Keith Thurman

BEVERLY HILLS - MAY 22: Keith “One Time” Thurman attends a press conference in Beverly Hills for the Premier Boxing Champions on FOX Sports Pay-Per-View fight against Manny Pacquiao on July 20 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Frank Micelotta/Fox Sports/PictureGroup)

He deserved a few days off. Of course he did. The man had been in boxing rings since the time he was a little boy and, in the biggest fight of his life, had just lost for the first time as a professional.

So Keith Thurman deserved his break. Deserved a chance to enjoy life and the fat paycheck he had just earned. He travelled, enjoyed his new marriage, became a father. He finally had surgery for an injury that had been causing severe pain and swelling in his left hand in his last few fights.

He learned to live with the split decision loss to boxing legend Manny Pacquiao, and spent his days plotting a new direction for his career as a pandemic gripped the nation.

But, before too long, those few days turned into months. Then years. The Clearwater boxer who once ruled the entire welterweight division was still on the sidelines and no longer listed in the top 10 rankings by the time he turned 33 in November.

So tell me, what ever became of Keith Thurman?

The world got its answer on Saturday night when Thurman returned from a layoff of more than 30 months and dominated Mario Barrios in a 12-round match at the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas. The three judges scored the fight 118-110, 118-110 and 117-111, and that might have been kind.

Barrios was swollen and bloody by the time the fight ended, and Thurman was back in the picture as a contender in the 147-pound class.

“I want the belts, baby! I want the champions. I want to be back on top,” Thurman said in the ring afterward to a pay-per-view audience that spent $75 to watch the fight. “So whoever is willing to send Keith Thurman a contract, let’s go baby. Let’s go.”

Thurman could get his wish before too long. Unlike 2018 when Thurman was the unified champion, the welterweight division has no consensus at the top of the rankings. The WBO, WBC, WBA and IBF have three different champions, which means there’s plenty of possibilities for Thurman.

Yordenis Ugas (WBA champion) and Errol Spence (WBC and IBF belts) are supposed to meet in April, which leaves Terence Crawford (WBO champion) looking for a potential title defense along with undefeated contender Jaron Ennis.

Is Thurman ready to step up against a champion or a top contender? Can a 30-something boxer with only three fights in nearly five years be sharp enough to take on the best in the class?

You could argue that he looked the part on Saturday night, although Barrios is not an elite boxer. Thurman was moving well in the ring and rarely gave Barrios an opening to hurt him. Halfway through the fight, he had landed nearly twice as many punches.

But it is worth wondering how much power is left in his gloves. It’s been almost seven years since Thurman (30-1) got a knockout or a TKO. As much as he dominated Barrios on Saturday night, he never came close to putting him on the canvas.

“Who cares about the knockout? We’re going to box hard, we’re going to box smart,” Thurman said after the Barrios fight. “We rocked (him). We weren’t able to put him down and out, but we had a great performance.”

Great might be a bit of a stretch. Even Thurman called it a C-minus or B-plus performance.

But considering how long it had been since he had an opponent in front of him, it was a highly successful return for Thurman. And it was more than enough to line up a bigger fight in the coming months.

The question is how picky he will be about opponents. Thurman, whose nickname is One Time, was not enthusiastic about fighting in empty arenas during the early days of the pandemic, and his return was delayed even longer after he was diagnosed with COVID in 2021.

When he entered the ring Saturday night, Thurman’s trademark braids were gone, replace by a close-cropped hair cut. He wore a sleeveless, blue and white sparkling top with red lettering that announced “I Am Back” across his chest.

And when the job was finished, Thurman tweeted a clip of his post-fight interview with the caption:

“I told y’all One Time is back!”

Yes, he is. And the early evidence suggests he might once again climb to the top of the welterweight division. He just needs the right opponent, the right deal, the right moment to begin his ascent.

After all this time, Keith Thurman is in a hurry once again.