Thurman, whose long hair and lisp and aggression are reminiscent of Mike Tyson in a hair metal band, is one of the sport’s most explosive punchers. He is less polished than Garcia, but more naturally gifted with power. Over the past few years, as he has gained his title belts, Thurman has refined his style; he is less raw, less prone to rushing in and dispatching lesser fighters with scary flurries, more willing to box and use strategy to set up his attacks. If you look hard you can see the slight awkwardness of a fighter who was able to coast for his entire youth on power alone, and only later added in technique.
Danny Garcia never changes. He will never surprise you by deciding to dart in and out one day. He will stand flat-footed and wait to counter. So it was fairly clear that Keith Thurman would have to move around on the outside and try to get advantageous angles and rush in with attacks. That he did. One problem is that since Danny Garcia is so completely unchanging, you can circle around him a hundred times and never find yourself looking at anything different. You will still find Danny Garcia, in position, perhaps poking a jab or two, waiting for you to come in. A great boxer like Floyd Mayweather, able to punch first and then disappear, would toy with someone like Garcia. But this was a fight in which everyone knew that both men would need to win by hurting the other.
And that’s what makes it exciting, isn’t it? Thurman was obligated to step in and unleash his terrifying right hand, which boasts the power of a wound-up punch without the windup, and Garcia would try to slip it and hit him back with a left hook. If Thurman could land, he would win, but every time he missed, he would have to instantly gain his balance and roll underneath the return fire, or be wiped out. This is what it means to watch two punchers fight. Constantly trying to slap an alligator without getting bitten. In every punch that the two men threw the danger was plain. When they missed you could see the kinetic energy their gloves carried, whistling through the air, every miss representing a life not taken.
These sorts of matchups are more like a swordfight than average boxing match. The margin of error is extremely low. Any mistake can mean death. It is only natural that both men will be careful. It’s funny, then, that such matchups are always touted for their potential “fireworks,” as if both men are expected to wade right in and start trading punches until one falls. No. That is how bums fight. These are good fighters. The more latent danger, the more careful they are obligated to be. Each offensive move is a calculated gamble, with a very steep downside cost if it fails. The normal reaction of a lesser fighter to a very skilled and dangerous puncher is, as the rounds go by, to throw fewer and fewer punches and grow more and more defensive, because of the natural fear of being hit back. What distinguishes champions is the willingness to craft attacks even in the face of this mortal danger—to keep dancing on the knife’s blade, knowing that you very well could be cut in half.
Keith Thurman won. It was very close. He took the first half of the fight handily by being more aggressive, then let Garcia come back as he grew a bit more timid, before snatching it out at the very end. He was slightly more successful at landing punches, so he won. Both men were successful at doing the most important thing in a fight like this, which is to avoid eating a shot that will take your face off. That is not an easy task.
There was grumbling afterwards. Not enough action. “What the fuck was Keith doing? He better show me a fucking broken hand or something,” groaned a guy in the bathroom on the way out. “Yo, he gave those rounds away.” People with this perspective are welcome to go out and get in bar fights. Plenty of action. There was not a knockout in this fight not because the fighters were bad, but because they are good. You can’t help others without saving yourself first. You can’t put the child’s oxygen mask on before you put on your own. And you can’t win a fight with a puncher unless you are first not being knocked unconscious yourself. Some things in life require care. The courage is in doing them properly, not in dying while doing them with bravado.
You can swagger after the landmine is defused. Not before.