Melee by the Bay: Keith Thurman building upon Tampa’s unlikely rep as boxing hotbed

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Sinkholes, death metal and the world’s longest continuous sidewalk. Tampa, Florida, has given us plenty.

Keith Thurman with Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright

Central Florida's finest (from left): Antonio Tarver, Keith Thurman and Winky Wright.

Yes, it’s where Babe Ruth hit his longest home run (587 feet!) and, of far greater historical significance, where Cannibal Corpse laid down “Hammer Smashed Face.”

No, you can’t sing in a swimsuit there (illegal), or parachute on Sundays if you’re a single lady (that’s, like, double illegal).

It’s a city known for its lightning-heavy summers, only-in-Florida legal code (see above) and the place where longtime resident Hulk Hogan bleaches his ’stache before he goes to bed at night.

And that’s hardly all: Starting in the mid-’90s, the city gradually developed a reputation as an unlikely source for world-class boxers.

It began with Winky Wright, one of the premiere technicians of his generation and a standout among the bumper crop of 154-pound greats of his day.

Then came Antonio Tarver, U.S. Olympic medalist and multiple-time 175-pound champion, followed by Jeff Lacy, one of the most promising 168-pounders of the mid-2000s.

Now, there’s Keith Thurman (25-0, 21 KOs), perhaps the most formidable puncher of them all, who’s adding to Tampa’s burgeoning rep for boxing.

On this day, Thurman’s sitting in the place where it all began for him and so many other Central Florida fighters, the St Pete Boxing Club, owned by trainer Dan Birmingham.

It was here 13 years ago that Thurman, then 13 himself, was introduced to Wright, who’s had a lasting impact on Thurman—not that it started out that way.

“The first time I met Wink, I didn’t think too much about him. He’s not the biggest guy you’ve ever seen, not the strongest,” Thurman recalls. “But if you’ve ever been in the ring with Winky Wright, you know that he’s one of a kind, he’s very special. I learned a lot of little things from him. He had a calm and a poise in the ring that I really haven’t seen since. When I was competing in the national tournaments, I told myself all the time, ‘This guy is not Winky Wright.’”

It was Wright, alongside influential trainers Birmingham, Jimmy Williams and Ben Getty, who put the Tampa Bay boxing scene on the map.

“It was difficult as far as people knowing boxing in this area,” Wright says of the challenges of a building a name for himself in the region back in the day. “Everybody thought that you had to be from New York, California, somewhere like that, to be a great fighter. For me, it was an uphill road to show people, prove to people, that I’m just as good or better than these other fighters.”

Wright’s eventual success had a domino effect on other fighters.

When he was still an amateur, Tarver used to drive down to St. Pete from Orlando once a week to spar with Wright.

“Winky was actually fighting more overseas at the time—he wasn’t even fighting in America—but I knew that he was a great fighter,” Tarver recalls. “I learned so much from sparring with Winky.”

As both Wright and Tarver eventually became champions and stars within the sport, they began to bring big fights to the area.

Tarver won the rubber match in his trilogy with Roy Jones Jr. in Tampa in 2005, which remains the highest grossing fight in Florida history, and also won a title fight there against Clinton Woods in 2008.

For his part, Wright defeated former 147-pound champion Ike Quartey in Tampa in 2006, while Lacy headlined numerous fights in the area upon establishing himself as a force in the 168-pound division.

Thurman has been eager to carry on this tradition, which he’ll do Saturday when he takes on Luis Collazo (36-6, 19 KOs) at Tampa's USF Sun Dome in the debut of PBC on ESPN (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).

The torch has been passed, its flames burning as hot as Florida itself.

“All I ever wanted to do was bring the big lights, the big stage, back here to Tampa,” Thurman says. “I remember when Wink did it. I remember when Jeff did it. I remember when Tarver did it. For me, it’s a dream come true.”

For a complete look at all things Thurman vs Collazo, visit our fight page.

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