Keith Thurman returns after long layoff, looking to have fun again

Welterweight world titlist Keith Thurman, left, will return to the ring after layoff of almost two years to face Josesito Lopez, right, in Brooklyn, New York. Stephanie Trapp/TGB Promotions

As frustrating as it was for welterweight world titlist Keith Thurman to be sidelined for the past 22 months because of injuries, and as hopeless as he sometimes felt, there were also moments of good humor.

Throughout his layoff, Thurman, known as "One Time" because of his ability to end a fight with a single punch, was often a target of criticism. Fans chastised him for his occasional fighting schedule -- caused by the most recent two injuries, to his right elbow and left hand, as well as past injuries that caused other layoffs.

As a result of the injuries, Thurman has boxed only twice since a seventh-round knockout of former world titlist Luis Collazo in July 2015, though both of those fights were very significant: decision victories over Shawn Porter in June 2016 and over Danny Garcia to unify belts in March 2017.

Thurman, who had to vacate one belt because he was unable to make a mandatory defense against Porter in a rematch, said he did not let the criticism get to him. But he did see some of the nicknames fans ascribed to him on social media, and from time to time, he couldn't help but laugh.

"A lot of opinions just really don't get to me," Thurman said this week. "If anything, some of them were humorous and my favorite, you know -- I'm Keith 'One Time' Thurman. I'm Keith 'Run Time' Thurman, Keith 'Sometime' Thurman, Keith 'Once Upon a Time' Thurman. That was pretty amusing."

Thurman, however, is no longer in the mood to be amused. He is anxious to fight and will finally return to action for his fifth title defense, which will come against heavy underdog Josesito Lopez in the main event of a Premier Boxing Champions card on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, Fox) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.

"When I was trying to get back in the ring and I had another injury due to my left hand, that's when I just was like, 'Man, this is not fun at all.' I just want to get back into the sport. I wish somebody could tell me what day I'm going to be back in the ring. It just was very frustrating for me. I really just wanted to have a fight date. I wanted to be able to get back into the ring." Keith Thurman

After Thurman defeated Garcia, he underwent right elbow surgery. The hard part was being unsure of how long it would take to heal.

"I kept like pressing my doctor to give me like a turnaround date. Like, 'How long, doc?' He pretty much never answered the question, no matter how many words he used," Thurman said. "And I didn't understand. So probably about six months after the surgery, I realized this is a long recovery because it's not healed yet, and I know I still need more time.

"So it was more of a 10-month to a full 12-month recovery, which would have been OK. It's not the longest layoff. That was frustrating in itself."

During the recovery, Thurman (28-0, 22 KOs), of Clearwater, Florida, was at least able to spend time with his wife, get to know her family and travel. But just as he was getting back into the gym once his elbow was healed, he suffered a deep bone bruise on his left hand while hitting a heavy bag. That extended the layoff even longer.

"When I was trying to get back in the ring and I had another injury due to my left hand, that's when I just was like, 'Man, this is not fun at all. I just want to get back into the sport. I wish somebody could tell me what day I'm going to be back in the ring,'" Thurman said.

"It just was very frustrating for me. I really just wanted to have a fight date. I wanted to be able to get back into the ring. The doctors were telling me, 'You're not going to be out forever,' this and that. And I'm like, 'It just feels like forever.' So I'm just truly happy to be back with this fight date against a truly game fighter. I think this is a great comeback fight."

During his layoff, Thurman turned 30 in November, a point that was not lost on him.

"I was 28 years old the last time I fought. I'm 30 now. It's just a little disappointing, missing some of those years of my youth," Thurman said. "But luckily I still am in my prime and just being in shape now motivates me for my future. Watching Manny Pacquiao win a fight at 40 years old (last Saturday) also motivates me. So there were moments where I had some morbid thinking and negative thoughts, but at the end of the day, we're back in action. And we're really excited. And we're looking forward to the future."

His future begins with Lopez (36-7, 19 KOs), 34, of Riverside, California, an experienced 16-year veteran who once pulled a major upset over Victor Ortiz. But Lopez has lost against the other top opponents he has faced -- the much bigger Canelo Alvarez, Jessie Vargas, Marcos Maidana and Andre Berto -- though he has won three fights in a row since his loss to Berto in 2015.

Lopez, who now works with trainer Robert Garcia, seems awfully confident based on the way he has conducted himself in the lead-up to the fight.

"He's been catching some momentum. He's got a new trainer, new set of confidence," Thurman said. "He wants to showcase his skills and talent. I want to remind the world who Keith Thurman truly is."

Lopez knows he was hand-picked as the opponent as Thurman makes his way back from the injuries. He said he has no idea if Thurman is overlooking him or not and doesn't care. He is just pleased to have a shot at a title against a top opponent.

"I prepared for the best Keith Thurman that I've seen," Lopez said. "I think it's not easy coming back from a layoff. I know that myself, because I was myself in a two-year layoff about 2½ years ago. So I know the feeling. I know the obstacles that you have to go through physically and mentally. So I can't assume it will be easy. But either way -- no matter what -- he chose the wrong opponent to come back to. And I'm going to prove that.

"I don't know if Keith is overlooking me, but whatever the situation is, it will show in the ring. I've prepared for the best Keith Thurman and I'm prepared for Saturday night."

At the final pre-fight news conference on Thursday, Thurman admitted he was a little nervous for his first fight in so long.

"I've got new health and I'm just ready for Saturday night," he said. "There's always a little level of nerves for a fight, but it's mostly anticipation. This is the world-class level. I'm proud to be champion and I always want to be champion. The nerves are very natural, but they are not overpowering. I like to carry some nerves with me for each fight.

"Josesito has a lot of confidence. He has been training hard and I know that's where his confidence comes from, because that's where I get it from. I'm fighting to stay at the top. We want to showcase our skills and remind people that I am 'One Time' and I am a big puncher. I'm going to have fun in there."

Also on the main card, popular Brooklyn-based Polish heavyweight contender Adam Kownacki (18-0, 14 KOs), 29, will take on former world title challenger Gerald Washington (19-2-1, 12 KOs), 36, of Vallejo, California, in a 10-round bout. And 2012 Mongolian Olympic silver medalist Tugstsogt Nyambayar (10-0, 9 KOs), 26, who fights out of Carson, California, will square off with former interim featherweight titlist Claudio Marrero (23-2, 17 KOs), 29, a southpaw from the Dominican Republic, in a featherweight world title elimination bout for the right to become the mandatory challenger for the belt held by Gary Russell Jr.