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 entertaining 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."
Thurman was making his fourth title defense, nine months after he outslugged former titlist Shawn Porter at Barclays Center in one of the best fights of 2016 and one of the rare CBS primetime fights.
Thurman and Garcia came out aggressively in the first round, and there were fireworks immediately. Garcia landed first, stopping Thurman in his tracks with a left hand. But Thurman rocked Garcia with a right-left combination and then landed another right hand that appeared to buzz him.
Garcia jabbed and countered well, but Thurman seemed to be the one imposing himself, and by the fourth round, Garcia's right eye was reddened.
Garcia had long stretches in which he did not throw punches while Thurman was peppering him with jabs and throwing right hands. But when Garcia let his shots go, he landed hard left hooks and body shots.
Garcia showed a good chin as he shook off Thurman's thudding shots, such as the right hand he landed on the button in the seventh round. Later in the seventh round, referee Michael Griffin warned Garcia for a low blow.
As the fight wore on, Thurman seemed in control, as he continued to move to his right to avoid Garcia's best punch, the left hook, while continuing to jab and mix in right hands.
"I don't think people expected that if Keith won he would do it by outboxing Danny Garcia," said Lou DiBella, who promoted the card. "It wasn't a one-sided fight, but I thought Keith won. If Danny would have fought the way he did in the last couple of rounds in the beginning, it would have been a different story."
The crowd tried to lift Garcia in the 10th round with chants of "Danny! Danny!" and Garcia responded by appearing to take Thurman's breath away with a body shot just before the round ended.
Garcia had a good 11th round but did not appear to have enough urgency in the 12th, when it appeared as though he needed a knockout to win while Thurman spent it circling the ring and not engaging.
Dan Birmingham, Thurman's trainer, also felt as though his fighter was ahead going into the final rounds and was fine with his easing up.
"We knew we had the fight won in the later rounds," Birmingham said. "We didn't want to take any chances. Keith was scoring, but he was backing up, sticking and moving. We knew Danny could hit, and he's a great fighter, and there was lot of great back-and-forth, but Keith was the better man tonight."
Added Thurman: "You're not just fighting your opponent sometimes -- you're fighting the judges. They have their own perspective. I know I was backing up and being defensive. I feel like a lot of Danny's power punches were ineffective. I was controlling the fight from the outside. There were some rounds that I was dominating. I knew that I had pulled ahead. We felt like we definitely earned the victory."
According to CompuBox statistics, Thurman landed 147 of 570 punches (26 percent). Garcia landed 130 of 434 (30 percent).
Garcia, who like Thurman earned $2 million for the fight, was making his first title defense of the vacant belt he won by unanimous decision against Robert Guerrero in January 2016, though he won a nontitle fight by decision against Samuel Vargas in December to get ready for the fight with Thurman.
"Too little, too late for Danny," DiBella said. "I thought he came on at the end. It was a tactical fight, and I thought Keith boxed very well and that Danny came on late in the fight -- but not enough. It was a good fight. Thurman boxed to win, and I think Danny came on late, but for the first nine rounds, Danny didn't do enough."