Why a nontitle bout against Thurman might be what Tszyu needed most

Boxing

Tim Tszyu is a rising star, and he’ll look to continue that climb with a fight against his most high-profile opponent yet. The son of Hall of Fame boxer Kostya Tszyu will meet former welterweight champion Keith Thurman in a 155-pound fight on March 30 in Las Vegas. The bout will kick off PBC’s partnership with Amazon Prime Video.

Tszyu, a 29-year-old Australian, plans to campaign stateside going forward as he seeks out the biggest fights. He broke out in 2023 with three victories, two of them against fighters then ranked in ESPN’s top 10 at junior middleweight (Tony Harrison and Brian Mendoza).

Now, Tszyu will look to build on that success with his first PPV main event in the U.S. and his first bout in Las Vegas.

The WBO declined to sanction the fight for Tszyu’s junior middleweight title, presumably because Thurman has never competed at the 154-pound limit and hasn’t scored a victory in two years. Tszyu and Thurman will meet 1 pound above at 155 since Tszyu would have to fight a WBO-ranked opponent if he were to fight at junior middleweight.

With the proliferation of titles and the ease with which fighters are stripped, the fight being a non-title one doesn’t affect the viability of the matchup, in my view. This is still a fight between a must-see boxer in Tszyu and a recognizable name in Thurman.

In the co-feature, Rolly Romero defends his WBA junior welterweight title vs. Isaac “Pitbull” Cruz. There are two more title fights on the undercard, too: Erislandy Lara will defend his WBA middleweight title vs. Michael Zerafa, and Sebastian Fundora faces Serhii Bohachuk for the vacant WBC junior middleweight title.

What’s at stake as Tszyu steps up to the next level against Thurman? How do Romero and Cruz stack up against one another? Let’s break it all down:


Thurman has competed just twice in the past 4 ½ years. What chance does he have to pull off the upset?

It’s difficult to envision Thurman providing too much trouble for Tszyu, given their vast disparity in activity levels. Thurman hasn’t stepped inside the ring since February 2022, when he outpointed Mario Barrios. And even that was his first action since July 2019, when he dropped a split decision to Manny Pacquiao.

Tszyu, meanwhile, has fought 10 times during that same span. There’s no replacement for actually fighting; sparring is different, and ring rust always rears its ugly head.

Deontay Wilder looked listless following a long layoff, as did Errol Spence and Stephen Fulton last year. That inactivity will surely be a big obstacle for Thurman to overcome, but perhaps more so, he must shake off the rust against a fighter who appears to be hitting his stride.

Tszyu is a dangerous puncher who is defensively responsible and loves to come forward. And that pressure is applied wisely. Tszyu always has his guard up and moves his head as he pursues his foe.

Tszyu opened up as a -800 favorite, and the line has already moved to -1000 per ESPN BET — and for good reason. It’s a reflection of Tszyu’s talent, but also Thurman’s inactivity level. What it doesn’t reflect is Thurman’s boxing ability.

At his best, Thurman is an elite fighter capable of defeating almost anybody. He fought on even terms with Pacquiao — even if Pacquiao was past his prime — and owns quality wins over Danny Garcia and Shawn Porter. Now Thurman must prove he can compete on the elite level at a new weight and coming off another long layoff.


What would a win mean for Tszyu?

Tszyu has greatly improved over the past year, between his punch selection, variety and ability to string combinations together. When Jermell Charlo withdrew from their scheduled bout for the undisputed championship one year ago, Tszyu could have waited for the twin brother to heal from his hand injury.

If Tszyu had, he would have regretted the move; Charlo went on to fight Canelo Alvarez at 168 pounds in his return bout. Instead, Tszyu wisely stayed busy and risked his mandatory position. Harrison was seen as a tough fight for Tszyu, but the Aussie picked the former champion apart and stopped him in nine rounds.

