By Juan C. Ayllon
Photos by Belle Ayllon
ST. PETERSBURG, FL , August 9, 2012 – The heavy steel door slammed shut. We just entered St. Pete’s Boxing Gym, a beige stucco-sprayed single story building with chain link fencing covering an exterior air conditioning unit on both the sides and top (possibly to protect it from ransacking for the copper inside). At one thousand square feet tops, it’s surrounded by a sea of asphalt at the corner of 49th Street South and 14th Avenue South in a hardscrabble section of the Gulfport neighborhood. A partner in the gym, boxing trainer Dan Birmingham slides a quarter inch thick iron bar across the door, securing it.
“That’s so no one accidentally walks in on us,” he says with an ironic smile.
Little wonder: According to neighborhoodscout.com, on a crime index of one to 100 (100 being the safest), St. Petersburg rates a three, the site deadpans, making it “safer than 3 percent of the cities in the U.S.”
Twenty feet away, just past a montage of posters and faded newspaper clippings on white walls, the hand-wrapped fists of a bobbing boxer lash out at an imaginary opponent in a grimy boxing ring, each strike punctuated by the “fffssst!” sound of air blown through compressed lips.
Fffssst! Fffssst-fssst! Fffsst-fffsst, fffssst-fffssst!
His long, black coily hair pulled back in a ponytail and olive skin glistening, he glides about the ring doing boxing’s version of a kata in a white tank top, dark plaid shorts and low cut boxing shoes. His pug nosed face, which sports thick eyebrows, a mustache and a trim beard running along the jaw line looks young and fleshy, almost cherub-like, and while he’s not ripped in the classic sense, there’s no mistaking his sturdy frame and the power wielded behind his swings.
He had an amateur career record of 101 wins (76 KO’s) that included six National Championships and a loss to Demetrius Andrade at the 2008 US Olympic Trials that netted him the Silver Medal, Wikipedia notes. Undefeated as a pro, welterweight slugger Keith “One Time” Thurman (18-0, 17 knockouts) is easing back into training and awaiting word on his next fight, which should happen sometime this fall.
Managed by the powerbroker Al Haymon, whose long list of boxers includes Floyd Mayweather Jr., he’s on the fast track, having just fought rugged Orlando Lora (29-2-2, 19 knockouts going in) in the supporting act of HBO’s televised massacre of Vincente Escobedo by Adrian Broner (another Haymon client) on July 21. Officially listed at 5′ 11″, Thurman is really closer to 5′ 8 – 5′ 8 ½”, according to Thurman – which makes him less daunting in the same way that putting pink bows on a pit bull terrier makes it soft and harmless like a Maltese.
Thurman continues shadowboxing, ducking, weaving, and throwing punches. Then, like a prop from a B-rated horror movie, a black, ominous bug appears and lilts overhead as if suspended by a nylon string. Thurman screams. It’s a wasp. Thurman rushes the ropes and clambers out. “They think my hair’s a nest,” he says, eyes wide with fear. The wasp disappears into a small hole in the ceiling and the crisis abates. Thurman resumes his workout – so much for the pit bull.
That may not be so bad, after all. Birmingham laughs. “Winky Wright was the same about cockroaches,” says the former trainer of world champions Ronald “Winky” Wright and Jeff Lacy. “I remember Keith when he was 10, 11 years old,” he says, standing outside the ropes. “He came in the gym and oh, he had talent! He was 15 years old boxing with Jeff Lacy and Winky Wright and Chad Dawson – guys that are bigger and stronger and more experienced and he was holding his own. So, we knew he was special.”
Winding down his workout, a sweat-soaked Thurman gets philosophical, sharing that a doctor told him that as an athlete ages, his production of fast twitch muscle fibers decreases. He surmises that this played a large role in his stable mate, Ronald “Winky” Wright, 40, losing his comeback fight against undefeated contender Peter Quillin in June. Losing by decision, Wright retired after that bout.
“There is a little bit of a lag, a small fraction of a second,” says Thurman, who sparred with Wright to help prepare him for that match.
“Yeah, that’s what Winky was saying in the fight (vs. Peter Quillin),” Birmingham interjects.
“The fast twitch muscle fibers, everybody has them, if you’re an athlete or not. The thing is in our division, we train our fast muscle twitch fibers and, throughout time and aging, there’s a lag; it starts to slow down. It’s not as responsive,” Thurman elaborates. “The signals that go to the brain take more time; if you need more time in the fight, you’re in a bad situation.”
Asked how Thurman performed against Wright in sparring, Birmingham said that he did very well, adding that it’s hard for a 40 year-old ex-champion to keep up with someone fresh – and special – like Thurman.
