Keith Thurman fights against a long layoff -- and a division evolving without him

Former welterweight champion Keith Thurman, left, faces Mario Barrios in a 12-round battle on Saturday. ESPN

KEITH THURMAN WAS rocked. It was the first round of a fight that was poised to change his career forever, but instead of the undefeated fighter starting off strong against the legendary Manny Pacquiao, he found himself on the mat. Thurman, on his back in the middle of the ring at the sold out MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, was hearing the count. In that moment, so early in the fight, one of the best welterweights of all time had gotten the best of him.

Thurman did rally, yet lost by split decision. The action was thrilling and even in defeat, the performance could have catapulted him to stardom. But that opportunity never came.

Instead, Thurman's night under the spotlight was followed by 31 months of inactivity. He has not stepped into the ring since.

"Whenever you have a [first] career loss, it hurts your pride, it hurts your ego and it can create doubt," Thurman said to ESPN. "We call it the warrior's dilemma."

On Saturday, at age 33, Thurman will end that absence with a 12-round fight against Mario Barrios (PBC on Fox PPV) at the Michelob Ultra Arena in Las Vegas. And when Thurman (29-1, 22 KOs) climbs through the ropes, hoping to regain his standing in the sport, his trademark braids will be missing, replaced by a crew cut.

"I just wanted to wipe away all the old energy," Thurman said.

IN SOME WAYS, this new chapter is similar to another from Thurman's career, an attempt to rediscover himself and solve the same nagging issues that have plagued him all along: injuries and inactivity.

Following consecutive victories over Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia in 2016 and 2017, respectively, Thurman, already among the top welterweights in the world, climbed to No. 9 in ESPN's pound-for-pound ratings.

"I think for Keith to take on two heavy hitters, beat both of us, that's how you really start to leave your mark," Porter said.

The possibilities for what lay ahead appeared limitless.

Then Thurman disappeared.

Bone spurs in his right elbow required surgery in May 2017, just two months after the Garcia victory. When Thurman recovered, he injured his left hand in training, shelving him once more. The injuries forced him to relinquish the WBC title he won from Garcia, but he maintained his WBA belt.

A 22-month layoff ended in January 2019 with a majority decision victory over Josesito Lopez, but Thurman's performance was underwhelming. Sure, he floored Lopez in Round 2, but he was also hurt from a pummeling he absorbed in Round 7.

Thurman's mentor, Hall of Famer Winky Wright, said ring rust surely played a significant factor in that struggle, and there's reason to believe inactivity could plague Thurman once more on Saturday.

"[The layoff is] the worst part because your timing is off, you're just not used to it," Wright told ESPN. "Even though you can be sparring, it's different to not be in that ring."

"I love great fights. I love fights that are enticing. How can I go from Pacquiao -- in that arena, with that fan base, with that electric energy -- to a bland, plain ol' plain bagel, no cream cheese breakfast?" Keith Thurman

During his peak, Wright competed twice a year, and the level of competition never dipped.

"You wanna be fighting, you wanna be active," said Wright, who trained at the same St. Pete Boxing Gym in the Tampa, Florida, area where Thurman prepares today. "Just like basketball players, you can't have LeBron sitting out for a year or two and expect him to hit 50.

"It only becomes more difficult with age," Wright said.

The layoff is a career long for Thurman, 11 months more than when he fought Lopez, and he's also three years older.

And Barrios (26-1, 17 KOs) is no walkover. Like Lopez, Barrios has proven to be a hard-nosed fighter who never stops coming forward. While he hasn't been all that active, Barrios has competed three times since Thurman fought Pacquiao. Most recently, in June, the 26-year-old was stopped in the 11th round of a pitched battle with Gervonta Davis at 140 pounds.

Now, Barrios will move up to 147 pounds, his sixth weight class (his first fight was at 122 pounds). Though he's coming off a TKO loss and fighting at Thurman's natural weight, Barrios is just a +170 underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook, surely a nod to his foe's inactivity.

Thurman recognizes that and is determined to be more active moving forward. "I just want to get this ball rolling," said the seven-time amateur national champion. "I want to stay injury-free. I gotta work on my offseason. I gotta work on my stretching, minimizing injuries."

He conceded that "in retrospect, it would have been good to be in the ring."

THURMAN BLAMES HIS recent inactivity, in part, on COVID-19 and the restrictions that accompanied the pandemic. But he is far from the only boxer affected. The inability to hold boxing events before capacity crowds hampered efforts to entice many top fighters into the ring, often due to reduced purses.

Thurman said PBC creator and adviser Al Haymon offered him an opportunity to fight in the PBC bubble, but he saw no appeal in fighting without a live audience. Thurman mentioned Porter's comeback fight against Sebastian Formella in August 2020 at a fanless Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, a listless performance from the former champion in a routine bout.

"The moment that I said no, they realized Keith isn't going to just take a fight," Thurman said. "I love great fights. I love fights that are enticing. How can I go from Pacquiao -- in that arena, with that fan base, with that electric energy -- to a bland, plain ol' plain bagel, no cream cheese breakfast?"

"I was financially stable, didn't need the money and desired to make meaningful performances and meaningful fights in the welterweight division," Thurman said during a training session in January. "2022 has presented more."

Thurman planned to return in the fourth quarter of the year, but he contracted COVID during Pacquiao-Yordenis Ugas fight week, he said, complicating matters. The return was pushed into early 2022.

"Boxing is a game of skill, and you build skill with repetition," said Stephen "Breadman" Edwards, who trained Julian Williams to a world title. "You don't get better at doing anything by not doing it for an extended period of time. I think that's going to make this fight more competitive than people think."

THE DIVISION HAS also moved forward since his last fight.

Pacquiao retired at age 42 after a loss to Ugas in August. So, too, did Porter, following a defeat to Terence Crawford in November. Unified champion Errol Spence Jr. was involved in a severe car crash that sidelined him for 14 months. Then, last year, a detached retina forced Spence out of a Pacquiao bout.

But new players emerged -- Jaron "Boots" Ennis, Vergil Ortiz Jr., Conor Benn. The 147-pound division remains one of boxing's most talent-laden.

"I want to do the one thing I haven't been able to do, and that's unify all the world titles, but I'm not in a position to do that just yet," Thurman said. "I gotta get into position to be champion once again.

"[The layoff has] given me a lot of time to really let go of the past. It was depressing having to have hand surgery. ... That created worry in the mind."

Since Thurman last entered the ring, the former champ has given himself time to heal all those wounds. He feels mentally "in a better space."

So when he steps into the ring Saturday, he'll do so to remind fans and other 147-pounders what made him an elite fighter just a few years ago.

A convincing victory over Barrios figures to set up Thurman for a shot at accomplishing his goal of becoming undisputed champion. Spence and Ugas are set to meet in April for three welterweight titles. They're both PBC boxers, so given the ease of making a fight between them, Thurman is a logical future opponent for whoever comes out on top.

Crawford, owner of the other 147-pound belt, is no longer promoted by Top Rank and now free to fight whomever he pleases. Even in the lead-up to the Porter bout, Crawford reiterated his desire for a showdown with Thurman. That fight, too, appears to be a genuine possibility later this year.

"I have plenty of great years to go and I'm not thinking about retirement anytime soon," he said. "The old me ... anything in the 20s, it all died out when I fought Pacquaio.

"I'm looking forward to this new chapter. It's been a long time coming."