WHEN Manny Pacquiao shockingly lost to the unfancied Jeff Horn two years ago – albeit on a contentious unanimous decision – the end was seemingly nigh for the ageing great. Yet since this unexpected reverse, the legendary Filipino has notched impressive victories over the heavy-handed Lucas Matthysse and the enigmatic Adrien Broner.
Such has been the eye-catching nature of Pacquiao’s resurgence that the bookmakers have installed the 40-year-old as favourite against a reigning world champion who is 10 years younger and has never tasted defeat. But Pacquiao’s fine form isn’t the only reason why Keith Thurman is the slight betting outsider ahead of their fascinating Las Vegas matchup this Saturday (July 20). The American’s poor injury record and recent inactivity certainly has something to do with this, too.
After overcoming the previously unbeaten Danny Garcia via split verdict to unify the WBA and WBC welterweight belts in March 2017, Thurman was considered one of the top two 147-pounders on the planet, alongside Pacquiao. The future looked extremely bright for the charismatic Floridian, but fast-forward nearly two-and-a-half years and Thurman has fought just once in this period. Injuries have seriously curtailed the Clearwater native’s progress. There are still two standout fighters battling it out for supremacy in the welter ratings, but it’s no longer Thurman and Pacquiao. Errol Spence Jnr and Terence Crawford are the de facto division leaders now.
In total, Thurman was on the sidelines for close to 23 months following the Garcia triumph, which cost him his WBC crown. Surgery was required on his right elbow, while a troublesome left hand – which kept him out of action for the entirety of 2011 – was a recurring problem. Even his unanimous points win over two-time world titlist Shawn Porter in June 2016 took place later than initially planned after Thurman suffered whiplash in a car accident. If he is to regain his previous momentum and be mentioned in the same breath as Spence and Crawford, he must stay fit and active.
On his return in January, Thurman was understandably rusty against gutsy gunslinger Josesito Lopez. After a tougher-than-anticipated tussle, the 30-year-old was awarded a majority decision, but deserved a unanimous vote. Nevertheless, his defence, which is usually relatively tight, was breached a few times by Lopez.
In contrast to Thurman’s somewhat sluggish latest showing, Pacquiao has shone in his two most recent contests. Displaying a level of aggression and ruthlessness which had been largely absent from his game for quite some time, the General Santos City icon devoured Matthysse in seven rounds 12 months ago – his first stoppage success for the best part of nine years. Six months later, Pacquiao conquered Broner in comprehensive fashion with a clear unanimous victory on the scorecards.
Despite being long in the tooth, against both Matthysse and Broner the southpaw superstar demonstrated that he still possesses rapid handspeed and an abundance of energy. Nimbly bouncing around on his toes, he displayed an expert use of angles and connected with quick jabs, jarring uppercuts and signature flurries.
Having held major world titles in six different weight classes, Pacquiao, 61-7-2 (39), boasts an unrivalled amount of top-grade experience. His long list of opponents includes luminaries like Marco Antonio Barrera (twice), Juan Manuel Marquez (four times), Erik Morales (thrice), Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Shane Mosley, Timothy Bradley (thrice) and Floyd Mayweather. It’s incredible to think that Pacquiao made his professional debut way back in January 1995 when Thurman was only six years old.
Unlike Pacquiao, who started out in the pros weighing just one pound above the strawweight limit, Thurman, 29-0 (22) 1NC, is a career welterweight. His first 23 appearances saw him register 21 early wins, though in his subsequent six outings he has had to go the 12-round distance on all but one occasion. This suggests that as his standard of opposition has improved, his punch potency has become less prominent. Nonetheless, he remains an explosive puncher when unleashing fast, slashing blows from either fist. He’ll have youth, size and power on his side this weekend.
In the Matthysse and Broner bouts, Pacquiao was up against adversaries who operated at a slow pace and lacked vigour and dynamism. This allowed him to set his own tempo. However, the veteran won’t be afforded the same luxury against the agile Thurman, who will let his hands go and ask more questions of his rival. Many of the rounds will be hard to call, but with his versatility, mobility and draining body attacks, Thurman can retain his WBA strap on points.
The chief support on a stacked undercard at the MGM Grand sees locally based super-middleweight Caleb Plant, 18-0 (10), make the initial defence of his IBF title against Chicago’s Mike Lee, 21-0 (11).
The undefeated duo are well matched both physically and in terms of the number of rounds they’ve boxed as pros, yet Plant, from Nashville, Tennessee, has competed at a higher class. In January, he took the IBF belt from the big-hitting Jose Uzcategui by scoring two knockdowns en route to a well-earned unanimous verdict.
This will be Lee’s first fight for over 13 months, with part of the reason for his lay-off being the autoimmune disease which he has been battling for a number of years. A finance graduate from the prestigious University of Notre Dame, the challenger is moving down from light-heavyweight, having never weighed in less than 173lbs.
Lee is a natural athlete, but Plant’s smart movement and ability to dictate proceedings on the outside with his piercing jab gives him the advantage here. Although he can sometimes tire in the latter stages, the pick is for the champion’s sharp counters to lead him to a comfortable points victory.
After dropping a debatable split decision to WBC welterweight boss Shawn Porter in March, Cuban counterpuncher Yordenis Ugas, 23-4 (11), is targeting a rematch. The Miami resident – a medallist at the 2008 Olympics (bronze) and 2005 World Championships (gold) – takes part in a 12-round eliminator for Porter’s title against pressure-fighting Texan Omar Figueroa Jnr, 28-0-1 (19), who is a former WBC lightweight king.
In February, Weslaco’s Figueroa got past all-action slugger John Molina Jnr on a unanimous verdict, but was arguably fortunate to get the nod. He has been plagued by injury, inactivity and ill discipline, yet his high punch output and solid chin render him a threat. The technically accomplished Ugas, though, is favoured to win on the cards.
Figueroa’s aforementioned victim, Covina, California’s John Molina Jnr, 30-8 (24), is likely to suffer his sixth loss in his last nine bouts when he meets ex-IBF super-lightweight ruler Sergey Lipinets, 15-1 (11). The tenacious Kazakh-Russian, who fights out of Beverly Hills, can prevail on points in this fan-friendly welterweight 12-rounder.
In yet another 12, a pair of previous world bantamweight champs collide in an all-southpaw affair. Expect Tijuana’s powerful and significantly younger Luis Nery, 29-0 (23), to see off Miami-based Dominican and double Olympian Juan Carlos Payano, 21-2 (9), inside schedule. Rounding off this value-for-money bill is a battle of unbeatens, each of whom boxed at the 2016 Olympic Games – Efe Ajagba, 10-0 (9), and Ali Eren Demirezen, 11-0 (10). Nigerian Ajagba (Stafford, Texas) and Turkey’s Demirezen (Hamburg) are both hard-hitting heavyweights, but the former is further along in his development as a professional. Ajagba won’t need the full 10 sessions to succeed in this one.
The Verdict The Thurman-Pacquiao pairing is a truly riveting one.