Maybe this is the reason why at age 23, Thurman is busting at the seams to get a crack at a world title, make his mark on the sport and retire by the time he’s 30.
“I want to be a world champion and be one of the greatest of all-time, hopefully go into the history books,” Thurman effuses. “I’d like to get more knockouts than Mike Tyson, so, we’ll see what happens.”
Keith Thurman, Jr. was born to Keith Thurman Sr., a high school and college wrestler, and Debra Thorsen. “My mother drove down to Florida while I was in her womb,” he says. “So, I’m born and raised a Floridian, but my mother, my father and grandparents are from Ohio.”
After settling into Clearwater, Florida, his father found a construction job and, later, a position working at a candy factory. “He hopped in a job really quick and became a provider here in Florida and he helped raise me,” Thurman recalls.
His parents spilt up when he was young, and Keith grew up the oldest of four children. It wasn’t long before the boxing bug took hold.
“My dad wrestled in high school and when I was a little kid, he was partaking in karate. And that was one of the things that got me interested in fighting in the first place, watching my dad train and see him develop certain martial art skills,” he says. “He would show me a few moves and we’d watch Kung Fu movies together – you know, Bruce Lee and Steven Segal – he was a big Steven Segal fan. That was a small motivation to me that just led up to me being a boxer.”
The seed was planted, but it sprouted in elementary school. Looking back, he says:
“I was seven years old and my original trainer, Ben Getty, was the head janitor at the school, Belleair Elementary. I still live right across the street from that school today. He put on a boxing exhibition for the after school YMCA program. And after viewing that exhibition, there was a real small, small little white kid in my class, and he went up on stage. I didn’t know he was boxing or nothing. He went up on stage and he did some mitt work. He was throwing fast, sharp combinations, he was slipping punches, and my trainer, Ben Getty, told everyone at the camp there, whoever wants to join, take the paperwork in the back and have their mothers come down to the school and talk to him. And so I took the paperwork home, had my mother sign it, had her come to the school, and I’ve been boxing ever since. ”
Thurman’s start was less than auspicious. Of the early days, he recounts:
“I was not the best fighter off the bat. I was getting beat up constantly. In the beginning, though, he didn’t just throw us in the fight. I had to train for a few months before I got to mix it up with other kids that were around my size. And we had a kid named Mario at the time, and Mario was like one year older than me. I was about eight years old at the time, he was nine and he had all these little muscles, and he used to put it on me pretty much on a weekly basis. I kept coming to the gym and then eventually I remember the first day I knocked him down, and that gave me a boost of confidence. And it showed that with hard work and dedication as long as you stick with anything, you can achieve your goals.”
As he ventured into middle school, he experimented with other sports, he highlights:
I played baseball when I was younger at one point. And I also played football in the eighth grade right before high school. I played JV Varsity. I took off boxing for about eight months. At that time, it was just tough at that point in my life: Boxing is not a seasonal sport. All these other kids that get into little sports and athletic things, they have seasons: They have an on season and an off season. There’s no such thing as an off-season (in boxing). So, I pulled myself out of boxing for a little while and while I was out, I put myself into football because I thought it would boost my conditioning a little bit and it was a great learning experience for me.”
The ‘Thurman Test’
As he grew, notoriety and accolades followed. One such claim to fame was the “Thurman Test,” which he describes this way:
“Back in the day, Dan (Birmingham) had Jeff Lacy and Winky Wright. Both had belts at the time. Dan was getting a whole bunch of phone calls as he was a two-time “Trainer of the Year.” Many professionals were coming in trying to get work. So, the fighters that came in, nine out of ten times, we threw them in with me! I was about 15 and 16 years old at that time and some of them did good, some of them held their own, some of them hit the floor and some of them ended up going home, some of them stayed. For me, it was more great experience that I was able to get through this gym and Dan Birmingham.”
When asked who some of the big names who hit the floor were, he pauses, smiles, and says, “No comment.”
Thurman also sparred with current WBC Light Heavyweight Chad Dawson during the time. “I worked with him when I was like 16 years old, and we were getting great work,” he says.
Thurman attended Clearwater High School, but that was short-lived. “I attended class – sometimes.” he says. “I’m a high school dropout. I got out as soon as possible at the age of 16. And I got in the gym with Dan and Winky because the pros trained earlier in the morning, so as soon as I dropped out of high school, I just started my pursuit in boxing like I knew that I would.”
With his ‘Thurman Test’ and a slew of amateur accomplishments, he had every reason for his confidence. Reflecting on his amateur laurels, he says:
“I have to say (my favorite memory was) the first state championships I ever won. That was pretty nice. I was probably like nine, ten years old. Then, from that point, my (next favorite memory was my) first national championship, which I was about 13.
