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Unavoidable Action: Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter's questionable tactics

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Bad Left Hook's Connor Ruebusch analyzes the competitive fight between Shawn Porter and Keith Thurman and, perhaps unfairly, compares them to their predecessor Floyd Mayweather.

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Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter put on one hell of a fight, and there's really no point complaining about that. It was a thrilling, action-packed battle of attrition between two of the very best welterweights on the planet. Between them, the two men threw 1200 punches, each connecting with well over 200. In fact, Compubox had Thurman and Porter landing at a nearly identical clip, with 235 for Thurman and 236 for Porter, and connecting within five punches of one another in 10 of the 12 rounds.

So yes, it was fun. As far as entertaining and meaningful action goes, I'd rate Thurman vs Porter 10 out of 10, plus two scintillating championship rounds.

Fighting in the welterweight division, however, there really is no avoiding the comparison to Floyd Mayweather Jr, the man who ruled 147 for nearly a decade before retiring in 2015. In fact the comparison was begged several times throughout the broadcast by the commentators themselves, who repeatedly insisted that this contest would decide the heir to Mayweather's vacant throne. While perhaps conceptually true--Porter and Thurman both deserve to be in the "best welterweight" discussion--one can't help but notice how different the two boxers are from their predecessor, and--in some ways--how much worse.

Brisk exchanges and sudden momentum swings were abundant in this fight, but the subtleties that kept Mayweather at the top of the game for so long were almost entirely absent. In fighting, excitement is usually the product of error, and Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter both made plenty of those.

VARIATION

In its broadest sense, variation is at the heart of scientific boxing. How do you move a savvy opponent into the paths of your punches? How do you keep him from picking up on patterns and countering those punches? How do you stay one step ahead of an opponent determined to do the same?

Variation is the name of the game. Clever boxers change the speed of their punches. They change the way in which they set them up, and alter the trajectories of those blows to capitalize on the defenses of the opponent. From the start, Shawn Porter had tremendous difficulty in accomplishing these goals. In truth, variation has never been his strong suit. He is a powerful, physical fighter who either imposes his will on his opponent, or doesn't. But against a powerful counter puncher in Keith Thurman, Porter's inherent predictability became a serious problem.

When Porter had Thurman backed into the ropes, he left himself wide open to counters. Not as the result of any particularly bad technique, but because the rhythm of his attacks was utterly predictable.

Note how Porter closes the distance and leads with a left uppercut followed by a right hand. Were you to set a metronome to those punches (as I did in my analysis of Gennady Golovkin's broken rhythm), you would find that his next attack, once again a left followed by a right, followed the established tempo to a T. And because neither the basic pattern nor the rhythm of those two combinations changed, Thurman easily picked Porter off with a vicious counter right in the midst of his second attack.

Of course, variation is also an integral part of defense and ringcraft, and in this regard Thurman failed to adjust to his opponent's aggression. Porter is not a man easily scared off by power. In fact, a boxer who studied his prior fights would have quickly come to the realization that he tends to increase his aggression in response to powerful counters, rather than backing off. And yet Thurman, despite timing Porter's assault with a beautiful counter, was perfectly willing to remain right in front of his opponent.

Counters can do damage, but no boxer should expect every clean shot to end the fight. In a strategic sense, the real utility of counter punches is in their ability to create a moment of hesitation on the part of the man being hit. That happens in this sequence. When Porter is stung, he is put momentarily on the defensive. He doesn't retreat, but he does plant his feet and look to evade Thurman's follow-up shots. Rather than using those punches to keep Porter busy while sliding out to the side, however, Thurman just keeps throwing, just as static as the man he has just successfully countered. When Porter does regain his senses, he is able to tie Thurman up and fully recover, enough to launch a successful follow-up attack. Thurman, with his feet squared and his back to the ropes, has no choice but to accept the clinch and wait for a break. And his response to that follow up? Backing straight into the corner, loading up on counters without a thought to the prospect of escape.

