Philosophy of fighting: Keith Thurman interview

Luke G. Williams
28/11/2017 5:15pm

Keith Thurman is a big hitter with two world titles. He's also a deep thinker. Luke G. Williams caught the welterweight champion in a reflective mood as Thurman outlined his views on life and boxing...

Nearly an hour into our interview and Keith Thurman is reflecting on the influences that have made him the undefeated WBA and WBC welterweight champion of the world, as well as the forces that drive him as a human being.

“There’s a famous book known as the Book of Five Rings,” he tells me. “An old samurai warrior wrote it and I actually recommend the book to a lot of young fighters.

“It talks about a lot of good fighting techniques - even though the writer [Miyamoto Musashi] was a samurai he talks about fighting with other weapons as well [as the sword] and even hand to hand combat.

“I’ve always admired the samurai spirit that comes from Japan. I’m a boxer from America but if I’d lived a thousand years ago in Japan I’d have been a samurai warrior.”

These comments, as I have discovered in the course of our conversation, are classic Thurman.

The 28-year-old from Clearwater, Florida is not only one of the world’s leading boxers, but one of the sport’s most fascinating and complex characters.

A deep thinker, Thurman is a man of action who is also a self-taught intellectual; a man who is steeped in a great love of boxing but who also possesses a passion for widening his knowledge and experience of the hinterlands that exist beyond pugilism’s traditional boundaries.

On the evidence of his calm, unruffled demeanour and stellar professional boxing career so far, Thurman has managed to balance these potentially opposing forces without contradiction. He is also equally eloquent whether talking about his recent fistic performances, or reflecting on the beauty of cherry blossom season in Japan, where he recently vacationed.

Interestingly, when I ask him about his love of studying philosophy and religion he is keen to draw a distinction between Thurman the boxer and Thurman the thinker.

“I don’t [study philosophy] for the ring,” he emphasises. “I do it for the person, for the human being who is Keith Thurman, not the boxing champion Keith Thurman.

“When I’m not in the ring, I like to know and read about the stages of great wisdom of various philosophers, from hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago. I like to know what man thinks of himself, you know: what does man think of man? What has man thought of man [in the past] from the Greeks to the Roman Empire? It just floats my boat, man.

“Not everybody believes in God and is religious, but everyone in the world has their own viewpoints on religion, politics or whatever. I was raised a certain way, it wasn’t real Bible thumping or anything like that but I was educated in the Bible and grew up a certain way.

“I [also] really enjoy the teachings of Buddhism. Buddha has a whole bookshelf of different forms of teachings – an A to Z on how to fix human problems. I have some books of Buddhist quotes and one of my favourites is a really small book – sometimes simple reads are the best – it’s called Buddha’s Little Handbook.”

Thurman’s path to self-discovery has not always been easy. “Reading used to be very challenging for me, way harder than boxing was,” he reveals. “But as I grew up it got a little better year by year. By the time I hit the tenth grade, finally I was at an eleventh grade reading level and for the first time I was able to read above what they claimed I should be able to read.

“I wasn’t interested in school that much; I’m actually a high school drop-out. At one point I decided to take my own books to school and no longer take school books to school. Every day I would only read my own book in school, whatever book I felt like reading. When I did drop out of high school, surprisingly enough, I didn’t stop reading and in my early 20s I got into philosophy and wanted to study world religions.

“If you want knowledge all you have to do is a read a book. I taught myself. It’s great if you have a good teacher, but nowadays, with the way the internet is, you can cross reference your knowledge ten fold by pressing www dot!”

Before boxing or philosophy entered Thurman’s life, martial arts enraptured him as a young child. “I didn’t really know what boxing was as a kid, but I was a fan of martial arts,” he explains. “Me and my pops used to watch Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal and Jackie Chan movies back in the early 90s.

“I had a passion to be a fighter at a very young age, I must have been four or five, but an opportunity never presented itself [to box] until I was seven years old when [a man called] Ben Getty put on a boxing exhibition for the after-school YMCA programme at Bel Air Elementary in Clearwater Florida.

“I knew then I wanted to box. I took the paperwork home, I had my mom sign it the same day and I was signed into an after-school programme where we trained three days a week.

“Ben Getty trained me from the age of seven to the age of 20 when he passed away. I still wear his name on my trunks every time I get in the ring. He told me that I had what it takes to be world champion before any one else – he believed in me before I could believe in me. I’ve been dedicated to the sport ever since.”

Thurman’s amateur pedigree was impressive, encompassing around 100 wins, several national titles and the runners-up spot at the US trials for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. However, although he has been steeped in the sport for 21 years, ‘One Time’ remains committed to the concept of self-improvement.

“I’m an evolutionary fighter,” he explains. “There’s many different things about my fighting style that have evolved. I’ve always been a power puncher ever since I was young. I know how to sense blood in the ring and also look at my prey from afar. I can fight really well on the outside, I can bang and trade on the inside and if I sense blood I can go in for that killer strike.

