Boxing analysts throughout history have found that, for the most part, boxers tend to fall into one of a small handful of archetypes, or styles. There are out-boxers, who slide effortlessly around the ring peppering their foes with pot shots, the pugilistic emodiment of an escape artist. Then there are pressure fighters, who focus their efforts on preventing escape, cutting off the ring and wearing the opponent down. There are counter fighters, patient tricksters who leave false openings and lead their enemies into devious traps. And then . . . there are boxer-punchers.
For a long time this last classification confounded me. The name implies a boxer with power, which sounds simple enough, but the rest of the styles aren't determined by physical attributes. Regardless of power, stamina, durability, or strength, a fighter's style is determined by his personality--his emotions and insecurities determine what kind of boxer he will be long before he ever sets foot in the ring. So how could the simple addition of a solid punch change a man's approach so drastically as to warrant a new category?
It wasn't until very recently that the answer dawned on me: it's not the punch that turns a boxer into a boxer-puncher, but the confidence that comes along with it. Aside from their dimensions, what separates Joe Louis from Wladimir Klitschko? Both men have legendary championship careers to their names. Both are born punchers capable at any moment of knocking a challenger out with a single blow. And yet Louis is seen as the quintessential boxer-puncher, a jack of all trades who can adapt readily to any circumstance, while Klitschko's realm of effectiveness is far narrower.
The reason for the difference is simple: confidence. Louis was never afraid to get knocked down. In his 69-fight, 17-year career, Louis hit the deck dozens of times, but always came back swinging. Whatever the reason, something in Louis would not let him quit, and that self-confidence translated to comfort in the pocket. Klitschko's career, on the other hand, has been defined by insecurity. No less a fighter than Louis, Klitschko is nonetheless completely averse to the idea of a fair exchange. Instead of marching his foes down and trading punches, he uses his reach and height to keep them at bay, or tie them up. Two heavyweight champs with legendary power; two very different boxers.
Keith Thurman started his boxing career as a puncher, but there's no doubt that he's picked up some serious craft over the last five years or so. An intelligent, well-read man, Thurman's confidence, which practically radiates from him during his fights, seems to stem less from his power and more from his understanding of and enthusiasm for the game of boxing. He certainly has power, but it is tempered by knowledge, sharpened by skill. He is, without question, a boxer-puncher, born and bred.
Thurman is known for his ferocious knockouts, but the skill that underlies them tends to go unappreciated, or unnoticed completely. Like Mike Tyson during his initial championship run, Thurman's power is made effective thanks to a bevy of set-ups, and a thorough understanding of angles.
Let's start with the jab.
Thurman uses his jab a few different ways, but typically it works like this: a sharp, stabbing punch meant to break the rhythm of an advancing opponent. Note how Thurman sits down slightly and pulls his upper body back toward his right leg as he throws the punch, keeping himself balanced and adding enough leverage to punch that, even while moving, it carries more than enough weight to knock Jesus Soto Karass back onto his heels.
But even the most polished jab wouldn't be very effective without the right timing, and Thurman times his punch perfectly. FIrst, he backs up. To Soto Karass, this feels like a good thing; Thurman seems to be falling back as a result of his pressure, and he advances forward, following Thurman in a straight line. As Thurman feels his back nearing the ropes, he fakes Soto Karass out not once, not twice, but three times in the space of a second. First he squares his feet and starts skipping to his right. Then, slipping a Soto Karass jab, he takes a single step to the left. Thurman knows that Soto Karass is anticipating some kind of tricky footwork, so he doubles down on his bluff, stepping his right foot back as if to switch directions once again, only to swing it around behind himself at the last second and pivot sharply to the left.
The effect of this playful trickery is plain. Soto Karass hesitates as he throws his second jab, unsure of where Thurman is going to be. As Thurman moves to the left, he penetrates Soto Karass' stance, taking the inside angle and catching him square with the jab, which interrupts Soto Karass' advance just long enough for Thurman to regain center ring.
Thurman also throws the jab in multiples. One of his go-to tactics is to pivot left with a series of small steps, covering each movement with a stinging jab.
Plenty of fighters throw the jab in twos, but Thurman is happy to stab with his left three or even four times in quick succession. This makes for a very safe method of escaping the corners when his opponent has started to pen him in. Thurman can confidently take as many side-steps or pivots as needed to get himself back to open space, because each movement carries with it the threat of a punch. And by working to his left, Thurman once again manages to pierce his opponent's stance, bypassing the line of defense (left hand, left shoulder, left foot) and firing quick jabs straight down the center.