Some of that is just in Keith's nature. Thurman is not a pure boxer so much as he is a boxer-puncher, emphasis on the puncher part. He can stick and move, and some of his best moments in this fight came when he did just that; but with a willing dance partner, and one who asked repeatedly to dance nice and close, Thurman just couldn't resist the exchanges.

Still, this wasn't helped by Thurman's corner. Though we don't have access to the full transcript, what glimpses of trainer Dan Birmingham's corner work we did witness were full of vague and contradictory advice. "Keep working. More punches. Pick your spots." Distance management and ring generalship would likely have granted Thurman an easier path to victory, but Birmingham confused the issue by asking his fighter to exchange, even while demanding that he box smartly.

Nonetheless, Keith Thurman steadily took over the fight, though Porter would continue to have his moments. It was Porter's inability to change rhythm which proved key to Thurman's victory. As the rounds went by, Thurman found more and more success simply waiting for Porter to lead and countering. His most successful punch was the left hook, usually thrown after slipping Porter's jab.

The jab, mind you, is the punch off of which every other punch is built. Unlike other punches, a fighter's jab could do virtually no damage over the course of an entire fight and still serve its purpose. Namely, measuring distance, obstructing vision, and creating openings for the other punches. And it serves this purpose through variation. The jab has more innate adaptability than any other punch. It's angle, speed, and commitment are all utterly adjustable, which allows it to augment the more predictable power punches that follow.

Porter, however, threw his jab like any other blow. He would tense up, lunge forward, and shoot a stiff-armed left cross at his opponent before throwing his second power shot. It tended to come out first, the way jabs do, but it failed to serve its true purpose. In fact, Porter's jab had so little variation that it became a liability, a predictable opening through which Thurman could sling his well-trained counter left hook. As a result, Porter was forced to abandon it later in the fight.

Porter replaced the jab with a lead right and, crazily, it worked like a charm. With no more rhythmic variation than the left, Porter's right hand found the mark again and again in the later rounds of the fight.

In this instance, we can attribute Porter's success to Thurman's failure. Like the man who was now abandoning the jab to strafe him with power punches, Thurman's game was almost entirely devoid of feints. Observe his advance at the start of this GIF. Both hands high in a purely defensive position, Thurman comes forward just waiting for Porter to lead. When Shawn obliges, Thurman is totally unprepared for a right-handed attack.

Had he feinted his way in, he might have drawn that attack from a safe distance, and therefore improved his chances of anticipating it. Had he feinted his way in, he might have compelled Porter to retreat, and put his back to the ropes. Had he extended his left hand, he might have sensed the distance between himself and his opponent and managed to step back before Porter could connect.

When it comes to punch stats, the vast majority of boxing matches include a good number of "throwaways." Of 1200 punches in an average fight (no average number of punches, mind), some two or three hundred would be punches whose sole purpose was to gather information. Pawing jabs, probing right hands, deliberate blows to the shoulders and gloves--that sort of thing. But in Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter's case, it was all power punches, all the time. An entertaining firefight that nonetheless revealed the strategic gap between Keith and Shawn, and men like Floyd Mayweather.

STABILITY

Distance management is an important aspect of boxing which was largely missing from this fight. The jab in particular is a valuable tool for measuring distance, thrown not to do damage but to simply touch the opponent, and then catalog the sensory feedback for future reference. Without throwing jabs and catching the jab of your opponent, it can be devilishly hard to really feel the distance. Sight can be tricked where touch is more reliable.

As noted above, neither Thurman nor Porter concerned themselves with distance management for the better part of the contest. That led to a few rather embarrassing sequences like this one.

Keith Thurman leans forward, baiting Porter with his exposed chin, and yet seems totally unprepared when Porter leads with a jab. From Mayweather, this trick often created the opening for his famous pull counter. For Thurman, it only created an opening for Shawn Porter. The move smacks of unearned confidence, and leaves Thurman looking like a boy playing with big brother's gun, only to shoot himself in the foot.

