Keith Thurman took the safe approach, and it nearly cost him.
Borrowing Oscar De La Hoya’s strategy in the last welterweight unification bout between unbeaten champions before Thurman’s fight against Danny Garcia on Saturday night, Thurman backpedaled and avoided close exchanges in the final two rounds.
Thurman believed he had built enough of an advantage during the first 10 rounds that two cautious rounds would prove sufficient to secure him the victory.
De La Hoya used a similar tactic when he faced Felix “Tito” Trinidad in 1999. Instead of pressuring Trinidad until the final bell, De La Hoya retreated and failed to extend an early lead. The strategy backfired as De La Hoya lost a controversial majority decision.
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When the announcement of Saturday’s winner at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn took longer than expected, a De La Hoya-Trinidad-type verdict suddenly seemed possible.
Thurman avoided a similar outcome as the Clearwater resident escaped with a narrow split decision win to become a welterweight titleholder under two sanctioning bodies.
“Fight fans love to see a tremendous fight, and sometimes when you come to a boxing match, you do get what you want,” Thurman said. “You get what you desire, but sometimes you see boxing. Boxing is an art. I finessed my way to victory.
“I was not giving the fight away. I felt like we had a nice lead, we could cool down. I felt like we were controlling the three minute intervals every round. My defense was effective. He wasn’t landing.”
Judges John McKaie and Joseph Pasquale scored the fight for Thurman 116-112 and 115-113, respectively. Garcia won on judge Kevin Morgan’s scorecard, 115-113.
Thurman (28-0) established pace early with solid rights to the head and body. Midway through the bout, Thurman also outpointed Garcia (33-1) with effective lead left jabs and right uppercuts.
“We hit him with big punches early on,” Thurman said. “He had this awkward movement about him. I was aware of his counters.”
As Thurman moved in angles and connected with his shots, Garcia continued to press the action and scored with left hooks and rights to the head. Thurman also deviated from strategy and on a few exchanges and traded wild shots with Garcia.
“I told you guys that he throws wide; I wanted to throw wide, too,” Thurman said. “I wanted to show, you swing, I swing. Batter up, right? I’ve been giving you baseball references all this week. He swung but he didn’t home runs. I swung, I didn’t hit home runs, but overall I landed more punches.”
In the closing rounds, Garcia narrowed the deficit and eventually earned the decision on one scorecard with rights to the head and body.
“I thought it was close and in the last four rounds I put the pressure and tried to throw punches and cut the ring off,” Garcia said. “That’s why I thought I won the fight.”
With the victory, Thurman retained his World Boxing Association title and captured Garcia’s World Boxing Council belt.
“True champions bounce back,” Garcia said. “I take my defeats like I take my wins. It’s a learning experience. I would love to get a rematch, but we’ll have to see what happens.”
Around the ring
Miami resident Yuriorkis Gamboa ends another lengthy fight absence with his ring return Saturday night. Gamboa, who has not fought since Dec. 2015, will face Rene Alvarado in a scheduled 10-round lightweight bout at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York.
A two-division world champion, Gamboa (25-1, 17 KOs) has dealt with multiple periods of inactivity the past four years. Before his victory over Hylon Williams in his previous return, Gamboa had not fought in 13 months.
Friday (10 p.m., Showtime): Claressa Shields vs. Szilvia Szabados, 6, women’s middleweights.
Friday (11 p.m., UniMas-Ch. 69): Andy Vences vs. Angel Hernandez, 10, junior lightweights.
Friday (11:30 p.m., Telemundo-Ch. 51): Mauricio Pintor vs. Patricio Moreno, 10, welterweights.
Saturday (11 p.m., HBO): David Lemieux vs. Curtis Stevens, 12, middleweights; Yuriorkis Gamboa vs. Rene Alvarado, 10, lightweights.