Pacquiao vs. Thurman: Who Will Roll as the Alpha Dog?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: (L-R) Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman pose for the media during a press conference at Gotham Hall in preparation for their upcoming fight on May 21, 2019 in New York City. Pacquiao and Thurman will meet for the world welterweight championship title on July 20, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by J. Yim/Getty Images)
Manny Pacquiao and Keith Thurman pose for the media during a press conference at Gotham Hall in preparation for their upcoming fight on May 21, 2019 in New York City. (J. Yim/Getty Images)

The upcoming WBA welterweight title bout between belt holder Keith Thurman, 29-0 (22), and former multiple-division champion Manny Pacquiao, 61-7-2 (39), is a difficult fight to preview for many reasons. Especially when you look at Pacquiao’s advanced age, forty years old, as well as Thurman’s inactivity—he’s fought only once in the past twenty-two months.

In fact, the only two things certain in this fight are, if it were vintage Pacquiao, circa 2009‒2010—the one Floyd Mayweather conveniently avoided—Pacquiao would be favored in a big way because (1) that version of him was an all-time great, and (2) this version of Thurman is no more than an outstanding fighter until further notice. Also, it’s important to stick with one’s first instinct, regardless of Freddie Roach’s typical prefight subterfuge.

First off, in terms of style, it’s no secret that Pacquiao is going to try to force the fight and make Thurman exchange and trade—because that’s who he is. Pacquiao is faster, throws from unconventional angles (even for a southpaw), doesn’t fear getting hit in return, and has total belief in his ability and toughness. Thurman, on the other hand, is only an alpha fighter when he feels his opponent respects his ability. Granted, he jumped on Danny Garcia and surprised him; but when Garcia didn’t go anywhere or back down, Thurman left him alone and used his legs and boxed for the second half of the bout.

Thurman recently said, “Movement will make it difficult for a fighter like Pacquiao to have the output he wants to have. If I feel like he’s getting off too much, maybe I will increase the movement.”

That’s plausible on Thurman’s part and he has obviously noticed how Pacquiao has been outboxed in some previous losses. It also sheds a light on Thurman’s mindset. Specifically, he’s only a bully if you aren’t one, and he knows Pacquiao can’t be bullied or intimidated. The trick for Thurman, however, will be outboxing Pacquiao from range while picking his spots without looking like he’s avoiding engaging—like Pacquiao’s last opponent Adrien Broner did. Thurman has a good, sneaky right uppercut and Pacquiao isn’t hard to hit on the way in while he’s in pursuit. And that applies threefold if he doesn’t respect his opponent’s power.

When Thurman fought Danny Garcia, he jumped on him early, which gave Garcia some trepidation; and by the time Garcia figured out it was more of a red herring, he was too far behind in the scoring to change the outcome once he picked up his aggression. That said, Pacquiao won’t make the same miscalculation. He still sees himself as the fighter who blitzed Ricky Hatton and Miguel Cotto ten years ago, although everyone knows he’s clearly not.

This isn’t a hard fight to break down when it comes to strategy because the fighters’ strategies aren’t going to surprise anyone—except for Thurman taking it to Pacquiao early in the bout when he’s fresh. Basically, Pacquiao is going to attack, which is something Thurman will avoid until he senses what Pacquiao has left. So Thurman will try to box and take advantage of Pacquiao’s not being a fighter who applies bell-to-bell pressure, and boxing from a distance should indeed be an option for him. Sure, Thurman has talked about going to Pacquiao’s body; but there is more risk in doing that than Thurman thinks. Conventional wisdom says Thurman should box and pick his spots against Pacquiao the way Floyd Mayweather did against him in May 2015. But Thurman isn’t as good as that Mayweather, and he is fortunate that Pacquiao isn’t the same fighter he was, despite posting a few notable wins since then versus flawed opponents such as Jessie Vargas, Lucas Matthysse, and Adrien Broner.

