What The Hell Is Going On With Keith Thurman?

Let’s get this out of the way first — Keith Thurman beat a very game, very tough Luis Collazo Saturday night on the debut of “Premier Boxing Champions” on ESPN. In fact, he became just the second man to stop the bloody mess that was Collazo after the Brooklyn quit on his stool before the 8th round. For the most part Thurman dominated the action, landing the harder shots while remaining in control of the fight despite narrowly averting disaster in the 5th round. That’s the good news.

I won’t mock the fact that he got nailed with a nasty body shot in the 5th and was seriously hurt like some people have. No, Collazo doesn’t exactly have middleweight beast Gennady Golovkin’s power, but Thurman took a good shot right on the liver, somehow held himself up, and got right back to work in the 6th round. Other than the fact that he took the punch, if anything it showed that the dude has some pretty solid recuperative powers and a stern will to stay on his feet. If we pissed on everyone who got hit, we’d only have Floyd Mayweather to cheer.

But there is something strange going on with Thurman, particularly in his last couple of fights. For one thing, “One Time” is becoming less and less of an applicable nickname. Though he did bust Collazo up, and he knocked Robert Guerrero down in his last performance, Thurman has become a bit fleet of foot, especially for a guy with a reputation as a vicious puncher. After stalking Collazo for the first couple of rounds and winning them handily, Thurman decided to get on his bike, bouncing all over the ring while Collazo became the stalker. So what is it: Is he somehow afraid of getting tagged in an exchange? Is he frequently injured or maybe afraid of running out of gas?

Against Guerrero, he dominated the fight by landing hard combinations, but after the knockdown he did the same thing — hopping from pillar to post, giving the impression that he was somehow hurt. And this was after his dreadful, hideous fight with 87-year-old Leonard Bundu last year. After Thurman levelled Bundu in the 1st round, he proceeded to back up like he had a deranged grizzly bear in front of him for the rest of the evening. The result was an easy decision victory that was excruciating to watch.

It’s hard to understand this sudden change of style, especially because it appears like he’s fixing something that isn’t broken. He was doing just fine, and he was a helluva lot more fun to watch, when he was standing in the pocket and bashing through guys.

We can’t blame his trainer, Dan Birmingham, for the ol’ switcheroo. Birmingham was pleading with Thurman to stop fighting off his back foot Saturday night. He didn’t want Thurman to allow Collazo to be the aggressor, making the point to Thurman that Collazo struggled when trying to punch in retreat mode. Thurman apparently didn’t hear him, or just didn’t want to listen. It reminds me a little bit of Adrien Broner’s maddening insistence on shoulder-rolling his way through fights — it’s a counterintuitive approach.

Perhaps Thurman is a little gun-shy. He certainly doesn’t come off like it outside the ring, but maybe there’s a lack of confidence going on, a lack of trust in his beard. But the problem with fighting scared is the same problem NFL coaches have when coaching not to lose — usually the thing you’re trying to avoid is the very thing that happens. When a team punts instead of going for the kill, they usually end up bitten in the ass by the time the clock runs out. And a puncher who fights to avoid contact can end up hurt anyway, much like Thurman did against Collazo.

In allowing Collazo to fire away, Thurman ended up gasping for air in a desperate attempt to survive. It’s hard to envision Collazo coming out the victor if Thurman had decided to trade bombs. More than likely, it would have ended with a nasty knockout. He took an unnecessary shot because he was acting like the one with a knockout ratio under 50 percent.

But to me, this doesn’t appear to be a crisis of confidence, but of a crisis of identity. Thurman earned his recognition by hammering the piss out of inferior opposition. Now that he’s climbed up from prospect to contender, he’s going to find that some of these guys won’t drop as easily. Maybe he’s simply adapting. And it’s not as though he’s struggling mightily — he beat up on Collazo, the 5th round notwithstanding, and he rolled all over Guerrero — it’s just not all that enjoyable to watch. At least, it’s not what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing out of the guy some fans think can one day take over from Mayweather as pound-for-pound king.

Thurman is young, undefeated and, maybe most importantly, has the managerial backing of Al Haymon. We’re going to keep seeing a whole lot of him. And I certainly don’t think he’s suddenly a singles hitter, but he isn’t sitting down on all of his shots like he used to. Again, he’s still effective, he’s just going to go the distance a whole lot more than he’s used to. Maybe he’ll go back to laying guys out with an aggressive, you’re-going-to-sleep mentality if he gets the right opponents in front of him. Or maybe this version of Thurman is here to stay, and we’ll be the ones going to sleep.

He just might have to change his name from “One Time” to “Some Other Time.”

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