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Devin Haney, the boxer who looks like the altar boy at the local Catholic church, stood in the center of the ring at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, hands at his side, an aggressive opponent fueled by a hometown crowd looking for some reason to erupt in celebration rushing at him with haymakers, and stuck his tongue out.
This was seconds before the bell sounded in one of the many rounds he won going away Saturday against George Kambosos, the tough but badly overmatched opponent he fought for the undisputed lightweight championship.
It was one of the few moments in which Haney relaxed and didn’t stick assiduously to the plan that his father, Bill, and he had come up with. They knew — and it was patently obvious after, oh, 90 seconds of fight time — that Haney had enormous advantages in speed, quickness, boxing ability and ring IQ.
This wasn’t an undertrained, overconfident Teofimo Lopez that Kambosos was fighting. Kambosos was a 6-1 underdog when he fought Lopez for the lightweight titles in New York last year. Lopez and his father, Teofimo Sr., who trains him, were so confident of victory they were like a guy in line to cash a lottery ticket before the numbers had been drawn.
No, this was a mature beyond-his-years 23-year-old who’d been preparing for this night for at least six years. He turned professional as a 17-year-old and began by fighting in bars and night clubs in seedy spots throughout Tijuana, Mexico.
It wasn’t the glamorous way that many stars begin their career, but it was what Haney needed to do to get rolling.
He had everything going against him on Saturday. Kambosos got to dictate the terms because he faced an opponent for the belts who wasn’t determined or mature enough to properly prepare and naively believed that natural talent would carry him.
Kambosos demanded the fight be in Australia and that he be given a rematch in the same ring should he lose. Haney, who was Top Rank’s second choice after Vasiliy Lomachenko declined to instead fight for Ukraine in its war against Russia, immediately stepped in.
His father, Bill, didn’t get a visa to enter Australia until hours before the fight. He’d had a federal drug conviction more than 30 years ago and before an appeal on Haney’s behalf, he couldn’t get into the country. Bill Haney trains his son, who got to Australia by himself several weeks ago.
Boxing history suggests that the judges favor the hometown hero, and Haney had to concern himself with that. He had to do the final preparations, as well as his weight cut, without his father around. Fighters are creatures of habit and when there are such drastic changes in the biggest fight of one’s life, it’s not good.
But Haney acted like he was 43 and not 23. He dealt with everything like a consummate professional. When Kambosos tried to get under his skin by calling him a rat and a snitch, he shrugged his shoulders and kept his cool.
He expressed his faith in Yoel Judah, who was going to train him should Bill Haney not be able to get into Australia.
“This is a dream come true,” Devin Haney said. “I was going through it without my Dad being here because I knew it was a big moment for us. We both dreamed of this. Since we started out, we said we wanted to be the best. It would have hurt me to accomplish this without him. I’m so thankful that we were able to accomplish this together.”
He set himself apart from all of the other lightweights, but there are still plenty of hills to climb. He’ll presumably have to beat Kambosos a second time on the road unless his team can buy Kambosos out of the immediate rematch. Few people in Australia who saw that fight would want to see it again, and it cost promoters a ton to put it on.
The logical fight, and the easiest to make, would be for Haney to face Lomachenko, since both are with Top Rank. But if he wants to prove who is best in the lightweight division, as he’s been saying he would do since he was 19, he’ll have to fight Gervonta “Tank” Davis.
Davis, who is four years older than Haney, retained his secondary lightweight title a week earlier when he knocked out Rolly Romero in impressive fashion.
Haney has the belts, but he hasn’t yet proven to be a ticket seller. Now, the same was true of Floyd Mayweather Jr. early in his career, and Mayweather went on to become one of the best draws in the history of the sport.
Davis is proving to be a ticket seller and he’s doing solid numbers on pay-per-view, selling around 275,000 units for the fight with Romero.
Promoter Oscar De La Hoya threw Ryan Garcia’s name into the hat, but Garcia has spent the past year calling out fighters only to either never fight them or to sign and then pull out. He can’t be taken seriously as a top-level opponent for either Haney or Davis until he gets to the post a few times in a row. He’s expected to fight Javier Fortuna in July, so we’ll see.
But this night was about Haney, who took the slow and steady approach. He knew he couldn’t get in trouble unless he made a mistake. Had he tried to, he likely could have finished Kambosos because he’s so much faster. Trying that, though, would have increased the possibility of a mistake. In a fight he was winning so easily, it didn’t make sense.
It wasn’t Hagler-Hearns by any means, but it was a mature, veteran performance by a talented, gifted boxer. If he develops the kind of stinging power as he matures that characterizes so many of the elite lightweights throughout history, he may well turn out to be the best of the bunch when all is said and done.
But his boxing and his maturity have taken him a long way already.
It’s pretty impressive for a young man who looks like he’s not old enough to watch a PG13 movie without adult supervision.