Over the summer, Tszyu needed only one round to take out the unheralded Carlos Ocampo. Ocampo wasn’t a tough fight, but Tszyu defeated him exactly as you’d expect from a top-level boxer.

His victory in October over Mendoza was perhaps Tszyu’s most impressive. Mendoza was coming off back-to-back KO wins over Jeison Rosario and Sebastian Fundora, one of the biggest upsets of 2023. Tszyu didn’t stop Mendoza, but he hurt him on multiple occasions and dominated the fight down the stretch.

Now, Tszyu can add a big name to his résumé in Thurman, a fighter who has often competed on American television over the years in high-profile bouts. And with Tszyu aiming for a future bout with Terence Crawford, he’ll surely look to make a statement against Thurman.


How do “Rolly” and “Pitbull” match up?

Cruz will move up from 135 to 140 pounds for his first full-fledged title bout. In his lone fight at an elite level, Cruz pushed Gervonta Davis to the brink in a surprisingly tough fight for the star boxer. (Tank’s secondary title was on the line.)

Cruz is a relentless pressure fighter who packs a punch, but he is undersized for the lightweight division, and that should be more glaring at 140 pounds.

Romero is the weak link among the junior welterweight titleholders, and he’s coming off a lackluster performance in the bout that landed him the title. In May 2023, Romero was floored by Ismael Barroso in Round 3. In Round 9, the referee stopped the fight even though Barroso didn’t appear to be in serious danger.

But make no mistake: Romero can punch, and though Cruz is the favorite, he’s only a slight one for good reason. This is a quality co-main event that should entertain, a worthy appetizer for Tszyu’s quest to become a U.S. star.


What happened to the planned Lara-Danny Garcia bout?

The WBA announced last year that Lara would defend his middleweight title against Garcia on Aug. 5, but the bout never took place. The catchweight bout was then planned for later in 2023, but yet again the fight was never officially announced.

At the WBA convention in December, there was an effort to have mandatory challenger Zerafa fight for the interim title so Lara and Garcia could meet, but those plans were rejected and the WBA ordered Lara-Zerafa last month. Zerafa, a 31-year-old Australian, agreed last summer to step aside to allow Lara to fight Garcia with a guaranteed spot on the undercard.

Now, the middleweight contender Zerafa lands his first world title shot nearly nine years after he was knocked out by Peter Quillin in five rounds. Zerafa and Lara were both ranked in ESPN’s top 10 at 160 pounds before they were removed for inactivity.

Lara, a 40-year-old Cuban, has scored four victories over low-level opposition since a draw with Brian Castaño in March 2019 in one of the best fights of that year. Lara’s split-decision loss to Jarrett Hurd was ESPN’s 2018 Fight of the Year. He hasn’t competed since May 2022, when he scored an eighth-round TKO over journeyman Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan.


Fundora challenges for first title in comeback fight. Can he still live up to the hype?

Fundora is nicknamed “The Towering Inferno” with good reason. At 6-foot-5 ½, with an 80-inch reach, the 154-pounder never stops throwing punches from odd angles.

His brutal beatdown of Erickson Lubin in April 2022 showed his grit after being dropped in Round 7, only to rally for the stoppage win two rounds later. However, that vulnerability with his chin and defense was again on display last April, an upset seventh-round KO loss to Mendoza.

Fundora is a reliable action fighter and, until that shocking defeat, was destined for big things. He still might be, but he’ll have to win his first world title when he faces the hard-punching Serhii Bohachuk. The Ukrainian has scored five wins — all inside the distance — since an upset TKO loss to Brandon Adams in March 2021.

Fundora is rated No. 4 by ESPN at 154 pounds and will vie for the title once held by Jermell Charlo after he was named champion in recess by the WBC last week.

With an impressive victory over Bohachuk and a title around his waist, Fundora will once again be positioned for a big fight, whether it’s a rematch with Lubin or a shot at Tszyu in the near future.

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