One of Keith Thurman’s biggest victories was also one of his toughest—but not because of the opponent he was facing.
It was on November 24, 2012, that Thurman stopped former 147-pound champion Carlos Quintana in the fourth round in Ontario, California. It was the undefeated Thurman’s eighth consecutive knockout and 18th stoppage in 19 career wins. But it came several days after he nearly lost longtime trainer Dan Birmingham, who several days earlier had been hospitalized with a severe bout of pneumonia.
Birmingham overcame the illness and was released from the hospital in time to make the cross-country flight from Florida to California and work Thurman's corner.
“The Quintana fight was so long ago, but during that camp, we were all worried for Dan, and we were really happy that he was able to recover,” Thurman says.
Birmingham will guide Keith Thurman (26-0, 22 KOs) into Saturday’s third defense of his 147-pound title against former champion Shawn Porter (26-1-1, 16 KOs) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York (CBS, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
It’s a fight that was delayed more than 2½ months because of Thurman’s own health scare. In February, the Clearwater, Florida, native suffered back and neck injuries—including whiplash—after his Mustang hydroplaned and ran off the road. Shortly after the accident, the Thurman-Porter clash scheduled for March 12 was postponed, leaving the champ to ponder his own mortality.
“Anytime people come through a close call, it always makes you reflect,” he says. “You look at the fact that I could have lost my boxing career during the accident.
“For the most part, I just look at life as a journey. Tomorrow’s not guaranteed, so everything now is a blessing.”
For the 65-year-old Birmingham, who has a family history of pneumonia-related deaths, every breath is a gift.
“Thank God I’m still here,” he says. “It’s a blessing for both Keith and myself to continue to live and to work together in the sport that we love.
“It’s a difficult thing to consider the fact that you’ve gone through nearly dying and nearly missed all of this. I really can’t even put it into words how that feels.”
Birmingham has been in boxing for 50 years, having begun fighting at age 15 as a 112-pounder under trainer and mentor, Art Mayorga, in his native, Youngstown, Ohio. Birmingham began coaching Thurman after the latter’s first trainer, Ben Getty, died in May 2009 at the age of 63 after battling diabetes.
Getty, who had previously worked with the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, got Thurman started in boxing at age 7, guiding him to more than 100 amateur victories and six national championships, as well as a professional record of 8-0, all knockouts.
“After Ben died, Keith was devastated because he was like a second father,” says Birmingham, best known for his work with former titleholders Jeff Lacy and Winky Wright. “Keith called me the next day and asked me if I would take over, and I said, ‘Of course I’ll take over.’”
Thurman says after Getty’s death, boxing adviser Shelly Finkel recommended he hook up with veteran trainer Freddie Roach out of the Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles. Thurman politely declined.
“Freddie Roach doesn’t know Keith Thurman,” Thurman says. “Dan Birmingham [knew] everything about me and Ben Getty—our focus, our drive, our dreams and what we wanted to accomplish.
“I watched Dan train Winky and Jeff, and he eventually became my mitt man on behalf of Ben Getty, whose joints wouldn’t allow him to take my punching power anymore. We developed a real nice feel for each other.”
As much as he misses the man who introduced him to boxing, the 27-year-old Thurman remains connected to his first trainer through Chris Getty, Ben’s son who works as an assistant to Birmingham.
“I brought Chris into the situation because Ben Getty truly raised me from the age of 7 to the age of 20 when he passed way,” Thurman says. “I feel a lot more comfortable knowing I have one Getty in my corner. We’re like a family.”
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