“Actually the first national I ever went to was a “Go To” National Championship; because you don’t have to go to a state and a regional to qualify. And it was held in Augusta, Georgia. But shortly after that, I won the Silver Glove Nationals at the last year that I was capable of – I think at the age is 14 or 15 or something like that. And then I won the PAL three times. I won the Ringside Worlds at least three times then the last accomplishment I had in my amateur career was a Silver Medal in the 2008 Olympic Trials versus Demetrius Andrade.
“Yeah, he beat me back-to-back in the tournament. I was winning in my bracket, I was winning all my fights, Demetrius was winning all his fights in his bracket, we met up in the final bracket, and he beat me, putting me into the loser’s bracket. I had a one day off, he had two days off. I took that day off, fought one, then we had a rematch, and fighting Demetrius, we had a few fights in the amateurs (and) we knew each other very well. He has a height advantage and it was points, you know, it was technical points game, and I didn’t really want to fight my fight and go all crazy, because I would leave myself open and give a big gap, and so I was a little hesitant in that fight; that didn’t help.
“I should have fought my fight; if I would have lost, I’d lost because I already lost anyways. But, you know, I gave it a good shot. I still accomplished something through that. Not everyone can say that’s something they’ve done before, being a Silver medalist at the Olympic Trials. And being the Silver medalist put me in the bracket of being an Alternate (on the boxing team), but that same day, I said ‘no’ to the position because I told them that I was going to pursue my career. So, I dropped out of the amateur’s right after that fight and just decided to turn pro.”
The question begs to be asked: Would he like to fight Andrade again in the pros?
“Yeah, I’d fight him again. I don’t have a problem fighting him. Right now, he’s currently not in my weight class, so there’s no real desire of fighting him, and me and him have a lot of things to prove in the professional ranks. Anyways, if we meet up in the future, then we’ll just do it again!”
On another former amateur opponent, Boyd “Rain Maker” Melson, whose claim to fame was beating Thurman in the amateurs, he shares:
“Yeah, he beat me once – according to the judges, not according to me. But, it was a really great fight; it was a close fight,” Thurman recalls. “But, whenever I watch the fight, I believe I won the fight. And it was in Colorado Springs at the U.S. Championships and him beating me made me come in fourth in that tournament. He came in second; he lost to Demetrius Andrade. Andrade came in first that year, and we met up at the Olympic Trials, me and Boyd Melson, and I think he retired I believe by the second round. So, I was able to make my statement that year.”
The Rumor About Knocking Out Andre Berto In Sparring
There has been a rumor circulating on the Internet that Thurman had knocked out former WBC and current IBF Welterweight champion Andre Berto in sparring. Frankly, it was what initially piqued my interest in Thurman. However, he maintains it never happened. “I landed a pretty good body shot, but I never dropped him; he never dropped me,” he recounts. “We both got a lot of respect for one another.”
Reflecting on his last fight versus Orlando Lora, he says:
“I learned that, you know, patience is a virtue. I had a faith in myself. I know my abilities, I know my power, I knew that I was going to be able to create that knockdown. And I knew that even though he was acting tough and macho, when I went after it with anybody, it doesn’t feel good, especially with small, eight, ten ounce gloves.
“I just stayed composed. It was a really good stepping stone. I felt that I did a really good performance I thought that there were a couple moments where I thought that I could have done better, but I was just sticking to my game plan and it worked out.”
I want Pacman
On calling out Manny Pacquiao:
You know, I’m a fighter that comes from the amateurs with six, seven national titles, and in our national tournaments, you don’t get to pick who we want to fight; we can’t say, ‘I’ll fight him on day one, I’ll fight him on day three’ – we don’t get to pick and choose. So, here in the pros, there’s just a little bit more business, a little more movement of how fighters go about their careers and I’m just young and I’m hungry, and I’m ready to fight the best. I’ve been mixing it up with world rated champions since I was 16 years old. I just want a piece of the action. I want to get in there and showcase my skills and talent and hopefully come out with that victory – a K.O. victory – and keep representing Keith Thurman the way we hope to do.
“I want to continue to bring excitement to the world of boxing. A lot of people are coming up with this debate about UFC and MMA and how exciting their fights are and that’s all I’m trying to do, I help the fans out, bring in these exciting fights and hopefully here soon, we can make some of those things happen.”
A Disaster Averted
Of Quandray Robertson, who knocked him down in the first, but was dropped himself in the first, second and third rounds before being stopped in September 2010 – Thurman says:
“That was the hardest shot I’ve ever been hit in my life. It was a head shot. My hands were probably somewhere around my chin, and he came in with a jumping left hook that hit the top of my head right about the temple and I can’t say nothing-I went down. It was the opening punch, the first punch of the entire fight. I was still daydreaming; I don’t know what was going on. But that definitely woke me up real quick. I was able to get up and I went right after him.
