SINCE turning professional in late 2007, Keith Thurman has risen through the ranks with consummate ease. On Saturday June 25 he boxes Shawn Porter for the WBA welterweight title.
But where does his punishing power and sparkling speed come from? The answer is that he trains… hard. Relentless sparring, pounding pads sessions, gruelling runs, even his stretching is described as “intense” by his coach, Dan Birmingham.
“Keith puts maximum effort into every aspect of his training,” Birmingham stated. “I’ve even seen him jump rope for two hours straight without missing!”
But before Thurman begins his arduous workout regime for the day, his trainer always makes sure that the fires are stoked and the required energy levels are there.
“As far as a schedule goes, I usually gauge the training on how Keith’s feeling,” Birmingham said. “We do have a set plan for each day, but my first question to Keith is always, ‘How do you feel?’ I want to make sure that he’s well rested, hydrated and nourished. I need to know that everything’s at 100 per cent.”
ADJUST AND CONQUER
Sparring has always been one of Thurman’s strong points, ever since he was a precocious teenager training under the guidance of the late Ben Getty at St. Pete Boxing Club in St. Petersburg, Florida. Birmingham, who took over coaching responsibilities for Keith when Getty passed away five years ago, recalls the young Thurman’s stellar reputation within the gym.
“When I was training Winky Wright, Jeff Lacy and Chad Dawson, Keith would be involved in some of the camps,” the highly regarded trainer remembered. “He was only 16 years old, but he used to hold his own with them during sparring, so we knew he was special.
“When a guy wanted to train at our gym, Ben and I would put him in with Keith to see where he was at. We called it ‘The Thurman Test’. Some guys passed and some guys failed!”
During a typical eight-week camp for Thurman, the first fortnight will revolve around conditioning and weight-cutting, in order to build towards sparring, which generally begins six weeks prior to fight night.
“We start Keith with six rounds of sparring, then we graduate to eight, then 10. Around two weeks before the fight, we’ll do 12-15,” Birmingham revealed.
“We usually have three different sparring partners, so every two, three or four rounds, we present somebody who’s fresh and who has a slightly different style.”
Sparring a mixture of opponents keeps Thurman guessing and forces him to adapt on the spot, which is something a fighter is often faced with during an actual bout.
“When you work with multiple sparring partners, you have to adjust to different styles – this prepares you for when you have to alter your approach in real fights,” Keith affirmed. “I like two of my sparring partners to fit the criteria of my upcoming opponent, and I like the third guy to be a curve ball – someone who doesn’t fit my opponent’s criteria. For example, maybe he’s tall when my opponent’s short, or maybe he’s a southpaw when my opponent’s orthodox.”
While working the bag or pads helps boxers to hone certain facets of their game, sparring allows fighters to sharpen every tool in their arsenal, as it mirrors genuine fight conditions.
“In sparring, we work on speed, defence, movement – the whole gamut,” said Birmingham. “We count the number of shots Keith throws, which forces him to keep his output high. We like our punch count to be between 70-110 per round. Generally the actual fight doesn’t go that way, but he’s prepared in case it does.”
Thurman agrees with his trainer that sparring’s value lies in its all-encompassing nature. “Sparring helps you to perfect your distance, timing… everything,” the Clearwater native enthused. “You can hit the bag and the mitts all you want, but they can’t avoid punches and they can’t hit back.”
Although Thurman realises that sparring is unique in the sense that if offers an opportunity to improve all areas of his performance, he is also well aware that sessions on the pads and bag have an important role to play during camp.
This is where fighter and coach formulate their strategy.
“When I’m on the heavy bag, I imagine it’s a person chained up in front of me, so I’m always thinking about tactics,” Keith remarked. “I’m not a huge fan of the speed bag. I use the double-end bag occasionally, but I prefer the heavy bag and mitts for devising game plans.”
Birmingham believes that the pads and bagwork should be used as instructional exercises, whereby the coach and his charge mimic certain fight scenarios and develop a blueprint to overcome the opponent. Throwing an endless array of punches without thought is certainly not on the agenda.
