Keith Thurman to headline ESPN's debut of Premier Boxing Champions

Welterweight titleholder Keith Thurman, one of boxing's rising stars, was picked to headline the first-ever Premier Boxing Champions card on NBC in prime time in March because of his enormous potential in terms of boxing talent and marketability. For those same reasons, Thurman was picked to headline the debut of the PBC on ESPN.

Thurman will make his second title defense when he takes on former titlist Luis Collazo on July 11 (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET, with preliminary bout to stream live on ESPN3.com), the network said on Thursday. The fight will take place at a venue to be determined in Tampa, about 20 minutes from Thurman's hometown of Clearwater, Florida.

Thurman said it is an honor for him to be tabbed as the featured fighter for the inaugural PBC cards on NBC and ESPN.

"I am very happy to be where I am in my career," Thurman told ESPN.com. "Boxing is opening back up to the people, and it's been a dream of mine to be a true champion, and there's no better form of that than being the people's champion. (The PBC) is opening up doors that will give the world-class fighters the exposure that they need. I want to be the American people's champion. There is nothing better than getting the exposure, giving the fans great fights and being cheered by the public."

Thurman (25-0, 21 KOs), one of boxing's biggest hitters and most crowd-pleasing fighters, made his first title defense March 7 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, dropping former two-division titleholder Robert Guerrero, a southpaw, in the ninth round and winning a one-sided decision in a hard-hitting fight.

Thurman, 26, will be fighting his first significant bout in his home region and is pumped for it. He has not fought there since an eight-rounder in Tampa in 2009.

"This is the first time coming home with something major, so I am extremely excited about it," Thurman said. "It's a dream come true."

Thurman, who grew up around Tampa-area fighters Winky Wright, the former undisputed junior middleweight champion, and former super middleweight titlist Jeff Lacy -- they all shared trainer Dan Birmingham -- remembers how excited the area was when major fights took place there.

"I remember when Winky and Jeff fought here in Tampa, how electric the city was," Thurman said. "Tampa is a great boxing town, but we only make fights happen when champions are in town. I'm happy to fight a big fight at home and happy to make one of my dreams come true."

Collazo (36-6, 19 KOs), a 34-year-old southpaw from New York, held a welterweight title in 2005 and 2006 before losing it by controversial decision to Ricky Hatton. In January 2014, Collazo knocked out former titleholder Victor Ortiz in the second round in a mild upset, but four months later he lost a one-sided decision to former unified junior welterweight titlist Amir Khan on the Floyd Mayweather-Marcos Maidana I undercard.

After 11 months off, Collazo, who had contemplated retirement, returned on April 11 to score a second-round knockout of club fighter Christopher Degollado.

"Collazo always comes to fight," Thurman said. "He has been in with some of the best fighters in the world and he has tons of experience. Fighting another southpaw, we'll be prepared. I'm looking forward to it and I'm looking forward to giving the fans what they love to see -- action. July 11 is going to be a night full of action. Might as well call the fight 'Fireworks,' since it's in July."

The scheduled 10-round co-feature will be a pair of junior middleweights who have had multiple bouts on ESPN2's Friday Night Fights: rising prospect Tony Harrison, 24, and contender Willie Nelson, 28.

Harrison (21-0, 18 KOs), of Detroit, was a protégée of Emanuel Steward, the late Hall of Fame trainer and Detroit legend. Harrison has knocked out 10 opponents in a row, including Antwone Smith in the second round in March and Pablo Munguia in the third round in April, both on FNF. But Harrison is taking a major step up in competition against Nelson (23-2-1, 13 KOs) of Cleveland.

Nelson was on the verge of a title shot, but he saw his seven-fight winning streak come to an end in October when he lost a competitive 10-round bout to fellow contender Vanes Martirosyan.

The card will be the first of 24 monthly PBC shows on ESPN through July 2017, with PBC holding an option for six more shows that could extend the deal through the end of 2017. PBC on ESPN will replace Friday Night Fights, which will end its 17-year run with the Boxcino tournament finals this week.