Just two years ago, the landscape of the welterweight division was completely different. Manny Pacquiao had just suffered a shocking — albeit controversial — loss to Jeff Horn, which signaled a changing of the guard in the division and in boxing overall. With Floyd Mayweather set to rob the bank in a cash grab against the UFC’s Conor McGregor, Pacquiao was the last remnant of boxing superstars from a previous era, and he appeared ready to ride off into the sunset as his best years were behind him.
Meanwhile, Keith Thurman had recently unified the WBA (Super) and WBC welterweight titles by defeating Danny Garcia. Shawn Porter had just ransacked Andre Berto after dropping a decision to Thurman earlier in the year. Errol Spence Jr. claimed the IBF welterweight title with a one-sided battering of Kell Brook. He was still boxing’s dirty little secret as the sport’s most lethal fighter. As for Terence Crawford, he defeated Felix Diaz to retain the junior welterweight titles and had not yet ventured to the 147-pound weight class.
What a difference two years makes.
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All the major players were in the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday night. Spence and Porter were bickering on television over their unification bout scheduled for Sept. 28 in Los Angeles while Garcia and Adrien Broner were also in attendance. Crawford is still with Top Rank and wasn’t present even though he’s become a titleholder in the division as the WBO welterweight champion. Even Mayweather made an appearance as he caught a glimpse of boxing’s past and present, seemingly content with retirement.
But the fight they came to see was one that was considered unfathomable 24 months ago as a rejuvenated Pacquiao at the age of 40 was fighting Thurman, a man who had only fought once in two years and had a difficult time against journeyman Josesito Lopez.
Modifying a quote from "Game of Thrones" character Syrio in the first season of the hit HBO show, and later put into action by Arya Stark in the final season: "What do we say to Father Time?"
Pacquiao looked as explosive as he had in years when he put Thurman down in the opening round and pounded on the former unified champion to earn an entertaining and hard-fought split decision victory and claim Thurman’s WBA (Super) welterweight crown.
Pacquiao’s victory was a reminder to the boxing world that the 40-year-old isn’t finished with boxing just yet and has once again found himself in the conversation as one of the sport's elite. His victory cements his greatness and likely sent him up a G.O.A.T. list a few notches.
Perhaps not since a 45-year-old George Foreman’s stunning knockout of Michael Moore to claim the WBO heavyweight title in 1994 have we seen a fighter have a career resurrection in his 40s. (For the record: Bernard Hopkins and Archie Moore’s post-40s careers don’t apply as both were still stellar entering their fourth decade of life. Pacquiao was on the verge of being sent to the glue factory.)
But where do Pacquiao, Thurman and the rest of the division go from here?
For Pacquiao, his journey is far from over. He has now won three consecutive fights in just over 12 months, with each victory more impressive than the last. He’s found his killer instinct that he appeared to have lost somewhere around the third fight with Juan Manuel Marquez in 2011, which was a necessary aspect of his career as he tore through eight divisions. With it, he would win rounds definitively by constantly looking for the kill. Without it, he let many opponents off the hook and was content on narrowly outpointing who he fought rather than beating them into submission. The skills were never in question, but the desire to dominate was.
With that mental block lifted, Pacquiao remains a compelling opponent for anybody at 147 pounds — but the next move could be a dangerous one. The prevailing thought is that Pacquiao will face the winner of Porter vs. Spence to unify three of the four major titles. The winner of that fight will likely be a more challenging opponent for Pacquiao than Thurman was.
The reality is that Pacquiao fought a version of Thurman who was befallen by a lack of activity over the past two years. Although unbeaten, he was a far cry from the man known as "One Time" who leveled opponents with his power during his rise to the top. Team Pacquiao knew what it was doing when it selected Thurman after soundly thumping Broner, who was another relatively safe option due to his name being bigger than his ability.
It was evident from the first-round knockdown that Thurman wasn’t as sharp as he needed to be in order to time Pacquiao. He would make some impressive adjustments and showed great resolve, but it was too little, too late for the product from Creekwater, Fla.
Pacquiao won’t have that luxury against either Spence or Porter. Most expect Spence, who is considered a top-three pound-for-pound fighter, to beat Porter and unify the titles. And while Spence has made it clear that he’s interested in a Pacquiao fight more than any other, a potential Pacquiao-Spence blockbuster would be a bad idea for the Filipino senator.