“Like sparring, we start out doing six rounds on the pads and bag, before working our way up to 12 as the camp progresses,” Dan informed. “I’m probably one of the few trainers who boxes with my guy on the mitts. He’s touching me and I’m touching him back. I replicate his opponent and we work on slipping and positioning. It’s all about strategy.”
SEPARATE TO ACCUMULATE
Following sparring or some work on the bag/pads, Thurman concentrates on strength and conditioning in order to reinforce his body to deal with the rigours of combat.
“Boxing’s one of the hardest sports there is,” the unbeaten star opined. “Fighting for three-minute intervals with a one-minute rest is a very strenuous task. You exert energy throwing and slipping punches, and you’re constantly moving your arms and legs, which is why I separate my S&C training into upper body and lower body exercises.”
When targeting the lower body, a personal favourite of Thurman’s is the P90X [Power 90 Extreme] plyometrics workout, which is a home-exercise regimen available on DVD. This high-impact jump training features several lunge and squat variations, providing “a great 35-45-minute plyo session”, according to Keith.
Thurman’s upper body S&C routine includes extensive core work, although specific parts of the anatomy are also singled out. “We use dumbbells to work the wrist at different angles,” stated Birmingham. “It’s important to strengthen the wrist and forearm for generating punch power [Thurman possesses an 88 per cent knockout ratio].
“Bodyweight training like pull-ups and push-ups are important, and we also use the resistance bands a lot. We like the bands because they give you freedom of movement and allow you to work your neck, biceps, triceps and shoulders. We have illustrations of around 100 different resistance band exercises taped on to the wall of the gym.”
In order to boost fat loss and increase stamina, Thurman’s S&C drills are performed at a high level of intensity, as Birmingham pointed out: “We’ll generally work for one minute and then rest for 30 seconds. We don’t have a fixed number of sets, we just work until failure or exhaustion.”
MIX IT UP
To break the monotony of hours spent in the gym five days a week, it is beneficial to vary training locations. Cardio workouts provide Thurman with an opportunity to experience a different environment.
“A fighter should always leave the four walls behind once in a while,” Birmingham instructed. “We have a running schedule which allows Keith to get out of the gym. He runs on Monday, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday. A long run takes place on Wednesday, and Thursday is a day off from running.
“Sometimes if his leg muscles are sore or he wants a change, he’ll do a long swim at the local YMCA instead, or he’ll do spinning. If he’s been to the gym in the day, he’ll generally start his cardio between 6pm and 8pm. It just depends how he feels, whether he’s had enough rest and what time he’s eaten. I accompany him on some of his runs, but Chris Getty [Ben Getty’s son] is the man who mainly works with him on the runs.”
Variety is clearly an essential feature of Thurman’s outlook on cardio. Different lengths and types of runs are spread out at random across the week in order to “shock the body and keep it guessing,” as Birmingham put it.
“Keith does all kinds of different runs,” Dan notified. “His long run on a Wednesday often takes him across Clearwater Beach, while his shorter four or five-mile runs allow him to implement interval training into his cardio. He’ll pick the pace up, then slow it down, then pick it up, and slow it down again.
“On other days he’ll hit the track and do three 800-metre runs, followed by two 400-metre sprints, followed by two 200-metre sprints. Then we’ll do a couple of 100-yard dashes and then walk for a mile. It’s better than repeating the same exercise over and over again.”
Thurman concurs with his coach’s view on the importance of diversifying routine cardio sessions to achieve maximum gains.
“I always try to mix it up,” Keith conveyed. “Swimming and cycling have less impact on the joints and they’re good for dropping weight, so sometimes I’ll jump in the pool or get on the bike instead of running. Whichever form of cardio I choose to do, I make sure to stay in my optimum fat-burning zone, which was recommended to me by my doctor. This really helps for cutting weight and getting in shape.
“I tend to run for longer distances at the beginning of camp and do sprints when it’s closer to the fight. However, for the most part, I like to keep my runs quite long. Towards the end of camp I can shorten them up, because by then, my conditioning is in place. During the last week of training, I cut the running out and stick with shadow-boxing and jump rope for cardio, as I don’t want to overexert myself.”
It is distinctly evident that Thurman is a man with a plan when it comes to his fight training and preparation. They say there is nothing better than when a plan comes together, and so far for “One Time”, everything is going exactly as planned.