Welterweight Keith Thurman defeated Shawn Porter in a close decision on CBS on Saturday, drawing the highest ratings of any boxing match this year and garnering Fight of the Year talk. In the process, Thurman grew his perfect record to 27-0, with 22 KOs. At age 27, Thurman is in his physical prime, and now has an impressive win in a high-profile setting. He is camera-friendly, a strikingly handsome fellow with a trademark hairstyle that falls somewhere between Troy Polamalu and Pootie Tang. He also has one of the better and more original nicknames in the sport: One Time, a reference to his one-punch knockout power. So, you might rightfully ask after this introduction, is Keith Thurman the next breakout star in boxing? Well, the answer might disappoint you.
We’ll get back to Thurman in just a moment, but allow me to first introduce you to his opponent, Shawn Porter. Why this unrequested detour? Well, unlike Thurman, whose positive attributes tempt one to abandon reason and instead project all inner hopes onto the tabula rasa of his career, Porter is a fairly well-defined quantity. And when we’re looking at projecting a talented prospect’s future, one of the most reliable ways to do so is to compare them to the quality of their foes. That’s especially true in situations, like Saturday night’s, where the fight is competitive throughout and brings the best out of both men. The best way to measure Thurman is by reference to the man he just barely defeated.
The first thing you notice about Shawn Porter is his thickness. He is seemingly composed of a single extrusion of muscle that begins just above his shoulders, extends into his almost perfectly square thorax, and disappears into his trunks without winnowing in the slightest. He isn’t cut, but there’s not a lot of wasted flesh on him either; he’s built like a smaller version of Ray Lewis.
The second thing you notice about Shawn Porter is that he fights all wrong. A conventional fighter, he stands with his left foot perched on its toes far behind his center of gravity, looking sort of like a pitcher who has just stepped off the rubber to consider a pick off, all of which forces him to keep his front foot flat to maintain balance, which in turn greatly limits his mobility. His hands, when they’re not being recklessly launched at his opponent, are held up awkwardly, palms facing out, looking sort of like a boxing coach catching pads in the gym, or more adorably, like a puppy standing on its hind legs begging for a treat.
When he throws a punch, there is no grace. His arms wing out wildly around his opponent, expending a lot of needless energy and increasing his opponent’s ability to block or dodge, and then cut back towards the target at the last moment, as if he’s only belated decided that he’s actually throwing this punch with the intention of landing it. It’s a style reminiscent of George Foreman, except Big George was probably the hardest puncher in the history of combat sports, and Shawn Porter is a guy who has managed 16 stoppages in 28 fights (10 of which came in his first 12 fights) for a 55% career knockout ratio, about the same as the notoriously knockout-averse Floyd Mayweather and lower even than Guillermo Rigondeaux, perhaps the best fighter alive, if also the most dull. When opponents dodge these initial punches, Porter rushes in and smothers them against the ropes, squaring up almost entirely, and unloading more looping punches. It is, to borrow from Shakespeare, a style full of sound and fury, but one which has all too often signifies nothing.
Shawn Porter isn’t bad. He has real explosiveness and power; it’s just sprayed out wildly instead of being focused on his opponent. Porter is a floodlight who should be a laser. And for this, perhaps, we can blame his trainer, who also happens to be his father. The history of fighters who were trained by their fathers is long and complicated, ranging from virtuosos like Roy Jones Jr. to powerful speeders like Shane Mosley and Zab Judah to Joe Calzaghe, a confounding Welsh dragon. The one thing most have in common is that they underperformed their potential. Whether it’s because fathers lack the expertise or objectivity to best coach their sons, or because of the primal power struggle between fathers and sons which is only amplified in this sport (see Mayweathers, Floyd), the relationship rarely results in bringing out the best in the fighter. Porter is a talented guy, just one who either hasn’t received or incorporated the advice necessary to become a top-flight fighter.
Porter’s biggest wins came against B-grade fighters without any power to speak of (Paulie Malignaggi and Devon Alexander) and against Adrien Broner, another physically-talented fighter
trained by his dad with his dad in his corner, but in this case, one who possesses the mental and emotional integrity of a 6-year-old, and the desire to win of a potato. Even against a foe who appeared to spend much of the fight shopping for flight fares on Kayak, Porter nearly gave away an in-the-bag victory when he let Broner catch him with a wide open shot in the final round, leaving Porter sprawled out on the canvas with a look of disbelief on his face. His only loss, prior to Thurman, came against Kell Brook, a British fighter who has somehow managed to go 36-0 without impressing anyone outside of his immediate family. It was a close fight, but also a fight that established a clear ceiling for Porter: Porter is a gatekeeper, a guy who should only lose to very good fighters, but who should also always lose to very good fighters.
All of which brings us back to the fight on Saturday night. From the opening bell, it was clearly going to be a match between Porter’s unfocused aggression and Thurman’s defense and more polished form. Porter would bull-rush the taller Thurman and try to force him into the ropes where he could unload, while Thurman would jog backwards to maintain his preferred distance, trying to pick off Porter with longer shots as he dived in. The first eight rounds were good, if unremarkable, variations on this theme, and neither man established a clear upper hand in terms of damage or tempo. Porter was clearly the aggressor, but Thurman seemed equally effective, or ineffective, while fighting in reverse. You could justifiably have scored the fight even, or slightly in favor of either man, depending on your stylistic preferences.
