How a decision at 15 forever changed Keith Thurman's life

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A yellowing copy of a newspaper article hangs on the wall of St. Pete Boxing Club.

The headline reads: “Young boxer navigating a narrow path.” This follows: “Keith Thurman, 15, is focused on being one of the few to reach the Olympics, school a lower priority.”

Thurman is 30 years old now, an undefeated welterweight world titleholder among boxing’s elite performers and a multimillionaire. It is exactly where he believed he would wind up when he was 15.

At that age, few kids know what they want to do with their life, or they have tunnel-vision focus on the future, unless that future means plans for the weekend.

But Thurman wasn’t an ordinary teenager. He knew what he wanted, and he dropped out of Clearwater High School in his hometown of Clearwater, Florida, when he turned 16 to gamble on himself and a career in boxing.

His bet has paid off handsomely. Thurman will be making his sixth title defense against a legend — the still-formidable secondary world titlist Manny Pacquiao, whom he will meet on Saturday (Fox PPV, 9 p.m. ET) at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

“At the end of the day, you know, Keith Thurman is just not a 9-to-5 kind of guy,” Thurman said. “You know, know thyself. I’ve always known what I wanted for myself. I was 10 years old when I said nobody is going to be the boss of me. And I shocked a lot of people with that statement. I mean, I can barely listen to my own mother — how am I going to have a boss, you know?

“I was rebellious, I was a dreamer, and I didn’t know it at a young age, but I’ve always been an entrepreneur and I was going to pursue boxing and hope that boxing opens up doors that allows me to live out my life as an entrepreneur. And luckily for me, I’ve had great success, and I believe that I will have a life after boxing as well.”

Thurman may not have a formal education, but he has sought one on his own by reading and traveling the world. It would be just as easy to have a conversation with him about real estate or politics as it would be to have one about boxing.

“The day I turned 16, I handed in my [school] books, and when you turn your books in, you have to present them to the head principal,” he said. “So I’m sitting at the principal’s desk. He just simply said, ‘Do you really want to put all your eggs in one basket?’ My comment was, ‘You don’t know how good my basket works.'”

Thurman fought as an amateur for three more years — though he did not reach the Olympics as he had hoped to do — before turning professional two weeks after turning 19. He has not looked back since.

Asked if he would ever consider returning to school later in life, now that he could afford the tuition as a result of boxing paydays, Thurman joked, “I’m a doctor already, baby. Educated in boxing. So, I got my doctorate.

“A lot of people weren’t sure if I was making the right decision, but I knew I wasn’t going to be uneducated. I was just taking a different path of education.”

Keith Thurman

“There are many children who don’t have a sense of direction who don’t know what they want to do, don’t know what they want to be. Maybe they have a skill set, but maybe that’s not what they want to inspire in life. So, I’m a very fortunate individual and I’m very blessed to live the life that I live.”

Dan Birmingham has been by Thurman’s side since the beginning and is constantly amazed at what Thurman is able to pick up both in and out of the ring.

“If you know Keith well, he’s self-educated,” said Birmingham, who started as an assistant trainer and then became his head trainer following the death of Ben Getty in 2009. “He knows a lot of things that you can’t pick up out of books. He learns it. He lives it. So, in that regard, [a formal] education really wasn’t in his plans.”

But Thurman (29-0, 22 KOs) said he certainly understood those who were concerned about his decision to give up a formal education given the low odds of succeeding as a professional athlete — especially in such a demanding physical sport such as boxing. Some thought he was headed for the school of hard knocks.

“A lot of people weren’t sure if I was making the right decision, but I knew I wasn’t going to be uneducated. I was just taking a different path of education,” Thurman said.

Thurman turned pro in late 2007 in Tampa, Florida, and fought seven times there in 2008 to run his record to 8-0, helping him gain notice from promoters. In 2009, he signed with Golden Boy Promotions, which steadily built Thurman up over the next few years, including giving him fights on major undercards such as the Floyd Mayweather-Miguel Cotto show in 2012.

Thurman kept winning, and given his exciting style and outgoing personality, finally reached the big time when HBO put him on a televised undercard later in 2012 against Orlando Lora. He continued to impress with wins against former titlists Carlos Quintana and Jan Zaveck, followed by knockouts of veterans Jesus Soto Karass and Diego Chaves, which led to winning an interim title by knockout of former lightweight titlist Julio Diaz in 2014.

Thurman ascended to a full title and, in the first main event of the first Premier Boxing Champions card in 2015 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, he made his first defense with a one-sided decision over Robert Guerrero.

Since then, the only thing that has slowed Thurman has been injuries to a hand and elbow, but he has still scored notable wins over former titleholders Luis Collazo, Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia before a 22-month layoff to heal. He returned in January to outpoint Josesito Lopez and set himself up for the mega fight with Pacquiao (61-7-2, 39 KOs), 40, the eight-division titleholder from the Philippines and an opponent Thurman wanted to fight years ago.

Thurman has his opportunity to fight him now and has no regrets about how everything has unfolded for him.

“I watched both of my parents struggle working 9 to 5. Yeah, it’s a narrow path, but so is the gateway to heaven, but that doesn’t stop the preacher from preaching,” Thurman said. “You have a passion. Why not take the chance, because someone says you might fail? Failure does not scare me. Failure motivates me to succeed, and now here we are back in the spotlight with the biggest fight of my career.”

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