‘We just took the chance’: Inside Devin Haney’s unique approach to becoming a boxing star
Mike Coppinger, ESPNMay 18, 2023, 07:48 AM ET
LOS ANGELES — DEVIN HANEY ROLLED into the back of his white Mercedes-Maybach SUV, and through a massive gold grill, he reminisced on everything he and his father Bill Haney had built. His security guard, Tank, took the wheel of the $170,000 vehicle as Haney departed the news conference where he had just faced off with Saturday’s opponent, Vasiliy Lomachenko.
Haney’s 15-person entourage that day was filled with friends and team members, spread across multiple vehicles. But it wasn’t always this way.
When father and son relocated from Oakland, California to Las Vegas nearly 17 years ago to pursue boxing, it was just Devin and Bill. Their bond has proven unbreakable through all this boxing life has thrown at them.
At 17, Haney was a decorated amateur boxer with upward of 500,000 Instagram followers. Promoters scrambled to sign him ahead of his pro debut, but the Haneys weren’t interested.
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Saturday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPN+: Devin Haney vs. Vasiliy Lomachenko prelims
Saturday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN: Devin Haney vs. Vasiliy Lomachenko main undercard
Saturday, 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV: Devin Haney vs. Vasiliy Lomachenko, 12 rounds, for Haney’s undisputed lightweight championship
Instead, they bucked convention and refused several six-figure signing bonus offers to plot their own path without a promoter. The art of developing a top amateur boxer into a champion is a delicate one usually left to veteran matchmakers. The aim: to keep the fighter’s undefeated record intact but also progressively raise the competition level.
The Haneys took on that challenge themselves. Ten of his first 15 pro fights were staged on the Mexican club circuit. Tijuana was a place where they could build Haney’s record against proper competition without a long-term promotional deal, events where they sometimes broke even but often lost money.
Haney’s first 21 fights were co-promoted by the 17-year-old and his father — and not just in name only.
“We went from [Tijuana] to ShoBox and that’s when we were promoting shows and doing all the matchmaking … paying for all the medicals and doing all of that,” Haney (29-0, 15KOs) tells ESPN. “We just learned so much along the journey….
“You never know if you could do it on your own or not. But we just took the chance. We gambled, we bet on ourselves and we left with all the chips.”
That entrepreneurial spirit — born in Oakland, fostered in Vegas and fortified in Tijuana — will bear its tastiest fruit yet if Haney, the undisputed lightweight champion, can turn back the challenge of the future Hall of Famer on Saturday at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena (Haney vs. Loma at 10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) and return to free agency as the guy in boxing’s hottest weight class.
In an ever-fractured boxing business, the Haneys have woven their way through the usual obstacles in search of marquee fights and the riches they now have, owing much of it to their refusal to be tied to any one promoter or manager long term.
The three-fight deal with Top Rank and Lou DiBella, one that began last June with the fight for George Kambosos Jr.’s four belts in Australia, expires with the Lomachenko fight.
“Obviously he made the right decision to get [the] undisputed [championship],” says Kambosos’ promoter DiBella, who was in charge of HBO’s boxing programming from 1989 to 2000. “He’s in a fight now where he’s a major favorite against a big-name fighter. And if he wins this fight and does what a lot of people expect and what the odds expect, he’s going to have an awful lot of leverage.”
Devin Haney is all smiles as he arrives in Las Vegas ahead of his fight against Vasiliy Lomachenko on May 20. Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images
“DEVIN HANEY VS. Everybody” was plastered across Bill Haney’s black shirt as he wrapped his arms around his son following his U.S. TV debut. And it’s remained that way — Devin and Bill vs. The World — five years later.
Haney was 130-8 as an amateur and made his debut in the United States by working with a variety of promoters just to secure a spot on a non-televised undercard. One of those bouts came on the Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley Jr. card in Las Vegas where he needed to receive a special exemption to fight due to his age (17).
“He was self-driven and confident and always held himself to high standards,” says Bradley, a Hall of Fame boxer and ESPN analyst. “Haney’s progression is formulated by his hard work and discipline throughout the years.”
Thirteen days shy of his 19th birthday, the boxing world finally saw what all the fuss was about. Haney, in his U.S. TV debut, stopped Mason Menard in Round 9 of the main event of Showtime’s prospect series dubbed “ShoBox: The New Generation.”
On that May evening in 2018, Haney dazzled with his athleticism, punch variety, and most of all, his command of the ring.
Haney dared his opponent to hit him by poking his head out from his guard in the fashion of Roy Jones Jr. He showed flashes of his mentor, Floyd Mayweather, with the way he effortlessly glided around the ring. Even at that point in his career, Haney possessed a unique style all his own, inside and outside the ring.
His next two outings were also ShoBox main events, slots often reserved for fighters who weren’t coveted by the four major American promoters. Under-the-radar talents like Regis Prograis emerged from ShoBox, and so, too, did Bradley and Erislandy Lara among a host of others.
Haney wasn’t overlooked, and unlike those three, by choice, wasn’t signed to any promotional contract. After two more wins on ShoBox (both via decision), Haney was ready for 12-round fights.
The suitors: Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions, Bob Arum’s Top Rank and Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing. Without any outside counsel, father and son made the call: a six-fight deal with Matchroom that guaranteed seven figures per bout. Haney made $1 million for his first bout with Matchroom, and the purses escalated from there, the type of money few fighters in the sport are pulling in, especially at that age.
“He believed in his worth and waited until a point that he had established himself as a young contender, A+ prospect before he made a deal with anybody,” DiBella says. “And then he was able to use DAZN’s thirst for an American star at that time to get an extraordinary developmental deal. They played that whole situation very smart.”
Haney, who isn’t known for his power, kicked off the deal with a brutal seventh-round KO of Antonio Moran. A fourth-round TKO of Zaur Abdullaev following that netted Haney the WBC interim lightweight title. He fought a third time in 2019 before surgery to repair a separated shoulder sidelined him for a year.
Devin Haney, left, and his father Bill Haney had been a boxer-trainer team since the beginning. Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images
When Haney returned, he faced his first former champion with a decision victory over Yuriorkis Gamboa. He stepped up his competition for good the following year with points wins over Jorge Linares and Joseph Diaz Jr. in Las Vegas. It was clear then if it wasn’t already apparent: Haney was ready for the elite. More so, perhaps, he was once again a free agent.
“For a fighter to work all his life in and out of those gyms to get to a place where they’re not in control of their career and they’re ready to fight … when you get to that point of development, you want to go,” Bill Haney says. “And so many times fighters sign away their right to do that early on.
“And they have to make that sacrifice. You sacrifice your freedom for the short term of [the promoter] building you. And I don’t think that we made that sacrifice. We worked hard from the beginning.”
That the Haneys are in this together has introduced a different wrinkle to the typical father and son boxing story. Together they’ve built their empire, with the father understanding that in this equation, his son calls the shots.
“I know that the fighter is the boss…,” Bill says. “I work for Devin. Devin doesn’t work for me. And I happily work for him. It’s one of the best jobs in the world, to be able to work for your son, work for your last name, and not your first.”
Lightweight undisputed champion Devin Haney, left, confronted Vasiliy Lomachenko after Lomachenko’s victory over Jamaine Ortiz on October 29 at Hulu Theater inside Madison Square Garden. Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images
THE AIRCRAFT STARTED rattling and shaking during the 14-hour plus trip from Melbourne to Los Angeles, the Haneys’ first stop stateside on their way back after defeating Kambosos in the rematch, before they boarded a flight to their home in Las Vegas.
Passengers nearby grabbed tight onto their armrests to steady themselves when Devin signaled to catch his father’s attention: He wanted to make one more trip 10 days later to scout whom he hoped would be his next opponent.
“I want to get on the ground and I want to go home and I want to relax, but not Devin,” says Bill.
“He’s already talking about going to the Lomachenko fight.”
So the Haneys traveled from Las Vegas to New York to watch Lomachenko in his first action of 2023. After the bout, Haney stepped in the ring to confront his future foe.
On that night, the two-time Olympic gold medalist didn’t resemble his usual self, the fighter who pivots in and out of danger, finding uncanny angles to dole out tactical beatings.
Lomachenko (17-2, 11 KOs) still came away with the victory, but in a rare instance, he dropped several rounds to the larger, younger and major underdog Jamaine Ortiz. If Lomachenko wasn’t at his best that night, he can surely be excused.
Lomachenko, not Haney, was all but set to embark on a trip from Ukraine to Australia in 2022 when his nation was invaded by Russia last February. Rather than leave his war-torn homeland, Lomachenko passed on the shot at undisputed lightweight champion George Kambosos.
With Lomachenko out of the picture, Haney capitalized on his free-agent status and accepted the same terms in place for Lomachenko: a June fight in Australia and a rematch (if Kambosos lost) in Australia later in 2022.
The deal paid Haney upward of $3 million a piece for the pair of Kambosos fights, and included a third fight with Top Rank and DiBella. To piece together the two fights in Australia was a complicated process, one DiBella says would’ve only happened if the Haneys really wanted the opportunity.
“Don’t make me do this if you’re not serious about it,” DiBella told the Haneys.
“We are people of our word, and if you deliver what you said you were going to, we’re going to make a deal,” the Haneys responded.
Devin Haney, Vasyl Lomachenko ready to bring down the house
Get ready for one of the most hyped bouts of 2023, when Devin Haney and Vasyl Lomachenko meet between the ropes.
“And they did,” DiBella says. “And I find them to be straight shooters. … If Haney and his father were involved in a lot of these other discussions for these mega fights that haven’t been happening, the fights would’ve happened on their end because I found … when they want to do something and they’re motivated to make a deal … they are going to keep their word. And that is somewhat unusual in the [boxing] marketplace.”
Haney could have moved up to 140 pounds — and still might after the bout with Lomachenko — but he wasn’t interested at that point. So he towered over Lomachenko in the ring on Halloween weekend in New York, setting the stage for the biggest fight of their careers.
“You’re heavyweight,” Lomachenko cracked after he sized Haney up.
Indeed, Haney will enjoy a considerable size and strength advantage when they meet, but that’s never proven too much for Lomachenko. After amassing an incredible amateur record of 396-1, Lomachenko’s only two career losses were in a foul-filled bout with Orlando Salido in his second professional fight and a tight-points defeat to Teofimo Lopez Jr. when Lomachenko fought with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
And despite Lomachenko’s status as a +230 underdog, per Caesars Sportsbook, Haney knows this is the fight that can launch him to new heights, both inside and outside the ring.
“I want to be the businessman of boxing,” says Haney, who started his eponymous promotional company in July 2018. “The guy that did it so young and built it out like I am now. … And I want to be that guy to have a stable of fighters, best fighters in the world, going straight to the network and not having to rely on boxing to really be a businessman and to really do the dirty work.”
Devin Haney Promotions isn’t simply a vehicle for his own fights, but a company he envisions being a major player in boxing long after his career is over.
“I want to be in these meetings,” Haney says. “I want to be the guy like Oscar De La Hoya, like him and Bernard [Hopkins] are doing, like Floyd has done, and just take it to the next level.”
Devin Haney Promotions currently has three fighters in the fold: the champ himself; Amari Jones, an 8-0 middleweight from Oakland who fights on Saturday’s off-TV undercard; and Shamar Canal, a 3-0 featherweight from Albany, New York.
“Guys want to stay independent … or start their own promotional company,” says Haney, a practicing Muslim who fasted two weeks for this fight during Ramadan. “Even big fighters today, everybody’s starting their own promotional company. Even though some of them just say that they’re promoters, but in reality, do they have a promoter’s license? No, I’m a real promoter. I pay taxes and everything through my promotion.”
Devin Haney: A win against Vasiliy Lomachenko would mean everything
Devin Haney previews his upcoming fight against Vasiliy Lomachenko this Saturday on ESPN+ PPV.
OVER AND OVER, Haney heard the same joke.
That in a sport which crowns four titleholders in its 17 divisions, and often much more due to sanctioning body shenanigans, his belt was especially illegitimate.
The criticism contained merit, but Haney unfairly shouldered the brunt. He never petitioned the WBC for his interim champion status to be elevated — rather he lobbied for a shot at Lomachenko, who held the WBC title along with two others.
In a nonsensical move, even by boxing standards, the WBC created a made-up “Franchise title” for Lomachenko that declared he didn’t need to fight his mandatory challenger. Essentially, Lomachenko was able to fight Lopez instead while Haney, the No. 1 contender, was made a champion, too, though he never won the title in the ring, leading to the email champion jokes.
“Loma has to fight me now,” says Haney, who will earn $4 million guaranteed on Saturday, per sources. “He didn’t want this fight. If he did, he would’ve fought me a long time ago. He’s fighting me now because it’s so much at stake. … When I was calling Loma out in 2019, the world was saying I was basically clout chasing, just calling Loma’s name, acting like I wanted to fight him. “But in reality, it shows that, no, I really wanted to fight him then. And right now I don’t have to fight him. I could go up to 140 and go do whatever, but I want to prove myself. I want to show the world that this is the guy that you guys said was that guy. No, I’m that guy. So put me in that position. Value me as that. Value me as the next closest thing to Muhammad Ali like Bob [Arum] said [about Loma] at one point.”
In 2019, Devin Haney was elevated from WBC interim lightweight champion to full champion without fighting. Erick W. Rasco /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
If Haney can box his way past Lomachenko and emerge with his four titles intact, it will truly signal the changing of the guard at 135 pounds. For years, Lomachenko was entrenched at the top of the pound-for-pound list. And while there’s chatter he’s slowed down at 135 pounds, Lomachenko is an all-time great who’s always found a way.
And the Haneys have always found a way, too. So many dreams have been realized by father and son, but there’s still much to accomplish months shy of his 25th birthday.
Haney will once again be a free agent come Sunday morning, win or lose, and with myriad options. A move to junior welterweight is possible, where Haney would seek a second-division title and be positioned to meet the winner of the June 10 Josh Taylor-Teofimo Lopez Jr. fight.
He could also remain at 135 for one final fight, a highly anticipated showdown with fellow pound-for-pounder Shakur Stevenson. Any of those three opponents would mean another fight with Haney and Top Rank, Stevenson’s promoter.
“I like working with ESPN and Bob, but it does feel good to have the belts and be a free agent,” says Haney, who could also explore bouts with Gervonta Davis (PBC) and Ryan Garcia (Golden Boy Promotions). “It gives you much more leverage with negotiating. … It’s a tricky place to be in when after this fight, you’re a free agent, so you got to win. … We hope for a big deal after.
“There’s no blueprint on how to be a star … you got to just keep winning. Everybody loves a winner. I don’t care what you say. You go 100-0, 50-0, 70-0, the world has to value you. I just got to keep beating whoever they put in front of me.”