This happened in round five, by which point a skilled boxer like Thurman should have already gained a firm sense of his distance, especially with an opponent like Porter who doesn't much concern himself with deceptive positioning. But because Thurman neglected to gauge his distance in the rounds prior, he doesn't read the threat in Porter's short, shuffling steps. He doesn't realize his chin is in range until Porter does his best to knock it off.

It's a wonder that Thurman was so successful in countering Porter despite doing almost nothing proactively to create those opportunities. With such an innate sense of timing, imagine how much more dangerous Thurman would have been had he studied his opponent and learned his distance.

Even as Thurman took control of the fight, however, he continued to risk his lead. There was nothing for it: every time Thurman wanted to attack, he did so with reckless, full-power shots. So keen was he to knock Porter senseless that he ended up granting Porter further opportunities to win.

Here, Thurman lands a very nice lead right, but watch his legs as he follows up. Though he starts in an orthodox stance, the momentum of his attack leaves him completely out of position, feet shifted and balance flung forward. Porter doesn't even have to work to get Thurman to the ropes--a simple underhook and a soft shove do the trick, and Thurman is forced to stumble his way to the edge of the ring, desperately covering up as he spins around to face his opponent.

Again, there is nothing measuring Thurman's distance for him in this sequence. As Porter slides back, Thurman doesn't try to reset, or touch his man with one of his already-extended arms. He simply loads up and shoots the same lead right hand with which he had begun the exchange, and this time Porter is ready for it.

LAST OF A KIND

A look at two individual fighters doesn't prove much, but it sure feels like this contest represents a larger trend in boxing--American boxing in particular.

Rather than a deep well of technical skill, Shawn Porter is a physical dynamo who challenges his opponent to match his pace. But Porter's style doesn't just use his athleticism, it demands it. To his credit he is exceedingly well-conditioned but the point is that, without his strength and conditioning, he would be utterly lost. Porter doesn't have the discipline or technique to stave off a younger, fresher opponent or survive the after-effects of a bad training camp. Skills tend to stick around for a while, and savvy is damn near inextinguishable, but youthful vigor is fleeting.

And Keith Thurman, who has looked so brilliant in many past performances, relies a great deal on power and timing. Though he came away with the win, "One Time" rarely managed to avoid close rounds. He landed the harder, cleaner punches in many of them, but he ate plenty of hard, clean punches in the process.

Former manager and boxing writer Charles Farrell once claimed that Floyd Mayweather was the last of his kind. That's perhaps a little too doom-and-gloom for my liking, and a close look at the ranks reveals that there are plenty of brilliantly subtle trainers out there producing brilliantly subtle boxers, pugilists such as Tevin Farmer, Terence Crawford, Rances Barthelemy, and Vasyl Lomachenko.

Hearing Mayweather's name mentioned so frequently throughout the broadcast, however, I couldn't help but view this fight through a trainer or manager's eyes. Imagine, I said to myself, if the winner of this fight were given a shot against the Mayweather of old. Imagine preparing them for it after watching such a stark display of the ways in which they fall short of his standard. As the tone of this article probably has you thinking, it kind of dampened my enjoyment of a spectacular fight.

And truly, the comparison here is not fair. Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter are both excellent fighters, with strengths and weaknesses like any other. Floyd is a rare talent, his natural timing and speed matched by a true dedication to his craft. Thurman and Porter, 27 and 28 years old respectively, seem to have settled into their grooves; Mayweather was still changing and adapting his style at the age of 35. Thurman and Porter may occupy Mayweather's old division, but they are not Mayweather, and there's nothing wrong with that.

In the end, Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter put on a great fight that can only raise both of their stocks with the boxing world. No number of Negative Nancies with particular ideas of what boxing should look like can take that away from them.

They may not be able to match the grace and precision with which Mayweather imbued his bouts, but there is one oft-repeated criticism of Mayweather's career that could never be lobbed at this fight. Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter are two of the best in the world, and they happily fought one another tooth-and-nail to prove who belonged where in the rankings. Say what you will about the way they chose to fight, but the matchmaking was faultless. And that's something we don't get to say nearly often enough in the world of boxing.