NEW YORK — Keith Thurman fulfilled one of his childhood boxing dreams to unify world titles Saturday night in one of the year’s most anticipated fights.
Although he didn’t finish strong, Thurman used an effective mix of boxing and power-punching — and put enough early rounds in the bank — to escape with a split-decision victory against Danny Garcia and unify welterweight titles before 16,533, the boxing attendance record for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“This is my dream coming true,” Thurman said. “[Late trainer and mentor] Ben Getty believed in me before I knew that I had the ability to become a champion. He said that I was destined for greatness. He made me dedicate myself to the sport of boxing.
“I knew that today would be the day I accomplish my dreams. People know I fought my way up the amateurs. This was the first time I fought a real undefeated fighter, and I demonstrated my skills tonight. I made my team proud.”
The match between undefeated, prime, 28-year-old titleholders was as good as it gets in boxing, and Thurman and Garcia produced an exciting fight that was often tactical but had enough exciting exchanges to keep everyone on the edges of their seats.
In the end, judge John McKaie (116-112) and Joseph Pasquale (115-113) scored the bout for Thurman, while judge Kevin Morgan had it 115-113 for Garcia. ESPN.com scored the fight 116-112 for Thurman, who backed off in the final two rounds to sit on the lead he and his corner believed he had.
Thurman looked a lot like Oscar De La Hoya did running against Felix Trinidad in their famed welterweight unification fight in 1999, when De La Hoya gave away the final rounds and lost a controversial decision. But the strategy did not cost Thurman as it did De La Hoya.
“The judges are judges. I thought [I] outboxed him,” Thurman said. “I thought it was a clear victory, but Danny came to fight. I knew when it was [announced as a] split, and I had that wide spread, I knew it had to go to me.
“I was not giving the fight away. I felt like we had a nice lead, [and] we could cool down. I felt like we were controlling the three-minute intervals every round. My defense was effective. He wasn’t landing.”
Garcia (33-0, 19 KOs), of Philadelphia, thought he did enough to win the fight.
“I came up short tonight. I thought I was the aggressor. I thought I pushed the pace, but it didn’t go my way,” said Garcia, a former unified junior welterweight world champion aiming to do the same at welterweight. “I thought I won, and I was pushing the fight, but it is what it is. He was trying to counter. I had to wait to find my spots.”
It was just the 10th title unification bout in the welterweight division’s star-studded history, joining the pantheon of fights that includes Sugar Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns, De La Hoya-Trinidad and Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao.
Thurman (28-0, 22 KOs), of Clearwater, Florida, won the fight with Leonard at ringside calling it as an analyst for CBS, which was televising only its third boxing card in prime time in nearly 40 years.
Angel Garcia, Danny’s outspoken father and trainer, called Thurman out for running.
“Keith ran half the fight,” he said. “Boxing is about hitting — not running. Danny tried to be the aggressor, but Keith was just moving so much.”
Added Danny Garcia: “I can’t cry over anything. I’ll come back strong like a true champion. I would love to have a rematch to get my titles back. I knew running would be his game plan. Everyone knew that was his game plan. I thought I won, and that’s it.”