The janitor’s fighting apprentice

Ben Getty abandoned life as a boxing trainer in favor of being a school janitor. It led him to his greatest protege.

NBC Sports / Keith Thurman

Boxing returns to primetime on NBC for the first time in nearly 30 years with the debut of PBC on NBC on Saturday, March 7 at 8:30 p.m. ET, featuring Keith Thurman vs. Robert Guerrero and Adrien Broner vs. John Molina Jr. Full coverage and tune-in info is available here.

PETERSBURG, Fla. — Keith Thurman still sees that little kid. The boy was tiny, even to the eyes of a seven-year-old. He stepped out on a little stage in the elementary school gymnasium as a small crowd of boys gathered around. The school janitor helped him put on his boxing gloves. And then, the boy began to throw punches.

“He started doing pad work,” Thurman says, and as he speaks he raises his fists, his arms begin to move, his head bobs and ducks. “It was 1 … 2 … 3, slip, slip, right hand, left-hook, slip, slip, right hand, left-hook, slip, slip. It was … I had never seen anything like it.”

The seven-year-old Thurman was mesmerized. He had been fascinated by violence for as long as he could remember. His father practiced martial arts, and he taught Keith a few martial arts. Keith practiced them every day. But this seemed more exciting somehow. Rawer. The smallest boy in his class, the one Thurman almost never thought about, stood up on the stage and as Keith remembers: “He was just letting those hands fly, boy. Who knew that little white boy had such fast hands?”

The boy stopped, and there was some applause, and the school janitor announced that he was starting a boxing club, three days a week for any kid willing to run and work and listen. “If you join,” the man said, “you are going to work harder than you ever have in your life. But you’re going to become men.”

Keith Thurman had seen his future.

* * *

Ben Getty was sick of boxing, all of it — the hype, the corruption, the disloyalty, the way people kept trying to steal away his best prospects. No one who ever met Ben Getty would call him a sensitive man, but he had a military sense of right and wrong. And he saw so much wrong in boxing, so much that made him lose faith in the sport. He stopped going to the gym, stopped scouting out prospects, stopped training fighters. He packed up his stuff and moved down to Florida. He wanted the good weather. He wanted to retire.

He got down to Clearwater, and he took a job as janitor at Belleair Elementary School to pay the rent. Yes, he was done with boxing. Then he started seeing kids walking the halls. And he remembered …

“Boxing,” Getty had told a reporter years before, when he was managing a tough and overachieving fighter named Kelvin Seabrooks, “is the sport that gives you a chance. That’s all you want when you’re a fighter: A chance.”

Boxing had kicked him around for years. But, somehow, he still believed that stuff about boxing giving people a chance. Boxing had done that for him. He had started when he was a kid up around Pittsburgh. When he was 18, he joined the Army. He fought in Vietnam. He was a paratrooper. He fought some, but more he loved to work out. He loved to push his limits. He sometimes would tell his fighters that he was the first man to ever power lift 500 pounds on a German army base.

Then he started trying to push other people’s limits. He became the strength and conditioning coach for the Fort Bragg boxing team, and his training sessions became legendary for their fury and ruthlessness. Getty showed no mercy. He was so tough that Sugar Ray Leonard tabbed him to train some Olympic hopefuls including Kenny Gould, who would go on to win a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympics.

Ben Getty lost faith with the business of boxing, perhaps, but he never did lose faith in the sport. He asked the principal of the school if he could start a boxing club. Then he asked people in the community. There was no money. There was no place to train at first. Still, the Clearwater Boxing Club began. The boys would form a ring by holding hands. At first, the equipment included some ratty old gloves and mitts, a few jump ropes and enough open area to run and do push-ups and sit-ups.

“He came to get away from boxing,” his son Chris Getty says. “But you just can’t get away from from it.”

Those early years were spent raising a few bucks, fighting small political battles, begging for a place to train and, more than anything, putting those young kids through the hardest workouts of their lives. People who knew Ben Getty never saw him happier.

(NBC Sports)

* * *

Sometimes, it just happens that way — two people meet each other at exactly the right time for both of them. Ben Getty met Keith Thurman just when he was looking to find what it was that he loved about boxing. And Keith Thurman found Ben Getty when he was young and hungry to become a man.

From the start, Keith Thurman was intimidated by his coach. Getty exuded power. “Just this short, stocky Italian guy who would scare you to death,” Thurman says. In Getty’s office, there were black and white photos of boxers, and he had old leather gloves, and the place just smelled like old boxing gyms. Getty wasn’t much of a story teller, but sometimes he would entrance Thurman with gruesome stories about his own trainer, who would whack him with a cane whenever he dropped his hands.

Dropping the hands — to Ben Getty, that was the cardinal sin.

