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Keith Thurman on the road to stardom

Boxing fans are always looking for the next big thing, especially as the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao era draws to a close.

Who will replace them as boxing's most bankable stars? There are candidates: 24-year-old former junior middleweight titlist Canelo Alvarez, Mexico's most popular fighter, who already has a solid pay-per-view track record, and middleweight titlist Gennady Golovkin, whose drawing power has skyrocketed the past couple of years, although at 33 he is a bit older than your typical emerging star. Further down the road is 22-year-old Puerto Rican lightweight sensation Felix Verdejo.

But another strong candidate is undefeated American welterweight titleholder Keith Thurman. Nobody knows whether he will emerge as a star, but many believe he can. He sure looks the part at this point.

Winky Wright, the former undisputed junior middleweight champion and a probable Hall of Famer who retired in 2012, is a good friend of Thurman's. The two met while Thurman was a teenager, and Wright spent years sparring, training and mentoring him. He is a believer.

"I see a kid with a lot of talent and a smart kid," said Wright, who shared trainer Dan Birmingham with Thurman. "He's intelligent, he's hardworking and he's gonna become a great fighter.

"Mayweather is the man in the sport now, but his time is coming to end. Mayweather's gonna retire and relinquish that crown soon, and they're looking for another star. Keith has the ability to be that star."

At 26, Thurman is just entering his physical prime. He has superb punching power -- there's a reason his nickname is "One Time," because it often takes him only that many clean punches to knock out his opponent -- and he is generally in entertaining fights. He has well-rounded skills on offense and defense, has a quality amateur background, is a superb athlete and seems like a grounded young man intent on making intelligent and thoughtful decisions about his career and life.

In fact, Thurman is more interested in talking about his real estate investments and the fact that he already owns two homes (one of which he gave to his mother) rather than wasting money on partying, a fleet of expensive cars and other such frivolity.

Thurman also has what every star needs -- charisma, not to mention the gift for gab and an outgoing and friendly personality.

"He has a great style because he's a boxer who can punch, so guys are gonna go down and he speaks well. People want to hear what he says," said Birmingham, who began training Thurman after his original trainer and mentor, Ben Getty, died in 2009. "We believe Keith is the total package. Hopefully, it will turn out that way, but it's looking really good.

"It seems like the bigger the fights get, the better he handles it. He's ready for stardom. He's ready for the big time."

Adviser/manager Al Haymon has a stable of around 200 fighters, including Mayweather. While Mayweather is a pay-per-view star, it is clear by Haymon's actions that he views Thurman -- who would love to eventually fight Mayweather -- as the heir apparent.

That is why Haymon decided to feature Thurman in the first Premier Boxing Champions main event on March 7 in Las Vegas on NBC in prime time -- a huge spot. Thurman did not disappoint. He shredded top contender Robert Guerrero, knocking him down and winning a lopsided unanimous decision in an exciting fight in his first title defense. And he inflicted far more damage on Guerrero than Mayweather did in a 2013 win. It could not have gone more perfectly as Thurman had a huge national television audience to strut his stuff in front of.

And now with PBC on ESPN set to debut Saturday night (9 ET), guess whom Haymon called on to headline the high-profile card? Thurman will make title defense No. 2 against former titleholder Luis Collazo (36-6, 19 KOs) at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa, Florida. It will be a hometown fight for Thurman, who grew up 20 minutes away in Clearwater.

"It's in my dreams, being champion and staying champion and being one of the major champions in the sport," Thurman said. "Right now I believe I'm one of the most talked about welterweights currently in the division."

In the scheduled 10-round co-feature, junior middleweight prospect Tony Harrison (21-0, 18 KOs) squares off with contender Willie Nelson (23-2-1, 13 KOs).

Thurman (25-0, 21 KOs) is not outwardly braggadocian about the enviable position Haymon has placed him in, but he is appreciative. "I'm somewhat of a go-to guy," Thurman said. "I'm reliable. You can trust me. I show up, I make weight. I stay true to the contract. There hasn't been a lot of controversy with me and my career. Our team is dedicated, and I just believe that Al sees that and he's taking advantage of my hunger and just trying to grow me as a fighter. It's a great opportunity and it's a blessing."

Blessing, perhaps, but Thurman admitted that the prospect of mega-stardom is a little unsettling to him now that he is recognized more and more and the demands on his time are greater than ever.

He's the kind of guy who enjoys the freedom to be out and about in public with his girlfriend, Emily, going about his business without interruption. His goal, he said, was not to be famous but to be a great fighter.

"I'm just Keith Thurman, and I just enjoy being the person that I am. I enjoy some of the spotlight, but there are moments where it can be a little overwhelming," Thurman said.

"This camp in general I've had more appearances than I normally make. More interviews and less time to myself, less time to stick to my regimen. So I had to make adjustments, and I'm just going to have to get used to making these adjustments, especially when you're on this stage and you're making these kinds of [seven-figure] paychecks. I used to think it was all boxing, but now I'm understanding the business, and that's all that I'm really trying to wrap my mind around.

"I'm 26 years old, a young guy and we're learning constantly in the sport of boxing in the ring and outside of the ring. I try to stay level-headed. I try to stay humble and do the best I can. I'm looking forward to the career that's ahead of me."

Thurman was about 15 when Wright and Birmingham met him. Getty, who began training Thurman as a 7-year-old amateur, would bring Thurman to Birmingham's gym, which was loaded with Tampa-area talent, including Wright.

"He'd come in the gym with his old trainer, Ben Getty," said Wright, who trained and sparred countless rounds with him for years before retiring in 2012. "Keith was a young, strong and smart kid. He had what it took to become a champion. He wants to learn and show the world what he has in him, and that's what makes him so exciting. I'm glad to be able to say I know this kid and I was there when the kid started and that I had a role in sharpening his game."

Wright said he knew Thurman had what it took to be special because of the way he performed in the ring with him and other elite fighters in the gym in those days, including Jeff Lacy and Chad Dawson. Wright was a top pound-for-pound fighter in his prime, and here was this young kid holding his own with him in sparring sessions.

"He did well," Wright said. "I was trying to teach him you can't win everything with power. I would teach him that you can hit hard, but if you get hit back that's a problem. You want to hit and not be hit. I wanted to teach him the defense part of it. But he got an animal in him that he wants to knock you out and hurt you. He has that animal instinct you can't teach."

Birmingham said he is not surprised that Thurman is on the verge of stardom. He said Getty predicted it years ago.

"Ben Getty really started preparing him for this when he was young, telling him he would be a champion and be a star," Birmingham said. "Keith probably was thinking that's what trainers tell all of their fighters, but Ben was serious. He was prepping Keith for this moment when he was a young kid."

Said Wright, "I don't see anything stopping this young man. He's smart, talented, exciting, and fans want to see him."

Thurman has heard the praise and the refrain that he is on his way to stardom. Saturday's fight figures to be another step in the process.

"The fans are loving my excitement, and they loved the last showdown with Robert Guerrero on the opener for NBC. Now we're opening ESPN, and it's another blessing," Thurman said. "It's a pleasure.

"I believe Al is recognizing my hard work and dedication to the sport, and we're just going to try to keep moving forward, man, and, hopefully, just live up to the hype."