Keith Thurman, Leo Santa Cruz make case for title fights in return; Claressa Shields dominates again

The 31-month layoff didn't seem to affect Keith Thurman much in a unanimous-decision victory over Mario Barrios Saturday night in Las Vegas.

Thurman fought for the first time since losing a split decision to Manny Pacquiao in July 2019, but came out strong and dominated the first few rounds, moving well and showing his power. But can he beat the top fighters in the division? Should he take another tuneup fight or challenge for a title?

In the co-main event of Thurman-Barrios, Leo Santa Cruz looked like his old self in a one-sided unanimous decision over Keenan Carbajal. Santa Cruz threw almost 800 punches on the night, and looked crisp with his combinations. And while the fight was at 130 pounds, Santa Cruz still owns the WBA featherweight belt, creating multiple options in different divisions for his next fight. So what can we expect from a revitalized Santa Cruz?

In Cardiff, Wales, Claressa Shields scored another impressive victory, winning every round on all three judges' scorecards to defeat Ema Kozin by unanimous decision. That sets up a winner-takes-all mega fight against Savannah Marshall to unify all four major women's middleweight belts, provided Marshall successfully defends her WBO belt against Femke Hermans on March 12.

The main event in Cardiff saw Chris Eubank Jr. dominate Liam Williams, dropping him four times to earn a unanimous decision. While the win was clear, Eubank failed to finish the fight or fully pull away. While he seems to be developing very well under the training of Hall of Famer Roy Jones Jr., Saturday's fight showed he's not yet ready for the top fighters in the middleweight division.

So, how far away is Eubank from competing against the top fighters in the middleweight division?

Mike Coppinger, Nick Parkinson and Michael Rothstein react to the action and share their takes.

Thurman looks sharp, but not ready for the top welterweights

For his first fight in 31 months, Keith Thurman looked sharp, even if he didn't score the knockout he appeared close to notching on several occasions.

The jab and movement that made Thurman a unified welterweight champion looked as good as ever, and the power appeared real, too, even in 10-ounce gloves.

He buckled Barrios several times during the fight, though Thurman faded down the stretch before a strong final round. If the goal was to knock off the rust and show the world he's still a force at 147 pounds, he accomplished his goal.

But it was also clear that Thurman will need to be better if he wants to beat one of the top welterweights, and the division is filled with impressive boxers. Errol Spence Jr. and Terence Crawford are the stars of the division, but there's also Yordenis Ugas, Vergil Ortiz Jr. and Jaron "Boots" Ennis.

Spence meets Ugas in April with three belts on the line, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see Thurman land a shot at the winner. If not, a title fight with Crawford is appetizing, as would be a bout against Ennis.

Surely, Thurman will be improved next time out, provided he stays active and returns to the ring this summer. He's already endured two long layoffs, hiatuses that surely affected his precious timing.

But when he's at the top of his game, Thurman is one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world. If he can stay injury free and lure one of the champions into the ring later this year, Thurman will be a formidable challenge. -- Coppinger

Leo Santa Cruz is back, and boxing is better because of it

Thurman wasn't the only name fighter ending a long layoff on Saturday. Santa Cruz, in his first fight since a brutal KO loss to Gervonta Davis in October 2020, looked like his old self in a shutout decision win over Keenan Carbajal in a tune-up fight.

The 33-year-old remains one of the biggest stars in boxing under 135 pounds, and he has plenty of options moving forward. The win over Carbajal was a 10-round bout at 130 pounds, his third consecutive at the weight. Santa Cruz remains a champion at 126 pounds, even though he hasn't defended that title since February 2019.

Santa Cruz told the WBA he plans to fight the winner of the March 12 featherweight bout between Leigh Wood and Michael Conlan. That's an appetizing option for Santa Cruz, and really his only choice if he wants to keep his 126-pound title.

If Santa Cruz opts to vacate that belt to pursue a title at 130 pounds, a fight with Chris Colbert is the most viable bout he can pursue. Colbert, who is also a PBC boxer, challenges Roger Gutierrez for Gutierrez's 130-pound title on Feb. 26.

No matter whom he faces, boxing is better off when Santa Cruz is active, as he remains one of the most exciting fighters in the sport. -- Coppinger

Claressa Shields sets up rematch against Savannah Marshall

Shields' 11-month layoff from boxing might have been a cause for concern, especially as she ventured into two fights in mixed martial arts. But in her return to the ring, and her first career fight in the U.K. on Saturday, Shields showed there was no reason for worry. In a dominant performance against upstart Ema Kozin, Shields showed her decision did not hurt her at all in the boxing ring.

The victory should set up the biggest fight of Shields' boxing career, and the rare fight she could, conceivably, lose. Savannah Marshall is the only boxer to have beaten Shields (12-0, 2 KO) at any point in her boxing career, amateur or professional. And as long as Marshall wins her next fight on March 12, her next fight should be against Shields. It'd be another major fight in a year potentially chock full of them for women's boxing, and one that should garner even more attention for the 26-year-old.

A Shields-Marshall fight would set up the middleweight division for big things in the years to come. And it should happen before Shields dips back into the MMA space. It's the best fight that could happen in the division and one that could end up being a multi-fight series as well. It could bring out the absolute best in Shields, whose dominance has made finding challenging opponents a struggle.

It was reasonable to think the 23-year-old Kozin (21-1-1, 11 KO), who has a lot of experience for her age but was a massive underdog entering Saturday, could at least offer an intriguing obstacle for Shields. But Shields mowed through Kozin with a clear unanimous decision, sweeping all three of the judges' scorecards (100-90, 100-90, 100-90). That leaves Marshall as the next -- and frankly, only -- option for Shields' next fight in boxing. -- Rothstein

Chris Eubank Jr. shows progress under Roy Jones Jr., but still needs work

Eubank Jr.'s dominant win over Liam Williams, which featured four knockdowns, illustrated how Eubank represents a future threat to the top of the middleweight division, while still being a work in progress under Roy Jones Jr.'s care.

This win does not elevate Eubank above the five fighters in ESPN's latest divisional rankings -- Jermall Charlo, Gennadiy Golovkin, Demetrius Andrade, Ryota Murata and Jaime Munguia. But the English boxer showed plenty of class and an array of punches in a dominant, unanimous decision win over Williams. Moving forward, Eubank should be considered a threat for Murata, the WBA world champion. Eubank is the No. 1 challenger for Murata, who has not fought since December 2019.

Murata seems like the best -- and safest -- title fight for Eubank right now, who was impressive up to a point Saturday, but not flawless by any means. Eubank twice floored Williams from jabs and it looked like it was going to be over in the fourth, but Eubank allowed Williams to escape from a perilous position when he was dropped for the third time in the fourth round, and Williams recovered and finished the fight.

Eubank's performance was likely not enough to cause major concern for the likes of Charlo and Golovkin. -- Parkinson