“His most common saying,” Keith Thurman says, “was ’Keep your (bleeping) hands up.’ Or he would say ‘keep your G— damn hands up.’ Or something like that. It was never just ‘Keep your hands up.’ He just was tough, man.”

From the start, Ben Getty was fascinated by his pupil. The kid just kept going forward. And even when he was small and light, he could hit – other kids didn’t want to step into the ring with him. When Thurman was 11, Getty was already telling people that he was the most talented young fighter he’d ever coached.

That year, they raised enough money (“I literally went door to door to ask for donations,” Thurman says) to go to a national tournament in Kansas City, Kansas … and there was a bizarre mix up over the weigh-in times. The times were changed and Getty was not alerted. Thurman and a dozen other fighters missed the weigh-in and were disqualified. It was, for Getty and Thurman’s family, heartbreaking.

But what amazed him was not the confusion — such is boxing — but how Thurman handled the injustice. He quietly accepted it.

“He doesn’t talk much,” Getty told a reporter.

* * *

Boxing, Keith Thurman likes to say, is a matter of styles. “It’s one thing that the real fight fans know and others don’t truly understand,” he says. “Styles make fights.”

Getty’s style and Thurman’s style just meshed. It might not have made sense if they were being matched up on some boxer-trainer match sight. Getty was coarse and hard and plain-spoken. Keep your (bleepin’) hands up. Everyone can be beat. Anyone who puts on eight-ounce gloves is dangerous. Don’t ever forget where you come from. These were the things he would say, day after day after day, and he meant them every time.

Thurman, meanwhile, is more subtle and mysterious. He talks for one minute about how he likes the feeling of knocking someone out, and he will talk the next about Eastern religions. He has knocked out 21 men in 24 fights, and at home he raises Chihuahuas. He speaks of how when he was a kid he didn’t dream of becoming champion of the world; he dreamed of inventing something that would make him rich.

“Ben said I would be world champion before anybody,” Thurman says. “I liked being called a champ, but I liked it more when he called me a million-dollar fighter. I liked the sound of that … ‘million, dollar, fighter.’ I still like that sound of that.”

Thurman is world welterweight titleholder now. He’s undefeated. He has a nickname, “One Time” that describes his overwhelming punching power. Satrrday night, he fights Robert Guerrero, The Ghost, a former welterweight titleholder himself and a tough veteran fighter who has never been knocked out, not even by Floyd Mayweather. Thurman believes he will win again. Thurman believes he will get the knockout. Thurman believes he is still destined to fight Mayweather and, just maybe, be the first to beat the man.

But more than any of that, he thinks about Ben Getty’s line: Million Dollar Fighter. What does that mean? Sure, it’s about money. But it’s about something else, something hard to describe.

Ben Getty died almost six years ago. Getty was just 63 when he died, and Thurman readily admits that he’s still not over it. He works a lot with Getty’s son Chris and trainer Dan Birmingham, and the big things haven’t changed much. He still works out the same, still prepares the same, still goes into every fight confident. But he thinks a lot about Ben Getty and what the coach would want him to do. In his last fight against Leonard Bundu, he dominated the fight — landing three times as many punches and winning every round on all three judges’ cards. Still, he fought this one conservatively, backing up quite a bit, eluding Bundu’s punches. He heard boos because Keith “One Time” Thurman is supposed to knock people out, and he did not knock out Leonard Bundu.

“Did I show how devastating I can be?” Thurman asks. “I did not. I showed you how intelligent I can be. I showed you how patient I can be. If I want to have a boxing career for the next 10 years, I’m going to have to adapt a little bit of that.

“Win the fight,” he says. “That’s what it’s always about. That’s what Ben always told me. You can’t look great every fight. Do your job today, and you can look great tomorrow. Ben taught me that every man deserves respect, but you fear no man.”

I ask Keith Thurman if he ever has any fear entering the ring.

“Yeah,” he said. “I have one fear. And it’s looking lesser than my greater self. I do not fear losing. I do not fear any man. I fear looking incompetent. I will not allow myself to look incompetent, not now, not ever. You will always see a world class fighter when you watch Keith ‘One Time’ Thurman.”

He pauses for a moment then.

“I used to wonder what Ben Getty saw in me,” he says. “Like I told you, he was the first man to call me champion, the first to call me a million-dollar fighter. I was still a kid. What did he see in me? And then I figured it out.”

Just then, Keith Thurman’s phone rings. He talks briefly with a friend. He comes back and asks, ‘What was I saying?'”

“You were talking about what Ben Getty saw in you,” I say.

“Yeah,” Thurman says, but he is distracted now, and he excuses himself to go let that friend in. Then he starts to talk more about a possible Mayweather fight. He never did explain what he figured out, what Getty saw in him. Then, he didn’t have to explain. It’s obvious what Getty saw in the young Keith Thurman. Ben Getty saw himself.