Despite the fact that he is a legitimate world-class fighter, Thurman is more of an unknown than Pacquiao. His biggest wins came against Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia, but they occurred in 2016 and 2017. Granted, he fought well in both fights; but at the same time he didn’t look special. And in his last fight against Josesito Lopez, he looked ordinary and vulnerable at times, and appeared very beatable by, say, a declining great—and that’s who Pacquiao is today, a declining great.

Although it may be obvious to say, it’s difficult to make a strong case for a forty-year-old legend beating a thirty-year-old many had high hopes for. Yet, at the same time, it’s also difficult to make a strong case for Thurman winning because Pacquiao is the greatest opponent he has faced. And it’s hard to ignore the question of whether Pacquiao is capable of beating any of the three welterweight titlists: Thurman, Terence Crawford, and Errol Spence. Among them, though, Thurman clearly presents the lowest degree of difficulty.

The biggest question connected to Pacquiao‒Thurman is this: will Thurman raise his game and back up his prefight bravado and get his signature win? There hasn’t been much buzz around Thurman other than his recent talking. If there was ever a fight for him to seize and take control of, it’s the one this weekend against Pacquiao. And those who are picking him are basically doing so because they believe Pacquiao is over the hill and that Thurman is poised for more intriguing matchups down the road. What’s more, if Pacquiao loses a close and competitive fight, his career will continue and still be lucrative and he can still pick his opponents like he usually does—something that would not happen if he got shellacked by either Crawford or Spence.

As the fight approaches, Thurman isn’t considered elite, which is something he believes will change with a stellar showing. And he knows a loss would take a year or two to rebound from, if he ever could. Another factor is this: a win by the forty-year-old Pacquiao over an undefeated thirty-year-old titlist in his prime would be one of boxing history’s biggest wins by any fighter older than forty. It would put Pacquiao up there with Bob Fitzsimmons, Archie Moore, George Foreman, and Bernard Hopkins (and don’t think Pacquiao hasn’t grasped that), and it would simply add more proof of his status as an all-time great.

At this time, Manny Pacquiao is vulnerable to being defeated by any elite fighter, but it’s just not clear that Keith Thurman is truly elite. Pacquiao, despite having every conceivable physical disadvantage versus Thurman, always fights like a big guy and will fight that way Saturday night. And that will put him in a position to either be clocked by the bigger and presumably stronger Thurman; or he’ll deal with what’s sent his way and break Thurman’s will, which isn’t out of the question.

Picking the winner of this one is a tough call. Pacquiao can’t go on forever and it’s time for Thurman to record a notable win—and he’ll have the ideal opponent to do that in Pacquiao. Additionally, Thurman knows exactly who Pacquiao is and how he’ll fight. On paper Thurman has the tools and diversity of style to win, provided he has the gumption to not fight complacently and rolls as the alpha dog.

When the bout was announced it was clear that it offered a great chance for Thurman to inject himself into the conversation as being an elite force in the sport; while at the same time it gave Pacquiao the chance to lose without being hurt or brutalized—because if Pacquiao doesn’t try to hurt Thurman, the complacent Thurman will leave him alone and be content to win an unspectacular decision.

In the end, this is Thurman’s time to shine. Most observers with any sort of valuable opinion are not committed to either side, and rightly so. With a Thurman win, better fights can be made for him versus Crawford and Spence, while Pacquiao will live to fight another day as a near-first-tier draw.

What is certain is that Pacquiao is the perfect opponent for Thurman to make his mark at 147 pounds; and, conversely, Thurman is the ideal opponent for Pacquiao to notch one of the more meaningful wins posted by any fighter after turning forty. Thurman by narrow decision.

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About Frank Lotierzo 16 Articles
Frank Lotierzo is also a staff writer for NY Fights. Over the years, his work has appeared in The Sweet Science, Boxing Illustrated, Fight Game, and Boxing Scene. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was an amateur boxer based out of Philadelphia and trained by George Benton. He is a member of the International Boxing research Organization and an ex-member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at glovedfist@gmail.com.