“Normally, that’s not something people normally do after being knocked down, but I took it right to him because at that point, I was losing a 10-8 round, so I said there’s nothing else you could lose, so I just went back to the way I was used to fighting, I pressed, I got my knockdown that same round, and evened the score out, and with that knockdown I believe I was able to win the round, and then I knocked him down in the second, and I knocked him down in the third. If you ask me if he didn’t knock me down with that punch, people wouldn’t have seen the fight; there would have been three knockdowns to zero, but people saw it one knockdown to three, so it was an entertaining performance.”
On whether he prefers a slugfest to a counter punching fight:
No, I don’t. I’m a boxer; I’m ready for everything. I have over a hundred fights in the amateurs, so, with that experience and all the professionals that I’ve been in the ring with in training camp, I know just about every style of fighter, so when I step in that ring, I’m prepared for everything, for whatever you want to bring. As Bruce Lee says, “Be water, my friends, be water!”
Taking Care of Business
Asked for a short wish list of whom he’d like to fight, he says, “Just take the whole top ten – the whole top ten!”
On working with Dan Birmingham, who some say is the defensive genius behind Ronald Winky Wright’s championship style:
“Good. Me and Dan, we go back to when I was about 14 years old, so we’ve established a great relationship with one another. I feel really comfortable working with Dan. He’s seen me for many years, so he understands me, he understands my style of fighting, and it’s good. Through the years, I’ve just matured in the gamed and throughout time, learning how to stay calm, stay relaxed, composed in heated battling situations, and being in this gym has really been a great help. So, Dan’s been a great help in my career.”
Birmingham, who took over training after Ben Getty passed, adds, “Ben and I were close friends for 20 years, even before Keith came along.”
On working with Al Haymon as his manager:
“It’s great, you know. He’s a 100 percent businessman. He knows how to do his job. Everyone has their role in the world of boxing, and he’s just doing a phenomenal job at his role. He helps out many, many, many elite fighters, and he’s created plenty of world champions and, hopefully, I’ll be another one.”
On making a living in boxing:
“Boxing is my only job. Live it, breathe it, eat it, you know? This is my dream, you know, and I’m really blessed after all this hard work and dedication, having my first HBO appearance against Orlando Lora. That’s just proof that the dream’s coming true. I’m just really excited and grateful and blessed, and I thank God every day for being able to live the life.”
On waking up the day after a fight on aches and pains:
“I don’t really know how to comment on that because I’ll say it depends on what kind of fight you’re in. You know, to each their own. It can almost feel like a hangover, depending on what kind of battle and war you’ve been through. You’re going to have some bruises and abrasions that you didn’t see the night of the fight and the next morning they start to color up more. And, after a real tough fight, everyone needs a little bit of a cool down time to let the body relax and rest up.”
On how long he wants to continue boxing:
“I’d like to retire at the age of 30. That’s been my lifelong goal since I was even 15, 16, and I started to think about choosing this as a career path and life path.
“Working with world class fighters, that’s what makes you a world class fighter, you know, so all the years that I worked with world class fighters growing up and getting to mix it up with the great top fighters, they just help me and I can’t complain, which I plan to get in the near future – bring some champions and always trying to get that work and step my game up!”
On after boxing is through:
“We’ll just have to see what happens at that point, you know? It depends on how much money I made in my career, it depends on if I get into commercials… anything, anything. I might own my own restaurant or something, do something in business, you know, I want to retire at 30, so we’re going to have some form of a plan. We’ve got some time to plan. First off, I want to achieve my goals in boxing.”
On whether or not there’s someone special in his life:
[Long pause]. “My mother, my father, and the Lord.”
On whether faith is a large part of his life:
“Yeah, faith is a great part. Real close people that know me know that I’m a self-proclaimed philosopher and the way that I see it, is you have to believe it to achieve it. So, faith is a daily process of life.
On whether he’s an active member of a church:
“No. No, I just think that the body is a temple; I just try to respect my body and respect others. Like I said, I’m a philosopher. I do my own research through the Internet and libraries and local books, things like that. Knowledge is power. Even though I said I’m a high school dropout, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t continue to learn. I just stopped reading their books and picked up a few books of my own. ”
Let’s Get It On
“To fellow boxers and all my fans, to the fans, thank you for your love and support; to the fellow boxers: Hard work and dedication are the keys to success. Dreams do come true,” Thurman says. ”I’m calling out the world, baby. Just bring it! Let’s fight. ‘Get rich or die trying.’ – 50 Cent.”