Thurman Beats Garcia: What Might Have Been

It was a fight that took far too long to make, and when it actually happened — with Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia finally alone in the ring after the bell to start round one sounded — it played out in reverse: an electrifying start gave way to tactical nuance that reached a deflating “crescendo” in the fight’s sluggish final third. Fighting on CBS in front of a massive live audience at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Thurman unified the WBA and WBC welterweight titles with an intelligent, tactical performance that was far more effective than inspiring.

But let’s pause for a minute. Keith Thurman deserves credit for outfighting Danny Garcia early and then largely outboxing him over the bout’s duration. No one was expecting a Leonard-Hearns I classic, and both Thurman and Garcia (to a lesser extent) flashed their considerable talents. However, one couldn’t help coming away from Thurman-Garcia with a palpable feeling of melancholy — a wistful sense of “what might have been”.

This has less to do with Thurman and Garcia, and what they could or couldn’t accomplish in their fight, than it does with the match’s timing. If Thurman and Garcia had contested this exact fight over a year ago, and if there wasn’t a lingering sense that we’ll have to wait at least six months to see either man return to the ring, no one would be complaining. Instead, what fans were sold was a genuinely significant — but hardly transcendent — match-up that was imbued with overblown “historic” meaning. The power brokers behind Thurman-Garcia assumed it was purely a reward for fight fans when in fact it represents the type of bout that ought to happen regularly.

While Thurman undoubtedly confirmed that he’s a top welterweight, this was hardly a fight to determine division supremacy; in fact, one could argue that the mouthwatering clash between IBF champion Kell Brook and elite contender Errol Spence Jr. will be far more revealing in terms of who’s the top dog at 147. Oh, and there’s also the matter of Manny Pacquiao still being in the mix. Thurman-Garcia, important as it was, proved to be an event propped up by the diluted meaning of proliferated sanctioning body belts and overhype.

The fight itself was intriguing, although it lacked sustained action. Garcia, for example, averaged a paltry 36 punches per round. And despite Thurman out-throwing Garcia 570 to 434 overall, the new unified champion was roundly criticized for circling and moving in a manner almost (though not exactly) reminiscent of Oscar De La Hoya’s coasting over the finish line against Felix Trinidad in their marquee welterweight unification bout. Unfortunately for Thurman, his tremendous start only exacerbated his calculated, but perhaps overly timid, finish.

Based on the opening round, fans were seduced into thinking they were witnessing the beginning of something special. And while Thurman somewhat sustained his aggressive start for nearly the first six rounds, he gradually began to reduce pressure and mix in more boxing, lateral movement, and counter punching. The subtlety of this shift seemed to confuse Garcia, who was never able to settle into a consistent rhythm. Credit Thurman for showing different looks, but don’t dismiss fan frustration after the early rounds tease.

There are certainly issues that can be raised regarding the scorecards, especially with yet another judge wanting to gift Danny Garcia a decision, but a split verdict is in some ways poetic. Yes, Keith Thurman won cleanly, but he boxed in a way that allowed for seeds of doubt to be planted; he eased up enough to permit a Garcia homer to make the maddening case that their man was “pressing” the action as Thurman simply “ran”. Sure, it’s asinine, but it’s also boxing.

It’s not entirely fair to say that both men fought not to lose as opposed to genuinely trying to win. However, it is reasonable to assert that neither man came close to going all-in on trying to put a definitive stamp on a victory. For a fight that was supposedly imbued with the pinnacle of stakes, that’s disappointing.

Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia are elite fighters — not the clear class of their division, but right in the mix and obviously championship-calibre. But their fight, and their respective rises within the framework of Premier Boxing Champions, is another unfortunate reminder of investing too heavily in fighter brands. With a primetime slot on CBS, boxing would have been far better off with Leo Santa Cruz and Carl Frampton representing the sport putting its best foot forward. With Floyd Mayweather Jr., the man who started the fighter-as-lifestyle-brand movement, out of the sport’s active picture, boxing is at a crossroads: fabricated stars or star-making match-ups? Thurman and Garcia are the types of pugilists we all hope to see more of in the latter.

Again, Keith Thurman owes no one an apology for winning intelligently. The problem is that Thurman-Garcia was mutated into something it was never supposed to be. It’s a fight that never should have been seen as pinnacle or end point; rather, it should have always been an important step along the way to something far greater. Indeed, it still could be. But how long will we have to wait to find out?

Zachary Alapi 

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