<
>

Keith Thurman-Danny Garcia unification fight as good as it gets

The great Sugar Ray Leonard knows a thing or two about big fights, especially big welterweight unification fights.

It was in 1981 that Leonard and his great rival, Thomas Hearns, both now enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, met in one of the biggest fights in history to unify their welterweight world titles. It was a classic confrontation, one that Leonard, with his eye busted up and closing, rallied to win by 14th-round knockout in a bout boxing fans still talk about.

Now there is probably nobody who will say that welterweight titleholders Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia are on the same level as Leonard and Hearns -- few fighters are -- but for right here, right now in boxing their unification showdown is as good as it gets.

Thurman and Garcia, both crowd-pleasing 28-years-olds, both undefeated and in their primes, will square off to unify their 147-pound titles on Saturday (CBS, 9 p.m. ET) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, in one of the most significant fights of the year.

The co-feature is also an important fight as junior middleweight Erickson Lubin (17-0, 12 KOs), the 21-year-old 2016 ESPN.com prospect of the year from Orlando, Florida, will take on Jorge Cota (25-1, 22 KOs), 29, of Mexico, in a world title elimination fight. That will earn the winner a mandatory shot against the victor of the fight between titleholder Jermell Charlo (28-0, 13 KOs) and Charles Hatley (26-1-1, 18 KOs).

"This is the perfect matchup," Leonard, who will serve as an analyst on the telecast, said of the main event. "I mean, you have two incredible fighters, each one of them with their own style and confidence with Keith and Danny. What also raises an eye is the unification. That's big-time for any fighter. And if these fighters can live up to their expectations, I think it's going to be a home run, without question."

How good of a match is it? It's only the third time in nearly 40 years that CBS -- with a push assistance from sister network Showtime -- is putting boxing on in primetime. The other two: Thurman's decision win over former titlist Shawn Porter last June in a fight of the year contender and Leon Spinks' upset of Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight championship in 1978.

Leonard believes making A+ matches such as Thurman-Garcia, and having them on network television, is a way to elevate boxing to where it once was near the top of the sports food chain.

"These are the type of fights that are going to bring boxing back to where it used to be," Leonard said. "It's going to require these type of fights, these type of individuals, these type of athletes, these type of potential superstars, to really change and make boxing what it used to be.

"These two young men, these two champions, these undefeated fighters, they fit the mold. I talk to people all of the time about what fights they want to see and this is a fight that has star-quality to it."

Indeed, there are few fight fans too who do not view Thurman-Garcia as must-see. It's a match that has been anticipated since Philadelphia's Garcia, the former unified junior welterweight world champion, moved up to welterweight in 2015 and eventually won a vacant title by unanimous decision against Robert Guerrero, an opponent Thurman, of Clearwater, Florida, had dominated and outpointed in a title defense earlier in 2015.

"It's always personal when you're going in and you're going to fight with somebody. We're not going in there to hug and to dance. It's a fight. So it's always personal to a certain level."

Danny Garcia

"This fight has been brewing for a long time," Thurman said. "Both of us wanted this fight. There's a reason why this fight is happening. We're young, we're hungry and we're not trying to wait around. It's time for this to go down.

"This is going to be a fight that you can't miss. It's going to be right in your house. If you can't make it to the arena, you can make it to the couch. This is elite world-class championship boxing in prime time. This is for all sports fans."

Thurman (27-0, 22 KOs) and Garcia (33-0, 19 KOs), who will each earn $2 million, have known each other since they were kids in the amateur ranks and figured they might someday meet as pros. They are friendly rivals with respect for each other.

"This is a kid that I've known since we were kids. If anything, I'm proud of everything I've accomplished. I'm proud of everything he's accomplished," Thurman said. "He's lived the life that I've lived in a different state in a different scenario. But we're like two pit bulls. We were bred for this at a young age."

Said Garcia: "At the end of the day, it's a business. It's always personal when you're going in and you're going to fight with somebody. We're not going in there to hug and to dance. It's a fight. So it's always personal to a certain level."

The fight is just the 10th unification bout in the division's star-studded history. Among them: Leonard-Hearns, Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad and Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao.

"It really doesn't get better than this for a boxing fan," said Lou DiBella, promoter of the card. "This is as significant a fight as you can make in boxing right now and it might be the best fight you can make in boxing. The fact that this fight is on broadcast television on CBS is a huge plus for our business and anyone who loves boxing. For a fight of this magnitude available to so many people is a tremendous thing for boxing.

"It's Danny's reputation against my reputation. We're both prideful fighters. You're putting two of the best together. He wants to prove that he can be a unified champion in two divisions and I've been waiting for this opportunity to get fights like this. I want to show how and why I'm better than my competition."

Keith Thurman

"Keith and Danny have been on a collision course for their whole careers. These guys wanted to fight each other. This is one they both really wanted to happen now. These two champions have the opportunity to do their thing in front of a huge audience. It's great for boxing."

Garcia, making his first title defense, has had major fights before, such as when he knocked out Amir Khan to unify junior welterweight belts in 2012 and his defense against Lucas Matthysse in 2013. But this fight is Garcia's biggest and the same goes for Thurman, who will be making his fourth defense and facing his most significant opponent.

"This deserves all the media attention that it's getting," Garcia said. "I've been a champion for five years already (between two divisions) and I've been a unified champion. Saturday I have an opportunity to unify another division. It's always been a dream to unify multiple divisions and now I have my chance.

"We put in all the hard work. We did everything we had to do. I feel really good and I feel confident. On Saturday night, I'm going to be a unified champion again. Legacy is very important to me. I have more milestones than Thurman. This is his biggest fight. I've been in big fights before."

Garcia, the underdog, has been in that position before, including against Khan and Matthysse, but pays it no mind.

"(Being) underdog means is that there are a whole bunch of people who don't know what I can do," he said. "I rise to the occasion every time. I win because I'm better. On Saturday night I'm going to prove it again."

Thurman is also extremely confident that he will be the one with his hand raised.

"Danny is a smart fighter. He's swift. He keeps rising to the top," Thurman said. "He knows he has people underestimating him now and that fuels him. For me, I'm fueled by legacy. I want greatness for myself.

"It's Danny's reputation against my reputation. We're both prideful fighters. You're putting two of the best together. He wants to prove that he can be a unified champion in two divisions and I've been waiting for this opportunity to get fights like this. I want to show how and why I'm better than my competition. Saturday night is my platform to show the world how great of a champion I am."

It is that rare perfect match between prime, undefeated fighters aiming to unify titles in an attempt to rise to the top of the sport. This is exactly the kind of fight both got into boxing for.

"The ultimate goal is to unify the division. It's a blessing right now to have two undefeated world champions," Thurman said. "The winner is going to be that man to beat at 147 pounds. I believe that we will see the next superstar in the welterweight division after we unify these titles."

Said Garcia: "People want to see the best fight the best."

That is exactly what the people are going to get.

You make the call: