Devin Haney stole a page from the boxing playbook of the 1940s last December. Moments after successfully defending his WBC lightweight title at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas against Joseph "JoJo" Diaz, Haney called out unified champion George Kambosos Jr.
A week earlier, the virtually unknown Australian upset Teofimo Lopez to become the unified champion and the de facto man in the division.
Haney for a long time had been mocked for the way he’d acquired his belt. Kambosos, for instance, earned his belts by besting the previously unbeaten Teofimo Lopez. Lopez himself had become the unified champion by upsetting the pound-for-pound great Vasiliy Lomachenko.
Until recently, the script in boxing has been for champions to sit on their belts for as long as possible, defending in winnable bouts against low-risk challengers, until the big score came along.
Haney was being paid extraordinarily well by Matchroom Sport, particularly relative to his ticket-selling ability, and he could have followed the tried-and-true modern boxing formula: Fight the low-risk bouts, rack up big paydays, bluster on social media and wait until a truly huge bout emerged.
He chose to pursue greatness, and for that, he deserves enormous credit. Haney accepted the fight with Kambosos and they’ll meet in front of more than 50,000 fans in Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, Australia, on Saturday for the undisputed lightweight title.
That’s how boxing used to operate. Sugar Ray Robinson is widely regarded as the greatest pound-for-pound fighter ever. In 2000, the Associated Press commissioned a poll to rank the top fighters of the 20th century. Panelists were legendary trainers Angelo Dundee, Lou Duva, Eddie Futch and Gil Clancy and promoter Don Chargin.
Robinson was voted best overall fighter as well as best middleweight and best welterweight. He went 174-19-6 with 109 KOs in a career that went from 1940-65. In 1945, he fought the legendary Jake La Motta twice in four months, but that was nothing compared to what he did in 1943. He fought La Motta twice in three weeks, then fought Henry Armstrong six months later. Armstrong was voted the third-best pound-for-pound fighter of the 20th century.
It was a remarkable display.
Haney’s done nothing near that, but by choosing to not only seek out a fight with Kambosos but to willingly agree to face him in Australia, where Kambosos is from, sends a strong message to his peers about what championship behavior is like.
Haney’s also fighting under a handicap of sorts. His father, Bill, serves as his trainer, but was denied admission into Australia. The highly regarded Ben Davison had been working his corner for the last several fights, but because of Davison’s relationship with the now-defunct MTK Global promotional company and its ties with alleged mobster Daniel Kinahan, Davison couldn’t get into the country, either.
So barring a stunning last-minute change, Yoel Judah will work Haney’s corner.
That could have scared off other fighters; Haney just shrugged it off and said he believes he’s the better fighter. And while he’s the favorite — Haney is -175 at BetMGM and Kambosos is +145 — he knows full well the risk he’s taking. While there might be 50 Haney fans in the building, there will be more than 50,000 Kambosos supporters.
If there’s a close round or Kambosos has a flurry, it can highly influence the judges.
Haney, though, believes in himself and isn’t about to make excuses.
“We knew that he wanted to fight in Australia, so we were up for it,” Haney said. “And so it wasn't like a mystery or something that just came out of the blue. We’ve known about it for a while and it’s something that I wanted to do. I have no problem beating him in his own country because I truly believe I’m the better fighter. I have the better skillset, and I’m the best lightweight in the world. So I’m willing to do whatever it is to show it, and I will finally get my just due. I'm excited for it.”
That’s a professional. He’s not worried about who promotes Kambosos or what network will televise it. Instead, he said in essence, "Tell me when and where and I’ll be there.”
It will benefit him in other ways, too, because if he happens to lose, he’ll surely get another chance because of his willingness to take the risk in the first place.
And he knows he’s doing something good that will show the way for others in the sport. It’s coming at a great time, when suddenly boxers are making their promoters and their managers put them into the meaningful fights and not being content with gimmes.
“I wanted to make a difference,” Haney said. “I want to show the world and the boxers that you don’t need to concern yourself with this, and that the side of the street stuff is false. If you truly want to make something big, it’s up to us fighters to make it happen. And I’m taking that leap, and hopefully the rest of the boxing world sees it, and they see me become victorious, they see me come out on top of it, and they are inspired to do the same.”
Nearly 80 years ago, the great Sugar Ray Robinson proved that point. And Devin Haney, much to his credit, chose to take the same route.
Win or lose Saturday, that makes him a champion.