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In prime time, Keith Thurman hopes knockouts beget respect

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong Keith Thurman lands a punch in his TKO victory over Carlos Quintana last November. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

NEW YORK -- Over the last year, Keith Thurman has become a poster boy for what’s wrong with boxing. Here was a young, unknown, inexperienced prospect with no resumé to speak of being gift wrapped prime HBO slots. Why? Because his manager is Al Haymon, the shadowy power broker who networks bend over backwards to appease. When Thurman was added to a show, promoters and managers howled at the unfairness of it.

On Saturday, Thurman (19-0) is back on the network, matched up with Jan Zaveck (32-2) on the undercard of Tavoris Cloud’s light heavyweight title defense against Bernard Hopkins at the Barclays Center (9:30 ET, HBO). It will be his third straight fight on HBO and while Thurman says he understands the criticism of him, he believes his performances--back-to-back knockouts--should be weighed into opinions.

“To a certain extent [the criticism] is fair because people didn’t know much about me,” Thurman told SI.com. “But I’m a rare fighter. I’m 19-0 with 18 knockouts. The reason I’m on HBO is because I have knockout potential. I’m here to give everybody a great, tremendous fight. I’m always trying to dismantle my opponent. That deserves respect.”

“My plan is to gather as many fans with every fight, to get more respect with every fight and more recognition. Pretty soon, we’re going to turn some of the critics. I believe I do belong here.”

Keith Thurman Keith Thurman won his last bout by knockout in the 4th round. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Said Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, “Some people had some doubts on how good he really he is. I remember people had some doubts about Adrien Broner. But they kept putting him in tougher [fights] and he kept delivering. I think Keith Thurman is one of those guys. He is a tremendous puncher who is exciting to watch.”

Indeed, Thurman’s power is impressive. The early knockout has become his calling card in his brief professional career.

“I go for the knockout early because they don’t pay for overtime,” Thurman said. “My grandfather, he never liked the fact that I was going to be a boxer. He would rather have seen me get degrees and do something different than take shots to the head. He looked me straight in the eyes and told me, ‘If you are going to do it, get in and get out.’ That line means two things to me. If you have the ability to knock him out early, do it. Don’t wait, don’t put on a show. And two, when you have made enough money, and you can provide or your family, get out of the game. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here.”

Against Zaveck, a former 147-pound world titleholder, Thurman will face his most experienced test to date. He hopes a win will propel him to a world title shot, and he has already picked out his opponent: WBA titleholder Paulie Malignaggi.

“I truly want that fight,” Thurman said. “As long as Paulie is not scared, I’ll do it here in Brooklyn. I have no problem coming to his hometown and stripping him of the title. I honestly do not think Paulie will take the fight. I don’t think Paulie has any balls. I believe he has watched a lot of people do crafty matchmaking and I think he wants to do the same. I don’t think he has the true fighter mentality to step up to a true welterweight and prove that he is a world champion in the welterweight division.”

A win over Zaveck--or even Malignaggi, a well past his prime titleholder--probably won’t silence Thurman’s critics. Too many untested, heavy handed punchers have come and gone (think, Jeff Lacy) for that. Thurman’s true test will come when he faces adversity, when he finds himself in the type of war that defines the career of every top fighter.

When it happens, Thurman says he will be ready.

“I’m prepared for that kind of fight,” Thurman said. “Back a few years, I was dropped in the first round [in 2010, by Quandray Robertson]. I was down, but I was not out. As long as I’m not out, I’ll get up and get right back into the fight. I don’t come to lose. I’m ready for those challenges.”

-CHRIS MANNIX

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