At 29, Spence is 11 years Pacquiao’s junior and has both the size and technical ability to give Pacquiao hell should they meet. He’s a giant in the welterweight division who, no matter what he tells us, won’t be hanging around at 147 pounds much longer. But should the fight take place, it’ll be against an opponent who once gave Mayweather all he could handle during a grueling sparring session that left "Money" with a shiner.
Spence has impeccable timing, a killer instinct and tremendous power. He shattered Brook’s other orbital bone opposite the one Gennadiy Golovkin, a middleweight, broke a fight before. His opponents have been beaten up. From September 2014 to June 2018, Spence either knocked out or forced 11 consecutive fighters to quit. His March fight against a fellow pound-for-pound fighter in Mikey Garcia turned out to be a one-sided boxing clinic. Like Pacquiao, Garcia was an undersized welterweight who simply couldn’t find a way to get inside Spence’s reach and paid for it dearly by being shut out for 12 rounds.
If you are Pacquiao, you may want to pass on that fight. In the event that Porter defeats Spence, it may be a more winnable fight, but Porter’s physicality is something that could be trying for the soon-to-be 41-year-old. Maybe he should look elsewhere.
There are two fights available against opponents he could match in terms of skills or size: Mayweather and Crawford.
Mayweather wasn’t just in attendance because his promotional company was part of this fight. The man who enjoys his millions needed to see what Pacquiao was in the ring, and how he was received outside of it. And judging by the sellout of 14,356 fans who were seemingly all there for Pacquiao, there’s still money to be made.
Although Mayweather dominated Pacquiao when the two met in 2015 for a record-shattering night, there were lingering questions about a shoulder injury that limited Pacquiao and that lack of killer instinct. Mayweather-Pacquiao 2 could answer those questions with what we expect to be a much better version of Pacquiao bringing an undefeated opponent out of retirement who hasn’t fought a competitive opponent in half a decade.
The other opponent is less likely, but maybe a bit more intriguing in Crawford. This is a fight that Top Rank’s Bob Arum could have — and probably should have — made while Pacquiao was still a part of his stable. But for one reason or another, he did not and missed the opportunity to make "Bud" a superstar. Well, he has an opportunity now, but he’d have to split the pie with Al Haymon.
The reality is that Crawford has absolutely nobody to fight at Top Rank, and a bout with Spence would only be made bigger if Crawford managed to beat Pacquiao. And for Pacquiao, a victory against a man who is more his size — but arguably more talented — would further add to his legacy without the danger of being muscled around by a larger, younger and incredibly skilled fighter.
Highly unlikely, but it’s doable.
As for Thurman, he’ll need to go back to the drawing board and work his way back into the welterweight elite. There are three options for him that are compelling for a number of reasons, but only one of those options should be immediately targeted.
Thurman could face Yordenis Ugas, who defeated Omar Figueroa Jr. on the Pacquiao-Thurman undercard. Ugas also gave Porter all he could handle in a fight in which there were those who saw Ugas winning. But it wouldn’t be pretty as Ugas’ Cuban amateur style doesn’t make for entertaining fights. He’d be a tough out, but perhaps too dangerous for what the return would be.
Another option is Mikey Garcia, who has been all over the place lately. He’s been tied to a fight with Danny Garcia at welterweight, where he appears to want to stay despite being small for the division. Then there have been talks of him signing with DAZN. Regardless of what he’s doing, he’s in need of a big fight, and if the Danny Garcia option falls through, a bout with Thurman is intriguing.
The timelines don’t quite match up, however. Garcia needs a fight sooner rather than later, and Thurman has been clear that he won’t fight again until 2020.
That leaves one fighter who isn’t quite as dangerous but carries mainstream appeal: Broner.
They both have a common opponent in Pacquiao, and Broner is already planting the seeds for a fight by ridiculing Thurman after Saturday night’s loss for "nearly quitting" and accusing him of not being focused. Considering that Broner hasn’t won a meaningful fight since John Molina Jr. in 2015 but has relied on his ability to go 12 rounds with anybody, perhaps this would be the perfect "get back" fight for Thurman.
Broner’s antics outside of the ring have kept him as a top attraction, and Thurman could use an opponent who will sell the fight and isn’t quite as skilled as the others mentioned. Broner hasn’t fought since the Pacquiao fight in January and would likely stay on the sidelines should a money fight with Thurman materialize.
Boxing remains a volatile sport, one in which money often supersedes making the correct matchup. But, as it stands right now, the welterweight division is as exciting as ever and has plenty of options for both Pacquiao and Thurman.