Devin Haney is eager to prove he belongs among the lightweight elites


Devin Haney’s introduction to adulthood, shortly after turning 21 last November, wasn’t exactly how he imagined it.

There was absolutely no boxing training for three full months after he underwent surgery on his right shoulder in Los Angeles last December.

Then, just as he was getting ready to ramp back up, the start of the coronavirus pandemic forced further delays and left the WBC lightweight world titlist to do some soul-searching.

“I learned so much about myself, about the people around me. I did go through a dark place because I never been away from boxing in my life,” Haney told ESPN. “I never took longer than two weeks off from boxing, so when I was on bedrest and I couldn’t lift my arm and I couldn’t run, I couldn’t do nothing, I had to just sit there and just think, and that’s when I realized who was the real people around me.

“Who was around for clout, who was around for money, who was around for the opportunity,” he added. “So, I learned so much, and now that I’m about to get back in the ring, I see that slowly but surely, the people are coming back around.”

Haney makes his long-awaited return to action on Saturday, after nearly a full calendar year off, as he defends against ex-titleholder Yuriorkis Gamboa.

Haney (24-0, 15 KOs) faces his toughest challenge to date against Gamboa (30-3, 18 KOs), and he has a tough act to follow on the heels of two superb performances in the lightweight division by the men holding the rest of the major titles at 135. On Oct. 31, Gervonta “Tank” Davis unleashed a devastating sixth-round knockout of Leo Santa Cruz. Two weeks prior, Teofimo Lopez put on an impressive, star-making performance in earning a unanimous decision victory over Vasiliy Lomachenko on Oct. 17 to add the WBA and WBO titles — as well as the WBC “franchise” belt — to his IBF world title, giving him belts from all four major sanctioning bodies.

Some viewed Lopez’s win as a unification of all four world titles, despite Haney holding the WBC lightweight world title. That stems from the fact that Lomachenko didn’t lose that particular title in the ring, but was instead elevated to the somewhat confusing WBC “franchise” champion while Haney, who had won the interim belt by defeating Zaur Abdullaev last September, simply removed the interim tag and inherited the primary world title.

And while some fighters might bristle at Lopez being labeled as unified champion, Haney sees it differently.

“I feel like I do have my respect as a champion, because at the end of the day, they’re not saying that they want to fight me,” Haney said. “So, that’s all the respect that I need. The fighters are fearing me. They know how much talent that I have, and they know what I’m capable of.”

Haney’s vision would be to make a fight against anyone else holding a world title at lightweight.

“The belts are important to me; I want to win as many of them as I can,” Haney said in a news release from Matchroom Boxing. “I am willing to fight any of the top guys, I don’t want to skip any of them out or say, ‘I like this guy over that guy’ because I want the fights that the fans want to see the most.”

In the meantime, Haney looks at Lopez’s and Davis’ wins as inspiration — something that has him fired up to prove he belongs to be mentioned in that elite category amongst his peers.

“I think it’s a great division, it’s the best division in boxing. It’s so much talent and everyone is getting better and better each fight,” Haney said. “The fights are just building up and stirring up. Tank put on a good performance, Lopez put on a good performance, so now it’s Devin’s turn.

“It’s definitely like the old days of so many great fighters being in one division at the same exact time,” he added. “It’s unbelievable, but the difference is we’ve got to fight. These top guys all have to fight each other to show who the head honcho in the lightweight division is, and I’m willing to do that.”

Training camp was significantly different from that for any of Haney’s previous 24 pro fights. Due to social distancing and stay-at-home orders during the pandemic, Haney did not participate in his typical routine at SNAC training facility in California’s Bay Area with sports nutritionist Victor Conte, who has gained a reputation for helping with steady weight cuts.

But as he prepared to get back into the full swing of training, Haney suffered the loss of a close family friend, Steven “Hawk” Grant, who he referred to as his “god-uncle.”

Grant often attended Haney’s fights and sparring sessions, leaving an imprint on his life. Haney dedicated social media posts to him after his death.

“Well, I kind [of] just had a talk about him being young and his importance to our family as a whole that he remains focused with seeing him on course,” said Bill Haney, Devin’s father, manager and trainer. “We’re happy with seeing him happy, and Hawk was happy to see Devin in the gym, just as I was, and a lot of our family. So, that’s one of our things. We’d go to Devin’s fights and watch him spar, and it almost became like a family gathering when we get together.

“He loved Devin and talked about him and how good he was all the time,” said Shere Grant, Steven’s daughter.

In that moment, through the sadness and the many complications brought along by rehabilitation, training and everything going on with COVID-19, boxing became both an outlet and escape for Devin.

“Just kind of keeping our nose to the ground and just looking at it every day,” said Bill Haney, on what boxing training meant during that time. “It was hard for everyone, and not just the family. It was a dark place for everyone.

“For Devin, this is the longest that he’s not been in the ring fighting, and I think he finds his refuge and his safe haven inside the ring,” he said. “That’s where he’s at that special place. So, for him not being able to train with the shoulder injury and getting stripped then declared as a champion in recess, and then to come back, I just think he’s more happy in the ring, for sure.”

For those reasons, along with the lightweight division’s resurgence, Devin Haney’s promoter, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sports, sees this as a huge opportunity for the young fighter to prove he’s worthy of the hype.

“I appreciate the people who think that Haney is a level above Gamboa, they must rate him very, very highly and we have those beliefs as well. But Gamboa is the kind of fight that I think Devin Haney needs to make a statement,” Hearn said during Wednesday’s Zoom conference call. “And I think he’s under pressure to make a statement in this fight because everybody else is making grand statements.”

After lots of rest, recovery and uncertainty, Haney’s back to doing what he loves: fighting. There is now light at the end of the tunnel, as he hopes to beat Gamboa convincingly.

“It’s gonna help me so much in the ring, because now I finally get to show everything that was built up. I get to show everything I felt in this last year,” Haney said. “So many things have happened and nobody really saw Devin Haney. They heard me talk, but no one saw me fight. Gamboa went in there and landed shots, he hurt [Terence] Crawford. He put up a great fight against Tank.

“I don’t just want to win, I want to win in spectacular fashion,” Haney said. “I want to beat Gamboa worse than anyone has to date. I want to show him that I am the best fighter in the world and better than anyone he’s ever faced. … I have to make a statement. The eyes of the boxing world are all on me again. They’ve heard me talk the talk, and now it’s time to walk the walk.”

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