“My boxing ability and techniques have evolved and I’m continually trying to let them evolve. I’m pretty much trying to be the Rubik’s cube of boxing. I’m trying to be the best fighter I can be and I think one of the ways I can be that is to not be predictable, not to allow my opponents to say ‘Keith Thurman always fights like this’, or ‘he has these habits’.

“Ben Getty used to say: ‘if you do your homework, you’ll pass the test’. When I’m in preparation for a fight I study the other fighter – I have no problem looking at tape, working out a blueprint of past habits they have, the way their fight style normally is.

“I didn’t become champion over night, these skills weren’t developed overnight, we’re still sharpening the skills though, still sharpening the knife. We’re still trying to execute certain techniques – create a better defence, create a better offense so that we can be what we can be - the best fighter in the world, especially in the welterweight division.”

Right now it is hard to argue that Thurman is not the top dog at 147lbs – not only is he the WBA and WBC champion, but he has secured successive victories against world-class foes Shawn Porter and the previously undefeated Danny Garcia.

“I do feel that I’m the man at 147,” Thurman admits. “I’m the only man at 147 that has two world titles. But there is a lot of young talent, there’s a lot of people to fight and there’s still two world champions out there that I haven’t faced.

“I love the sport, I love challenging myself and I look forward to the challenges that are to come. For me this is a dream come true, this has always been the job I’ve wanted and I have it.”

In his victory against Garcia in March, Thurman demonstrated coolness under pressure and the tactical acumen to eke out a deserved points victory. It’s a performance he admits he is proud of.

“I felt comfortable in the ring every round,” he reflects. “I felt like I was controlling the fight, that the fight was going at whatever pace I was setting. Garcia was smart enough to not eagerly run into any of my traps or anything of that nature. He was aware that I was being patient and trying to set him up, but my movement confused him a lot.

“I was happy to prove my point which is that Danny Garcia had never fought a fighter like Keith Thurman – which is somebody who can move, who can box and punch. I got his respect from the first round when I caught him with that overhand right. He was worried about the power for the rest of the fight.

“A lot of people that Garcia has fought he’s been the stronger man. He hasn’t had to worry, he’s simply walked people down. But in our fight it was a different case. It wasn’t my best performance but I did the job and got the victory.”

In the lead-up to the fight, the antics and rhetoric of Garcia’s father Angel caused much controversy. Thurman’s reaction, several months later, when reflecting on Garcia’s tirade of racial epithets is typically thoughtful, as he places the incident within the context of his experiences of racial prejudice and his search for identity growing up within a dual heritage family. 

“Danny Garcia’s father, he said a whole bunch of stupid nonsense that had nothing to do with boxing. I didn’t want to hear about it and I didn’t want to be questioned about it for weeks and weeks leading up to the fight. He didn’t offend me because he didn’t talk about me, but he don’t know me. And if you don’t know me how can you talk about me?

“Sadly enough there is prejudice in the world... Growing up in America, we know how blacks have been treated throughout history. You go back to slavery, segregation, to now, when everyone is mingling with each other but that doesn’t mean everyone likes each other.

“Then you have the media and the press, normally television news, they report more frequently the crimes and things that happen among blacks, which creates a stigma.

“I’m Polish-Hungarian African American but I look Latin. I always knew my mother is white my father is black, it is what it is. I’ve always had mixed friends, black friends and some white friends, it’s always been like that.

“[Growing up with dual heritage parents] is challenging you know, but everything’s challenging for a kid. Around the time I was growing up, I remember black kids who wanted to be educated being called ‘white’…

“How was being smart ‘white’? I wanted to grow up, I wanted to be smart, but I didn’t want to be ‘too white’. I wanted to be ‘black’ and fit in but I don’t look fully ‘black’, my hair doesn’t look ‘black’.

“It’s a struggle for a kid, man, but I feel like a lot of life is a struggle for a kid. We’re all created equally under God. My father is African and told me just the other day he’s never judged anybody on the colour of their skin or where they come from.

“The only thing he cares about is how someone treats him and how someone treats others. Do you treat others with respect? Are you arrogant? Or are you spinning ignorance the whole time?”

Rather than dwell on the pre-fight controversy, Thurman prefers to revel in the fact that, with over 16,000 fans crammed into the Barclay’s Center, Brooklyn to watch the contest and a peak viewership of 5.1 million viewers on CBS, the Garcia fight was tremendous exposure for his career.

“It was great to be in the spotlight,” he enthuses. “I’ve worked really hard to build my career up to this point and it was nice to get the love and affection we’ve been getting from the fight fans.”

And the next step for this pugilistic philosopher?

“Right now I’ve not negotiated [my next] fight. It’s all just talk. Keith Thurman can fight anyone, Shawn Porter, Lamont Peterson, Manny Pacquiao or the winner of Kell Brook vs Spence right?* There’s a lot of great match-ups at 147. There’s a lot of options. My team haven’t presented anything though so everything you hear is just street talk!”

*This interview was originally published in the June 2017 issue of Boxing Monthly magazine