Angles like this are what have allowed Thurman to continue knocking his opponents out even as the level of his competition increases. Here he pivots to his right, forcing Soto Karass to adjust to face him, and bangs him with a combination while he turns.
This time Thurman takes the outside angle, moving to the right around Soto Karass' lead foot. As he moves, he turns, keeping his own lead foot trained on Soto Karass' center-line. He can't expect to keep this angle forever, but Soto Karass cannot easily punch and pivot at the same time, so Thurman is free to unload as the other man struggles to adjust. By the time Soto Karass gets his feet set in the right position to punch, he's already been hit clean three times, and Thurman has had more than enough time to anticipate his punch, which he easily evades.
Thurman doesn't just lead; he's a capable counter puncher too, another trait that sets him apart from the majority of pure boxer types. In particular, Thurman likes to counter by punching with his opponent, typically attacking whatever side the opponent has just used to lead. Here he counters Juan DIaz's right hand with a left hook.
As if sparring with a mirror, Thurman instinctively answers Diaz's right with his left. Because Thurman attacks on the same side as the punch while the punch is being thrown, he is assured a clean connection, with no guard in place to dampen the blow. The opposite hand might stay beside the chin, but even the most flawlessly trained opponent can't guard with the right and throw with the right at the same time.
Below, Thurman uses the same tactic in a more aggressive manner.
He starts by sending a right to the ribs under Soto Karass' jab, and then a straight right over the top of the left hook, followed by a shorter, overhand right thrown against a jab. Thurman does an excellent job of punching in combination, following every right hand with a left hook, and interspersing his counters with leads when Soto Karass lingers in a poor position. This manner of fighting, more than anything else, speaks to the sheer confidence that lies at the heart of Thurman's style. No matter how hard an opponent hits, Thurman will punch with him.
Thurman's confidence also shines when he starts setting up his shots with throwaway punches. After his customary ferocious first round, Thurman often has his opponent wary of the power in his hands. Once he has them respecting his punches, he can use the threat of them to disguise other attacks, like so.
Here, Thurman throws what looks like a fully committed wide right hand. It's difficult to judge whether or not this was an aimed punch that missed, or one thrown purely as a distraction. Regardless, Thurman takes note of Diaz's reaction and follows up with a hard left uppercut. Diaz, who walks right out of his stance by moving his left foot before his right, narrowing his stance and leaving his balance compromised, is a sitting duck for the punch, and has to shake out some cobwebs after it lands.
Thurman flattened Jesus Soto Karass with the exact same punch, following a missed right with a left hand up the middle.
This right hand is, without a doubt, was intended to find the mark, but Soto Karass avoids it by pivoting to the left. Unfortunately he hasn't accompanied his pivot with a step, and so he ends up turning himself away from Thurman, rather than turning around him. Thurman isn't one to waste a good angle, and he jumps on this one with aplomb, shifting into southpaw as he rips the left uppercut up and into Soto Karass' chin. The Mexican's feet are square to the force of the punch, and he goes down as if shoved backward over a park bench.
In his finish of Soto Karass, Thurman showed the full breadth of his skills, bringing every aspect of his style together in a single sequence.
First, Thurman punches with Soto Karass, hitting his man mid-attack. Next he cuts an angle, pivoting off the ropes and around to Soto Karass' left. Jesus turns to face him, but not quickly enough, and Thurman connects with a short overhand right that connects at nearly a 90-degree angle--that's as clean as a punch gets. Then Thurman takes a step back, prepared for Soto Karass to fire back, but the moment he realizes that the Mexican is badly stunned, he steps right in with a three-punch combination. Soto Karass doesn't even manage to turn his body to face Thurman's before the heavy-handed American drops him to the canvas.
Saturday, March 7th Thurman faces Robert Guerrero. It may not end up being the toughest fight of his career, but Guerrero is without a doubt one of the toughest, grittiest men that Thurman has ever fought. Guerrero also fancies himself a boxer-puncher, but he lacks that essential ingredient that makes Thurman such a natural. When Thurman gets hit, he takes a breath, works his way to a safe position, and resumes his assault. When Guerrero gets hit, he slugs it out. It's all a matter of confidence, and a man secure in his chances does not resort to brawling the moment things get tough.
Guerrero could very well beat Thurman--even stop him--but even that would be okay. The poise that makes Thurman so dangerous in the ring makes him unbreakable outside. It will take more than a single loss to set this man back, and there are few boxers today more likely to learn valuable lessons in defeat. So there is the distinct chance that even a victory for Guerrero would only make Thurman stronger in the long run.
For the welterweights of the world, that's a pretty scary thought.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. On this week's episode, Connor and Pat break down the fundamental styles of boxing, and debate whether or not there are a few others that deserve to be included.