By GARY SHELTON
He was 10 years old, a kid with a book of legends. And he kept trying to figure out how to get inside.
It was a book on boxers, and Keith Thurman remembers thumbing through the pages, looking at the pictures of the fighters. Even then, Thurman knew he was on the wrong side of the pages. Even then, he wondered how a kid might someday be in such a book.
Now he has his chance.
History is waiting for Thuman. And a legacy. Perhaps immortality.
All he has to do is keep winning.
For Thurman, 28, it is as simple as this. The more a man wins boxing matches, the more special he becomes. The bigger the opponent, the more memorable the matchup, and the more children will whisper his name.
On March 4, Thurman faces his most challenging fight against Danny Garcia. Like Thurman, Garcia is a champion. Like Thurman, he is undefeated. Like Thurman, he is young enough and hungry enough for a career-defining fight.
“Becoming a champion is one way of getting a legacy for yourself,” Thurman said at the St. Petersburg Boxing Club. “But there has always been champions in the sport of boxing. But there have been fewer unified champions. There have been even fewer undisputed champions.”
In boxing, one belt is usually enough. There haven’t been many who had multiples.
But Thurman wants to be one.
One like Sugar Ray Leonard.
Like Felix Trinidad.
Like Floyd Mayweather.
The fight between Thurman and Garcia will be only the third unification bout featuring undefeated boxers. The first was when Donald Curry knocked out Milton McCrory in 1985. The second was when Trinidad won a close decision over De La Hoya.
In all, there have been nine unification fights in the welterweight division, two of them won by Mayweather. Someone is going to hit someone else with a history book
Oh, Thurman will shrug at you and tell you it’s just another day at the office, that his job is no different than it has been since he was 7 years old. But you get the feeling that, inside, Thurman is still trying to figure out a way into his boxing book. He is a bright man who knows much about boxing history, and hey, who doesn’t want to be thought of as one of the best ever? Recently, Thurman was talking to the former great De La Hoya. “You know, if you fought now,” Thurman said, “I’d be calling you out.”
And both men laughed. Boxers are who they are.
So the Garcia fight is an important one for Thurman’s legacy. Oh, financially, he has it made. He has a belt. He has respect. But it’s the hunger a man finds to drive him when he achieves it all that makes the great ones. It’s the competitiveness that lies in the ring.
“I have an opportunity to unify these titles,” Thurman said. “All I have to do is keep doing what I ‘m doing. I’m living the dream of becoming the best fighter in the world.”
Slowly, Thurman has been making a name for himself. His fight with Shawn Porter was judged as the best of the year. But trainer Dan Birmingham said that Thurman was only fighting at 90 percent, and Thurman himself says “something was missing.” He couldn’t quite finish Porter off. He wants to put on a better show.
“Danny feels confident,” Thurman said. “He believes he can hurt me. Let it go. If you can beat me, beat me.”
Thurman doesn’t think that will happen. He’s the smarter fighter, he says. Birmingham says he’s the stronger fighter. Thurman has always prided himself in his adaptability, that gift of his to change his attack in mid-round. For this one, Thurman may need all of his edges.
“I’m just moving on up,” Thurman said. “I’m separating myself from the others in the welterweight division. The winner on March 4 will get spotlight priority over all the others in the division, and he’ll deserve it.
“I love evolving. In a way, this fight is almost a warm-up. Boxing is the easy part. I know boxing. I’m in my prime. I look forward to showing the world what kind of athlete I am.
“Pressure? There is no pressure. I made my dreams come true. There was a time I was happy to have one pair of shoes. Now I can go in the mall and buy any pair of shoes I see.”
Still, there are fights to be won. There is a legacy to be polished. There is immortality to maintain.
At age 28, with “five more years, maybe 10” years in front of him, the heavy lifting has just begun.
For him, a career will be built belt by belt. Maybe book by book.
All he has to do is stay upright.
(Gary Shelton is one of America’s most-honored and distinguished sports journalists. Gary has spornamed the Associated Press Sports Editors’ No. 1 national sports columnist twice, has been a top five finisher five ot,her times and was chosen by sports editors in the top 10 columnists eight different years. He has been selected Florida’s Sportswriter of the Year six times. He was a columnist with the St. Peterburg/Tampa Bay Times for 25 years after joining the newspaper from The Miami Herald. Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls and 10 Winter and Summer Olympics, The Masters, the World Series, the Stanley Cup Finals and national championship in college football and basketball — all on multiple occasions over the past four decades. He currently has his own website — garysheltonsports.com — blanketing all sports in the Tampa Bay area. He is among the most creative and thoughtful and opinionated, and hard-headed, columnists you’ll ever read. And funny. And one of the good guys. Don’t ever miss his columns, interviews and stories on garysheltonsports.com. Gary has agreed to be an occasional contributor to woodypaige.com.)