Despite his many critics, Keith Thurman hopes luring Manny Pacquiao into a brawl is his best shot at victory

In his first pay-per-view headlining role, amid questions surrounding whether his killer instinct as a puncher is gone, unbeaten Keith “One Time” Thurman has seemingly made it his responsibility to sell Saturday’s welterweight title bout against 40-year-old legend Manny Pacquiao. 

Each time a microphone has been placed in front of Thurman’s face in the buildup to the fight, which emanates from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (Fox PPV, 9 p.m. ET), like clockwork he has delivered. 

“Manny Pacquiao is a legend and a great man,” Thurman told CBS Sports’ “State of Combat” podcast last month. “But with all due respect, I can’t wait to punch him in the mouth.”

Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs) has also had little to no issue taking it upon himself to play the role of villain ahead of the fight — going as far as saying he will “crucify” the deeply religious Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs) during the May press conference to announce the fight — in a move that has been interpreted in vastly different ways. 

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To some, it was the 30-year-old Thurman inadvertently showing his inner fears as a way to drown out the questions facing him following a January comeback win after a two-year layoff that saw him nearly stopped by journeyman Josesito Lopez. To others, it was simply a marketing move to overcompensate for Pacquiao’s shy nature. 

From the perspective of Thurman, who overcame hand and elbow injuries that forced him out of the ring for 22 months, his verbal attack on Pacquiao seems to have been strategic from a tactical standpoint. 

“I hope he comes to knock me out,” Thurman said. “I think Manny Pacquiao’s style is all about his offense. Against the right kind of fighter, that offense — even though it’s a strength — can also be a weakness because it’s all about timing him when he’s coming in. I’ve got to hit him before he hits me. 

“I hope he’s offended, I hope he’s out of his game plan and I hope all that he’s thinking about is to come knock me out because I’m going to expose him.”

Pacquiao, the only fighter in boxing history to win titles in eight different divisions, has largely been a rock in the face of Thurman’s trash talk, whether at the press events to announce the fight or their “PBC: Face to Face” sit-down that was televised nationally on Fox. 

Although Pacquiao repeatedly said on camera that Thurman failed in getting under his skin, he admitted off of it that Thurman’s choice of the word “crucifying” and his follow-up comments about religion went too far. Those in Pacquiao’s camp, particularly strength trainer Justin Fortune, went public in saying he has never seen Pacquiao more motivated to score a knockout and traced the fuel for his fighter’s anger back to Thurman’s words. 

“I think I may have bothered him to a degree but at the end of the day, he’s a world champion and he knows this is boxing,” Thurman said. “You don’t fight with your words, you fight with your hands. But I said that I was going to hurt Manny Pacquiao and I’m going to retire Manny Pacquiao. I want to be a man of my word.”

Asked whether his plan to “poke the bear” could backfire should a motivated Pacquiao overwhelm him with power punches, Thurman instead compared PacMan not so much to a bear but to a dinosaur and heckled him by saying he fights with tiny “T-rex arms.” 

Thurman plans to bring the power to the ring on Saturday night.
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Thurman admitted his strategy in looking to get under Pacquiao’s skin was born during their time sitting across from each other in Los Angeles during the May press conference when Pacquiao looked a bit too comfortable. 

“He was smiling too bright. I wanted to take it away from him,” Thurman said. “I had to hit him where it hurt. I had to touch him in the soft spot. I had to let him know that he will be crucified on [Saturday]. That really means that it’s all over. His boxing career is towards the end. Just like Jesus, he knew his life was towards the end and he accepted it in full. I don’t think Manny Pacquiao has accepted it. I’m going to have to hit him with a right to point him into the right direction.”

Thurman’s words may sound tough, but they will prove to be nothing more than chatter if he’s unable to prove that he’s no longer the same fighter who left the sport in 2017 following career-defining wins over Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia with, at the time, the best resume in the sport’s deepest division. 

Not only did the injuries and his lackluster performance against Lopez raise eyebrows, there are some critics who point back as far as the way he backpedaled and ran during the championship rounds of his split-decision win over Garcia as a way to prove he’s no longer wired to be the seek-and-destroy fighter that originally made a name for himself. Others have gone as far as pointing to his 2017 marriage as further reasons why he has “softened.”

Despite his “One Time” nickname and the idea that it only takes one punch for him to finish opponents, Thurman has clearly evolved into much more of a pure boxer. Although he recorded TKO wins over Luis Collazo in 2015 and Julio Diaz the previous year, both were called due to either cuts or a rib injury. To find the last pure knockout from Thurman, one has to trace back six years to a referee stoppage against Jesus Soto Karass.   

“I do believe there are a lot of people who are not quite sure if Keith Thurman has the same kind of power that he once had and if he truly wants to get the knockout in any fight,” Thurman said. “Obviously, I’m still winning, I’m still the champion of the world. In my comeback fight, I dropped Josesito Lopez in the second round. I did not go in to finish him. 

“Some believe that my killer instinct is gone. I have evolved as a fighter but that doesn’t mean that I have lost my killer instinct. This is such a beautiful opportunity and I just see Manny Pacquiao as a smaller guy. If I have him hurt, I believe there is no excuse for me not to get him out of there.”

Thurman dropped Lopez but hung on for a majority decision following a three-round stretch in the middle of the bout in which he was visibly hurt by power shots and appeared on the verge of being stopped. Overall, Thurman graded himself a B-minus for the performance and was vocal entering the fight in saying he didn’t expect to be at his best. 

Admittedly, Thurman was looking to take it much slower in 2019, a self-proclaimed “get-back year” in which he expected to take as many as three comeback bouts before seeking title unification plans in 2020. Although the Pacquiao opportunity significantly altered that timeline, Thurman refuses to believe he only received the fight because Pacquiao believes he is vulnerable following the close win against Lopez. 

“Manny could have fought anybody in the world, but Manny Pacquiao could only fight a few champions and there is only a few undefeated fighters in the sport of boxing today,” Thurman said. “Keith ‘One Time’ Thurman is not only one of those fighters but even with my two years of inactivity, I still have the greatest resume in the welterweight division among the young champions today.”

Thurman ultimately has no issue with Pacquiao, who opened as a slight underdog, having become the betting favorite since the fight was announced. He has heard the questions that haunt him entering the biggest fight of his career and believes those favoring Pacquiao haven’t taken into account how little danger the Filipino’s recent opponents of Lucas Matthysse and Adrien Broner actually presented. 

While Thurman certainly gives Pacquiao credit for still looking great at 40, he believes Saturday is the toughest test Pacquiao has ever embarked upon. 

“I’m undefeated and Manny has never really took this kind of challenge throughout his whole career and deep down, I know he knows that,” Thurman said. “He has got retirement plans already. He’s a senator in the Philippines. He has a whole country that needs him. The sport of boxing, they need me. They need undefeated champions that are willing to fight other champions. 

“Manny Pacquiao only has two options in this fight. He can give up or he can retire. There is not a third option. 

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