Things picked up midway through the ninth round, when Porter caught Thurman with a left hook, as Thurman attempted to back Porter into the ropes. It didn’t look like much, especially compared to some of the wild haymakers that Porter had launched over and all around Thurman to that point, but it clearly did damage and forced Thurman to tie Porter up along the ropes. Porter responded by wildly unloading a barrage of punches, but nothing landed, and when the ref broke up the action, it looked like Thurman had survived no worse for the wear. But, then, just as Thurman seemed to regain his footing, Porter caught him with a series of big punches and was flurrying successfully against a wobbly Thurman when the bell rang. It was a round clearly dominated by Porter, but also one in which his inability to string together accurate, effective punches likely cost him a chance for a knockout.
The 10th round started off with more of the same: Porter pressing Thurman, throwing wild punches, but failing to connect cleanly or effectively. With about a minute to go, Porter landed a series of looping hooks against the ropes that seemed to hurt Thurman. Again, Porter flurried with mixed results, and Thurman tied him up until the ref broke up the action. At this point, Porter looked punched out: his jaw hung open, and his fists dangled at his hips as he weakly bopped around on flat feet.
With just seconds to go in the round, Thurman unloaded his biggest punch of the night: a wicked, albeit partially-blocked, check left hook that nearly sent Porter to the canvas. Porter stumbled into the corner looking hurt and Thurman charged. But this time it was Thurman who couldn’t follow with anything effective, and instead it was Porter who landed a solid right hook as the bell rang. Both men looked wobbly heading back to their corners, and Porter certainly had more moments than Thurman in the round, but the fact that he nearly went down was likely enough to net Thurman the round.
The last two rounds featured a lot of wild punching, but to limited effect. Midway through the 11th, Thurman landed a sharp two-punch combination, the sort of combination that makes TV announcers “ooh and ahh” when it’s slowed down and zoomed in upon during an instant replay (which it was, dramatically, on the broadcast). And yet, in the moment, it seemed to have almost no effect on Porter, who actually responded by chasing Thurman across the ring while continuing to wing his shots. The final round was more of the same: both men fought at a frenetic pace but neither man landed anything significant, and neither man was hurt.
In the end, I thought Thurman had probably just eked out the fight. Part of this is due to boxing’s frustrating 10-point must system, which operates much like a skins scoring system in golf. In this case, Thurman had probably been just a hair better than Porter in seven of the 12 rounds, but Porter had been significantly better than Thurman in the other five. And so, while in total Porter probably had the better night, the scoring rules favored Thurman. The official judges also thought that Thurman was the winner, each scoring the fight in his favor,seven rounds to five. The fans in attendance—who were not bound by boxing’s official scoring rules—disagreed, lustily booing the decision, as fans do when the more aggressive fighter comes up short on the cards.
So what does all this tell us? Well, first of all, please ignore all the self-serving talk of it being a Fight of the Year candidate. A high-output fight? Absolutely. A good fight to watch? Sure! But it was also a fight in which very few punches landed sharply, and in which neither man was ever seriously hurt. So, if you watched the fight, and weren’t blown away by what you saw, take heart. Boxing can be, and often is, much more exciting than this fight.
But what it tells us about Thurman is that, at this point in his career, he is not much better than Porter, if at all. And since we have already measured Porter’s ceiling with some degree of precision, that means we should be able to safely assume that Thurman isn’t much above it.
There’s more reason to question Thurman’s upside, too. Even though he looked like a refined, polished fighter against Porter’s Tasmanian Devil impression, his boxing form suffers from its own collection of defects. Thurman holds his hands low and throws his punches from way too low, leaving his head exposed far more often than he should. If a fighter like Porter—wild and lacking in knockout ability—was able to repeatedly check Thurman’s chin and wobble him on several occasions, it’s likely that a better puncher will be able to bust him up.
Then there’s the question of Thurman’s power. It’s hard to complain about 22 knockouts in 27 fights, and the CBS crew was sure to repeatedly give airtime to some definitely-not-staged gym footage of Thurman knocking his heavy bag off the ceiling with a punch. At the same time, Thurman never really hurt Porter; even when Thurman briefly knocked him off balance in the 10th round, Porter recovered and won the remainder of the round. Porter has a good chin, to be sure, but it sure didn’t look like Thurman brought anything to the table he hadn’t seen before. Since Porter is the best fighter Thurman’s ever faced, and since none of his 22 knockouts came at the expense of an elite fighter, it’s still an open question as to how Thurman’s power will translate against boxing’s best.
Finally, the biggest strike against Thurman is his own stasis. Put simply, he just doesn’t seem to be developing as a fighter. Over the past few years, he’s moved up in boxing’s welterweight rankings, but that’s more a product of attrition than of Thurman’s own development. And, if history is any guide, if a fighter hasn’t made a big step forward by this stage in his career, it’s unlikely to happen. When we look at boxing’s biggest stars in recent history—Tyson, Mayweather, De La Hoya, Jones Jr., Pacquiao—all had established themselves as major stars by their early 20s, and all had taken giant leaps forward when they were jumped up in competition against top level foes. Thurman has done none of those things.
That’s not to say Thurman can’t become a great fighter. It’s just to say, that when you add it all up, it’s very unlikely that he’ll become anything more than a very good fighter. He’s certainly someone who you should watch and enjoy; he’s just not someone from whom you should anticipate greatness, regardless of what the boxing media machine may be spewing right now.
But don’t despair, boxing fans: there is another undefeated fighter, about the same age as Thurman, who has taken a giant leap forward, who has demonstrated supernatural power, and who is on track for greatness. Even better, he fights next month in a fight that could be a Fight of the Year candidate. In boxing, hope springs eternal, if you only know where to look.