Thursday, May 30, 2024

Devin Haney looks to block out distractions, antics from Ryan Garcia in attempt to assert himself as a star

When pressed with questions by journalists at Wednesday’s open media workout about the ongoing antics of Saturday’s opponent, Ryan Garcia, which have dominated the pre-fight promotion, all unbeaten WBC junior welterweight champion Devin Haney could do was sigh and repeat a familiar sentiment. 

The more Garcia acts out as a means to bring attention to their pay-per-view grudge match on Saturday, while the boxing world openly debates between whether he’s trolling or in the thick of a mental breakdown, the 25-year-old Haney has remained grounded by leaning on the same understanding that has helped him achieve nothing but breakthrough success ever since turning pro in 2015 at the ripe age of 17.

Even though Haney (31-0, 15 KOs) is well prepared for the speed and unpredictability of his former amateur rival when the two touch gloves inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, the native of Las Vegas realizes his real toughest opponent will always be himself.  

“I mean, none of Ryan’s antics has really gotten under my skin,” Haney said. “I’m a true professional. When I get into that ring, I am going to do my job. No matter how I feel, no matter what Ryan shows up, or whatever he says. He can say whatever he wants to say. I am going to let my hands talk in the ring on Saturday night.”

Whether or not his critics are willing to admit it, Haney has done an incredible job navigating the shark-infested waters of boxing’s political and business realities to put himself exactly where he is today as one of the pound-for-pound best boxers who enters his highest-profile bout as a professional with the shot at breakthrough stardom directly in front of him.

Haney, alongside his manager/trainer/father Bill, have bucked the trend of long term, exclusive contracts with networks and promoters to deftly campaign as a free agent in ways fighters his age have rarely been able to traverse. And if mainstream identability remains the only thing Haney is lacking up to this point, he couldn’t have chosen a better opponent to try and slice into the fanbase of than Garcia (24-1, 20 KOs), whose dazzling hand speed is only topped by his massive social media following, which includes 11 million followers on Instagram alone. 

It was the critical respect, after all, that came early for Haney after he left DAZN and Matchroom Sport to sign a three-fight deal with ESPN and new co-promoter Top Rank in 2022. Twice, Haney traveled to Australia where victories over George Kambosos Jr. saw him become the undisputed lightweight champion. In the final bout of his deal, Haney edged former P4P king Vasiliy Lomachenko in a disputed decision that, at the very least, showcased just how elite his skills, fight IQ and adaptability truly are. 

Haney went on to package the breakthrough Lomachenko win with a victory last December over Regis Prograis in his first fight of a new deal brokered with Matchroom and DAZN. The one-sided performance instantly announced “The Dream” as the class of the sport’s star-studded division of 140 pounds and made him the unanimous runner-up to Japanese star Naoya Inoue in the 2023 fighter of the year voting. 

But lost in the constant rabid behavior of Garcia throughout the build to this weekend’s showdown, which has been dubbed by DAZN as boxing’s version of “Game 7,” is the fact that Haney, an 8-1 betting favorite, couldn’t have entered a more favorable matchup at the elite level to potentially take his brand to the next level as a legitimate PPV draw. 

While Garcia, 25, was able to split the six amateur meetings between the two fighters between the ages of 9 and 16, their developments as professionals couldn’t have been more different. 

Haney bucked the normal trend for a top young prospect of chasing after Olympic glory in favor of turning pro in Mexico, where he fought four times in his first four months alone before turning 18, where he could legally box in the U.S. as a pro. A bidding war between top promoters followed, with the father-son Haney duo proving their chess acumen at each step along the way. 

Garcia, on the other hand, received much more fanfare as a bright young prospect who has cultivated a large and organic social media following that is separate from traditional boxing fanbases. The only problem with that has become just how stunted Garcia’s pro development has become as a result of that amid constant criticism — throughout multiple trainer changes in recent years — that his focus on his craft isn’t where it needs to be. 

That kind of talk has only escalated throughout the bizarre build to this fight as Garcia has set off multiple warning alarms due to the constant conspiratorial nature of his social media posts, that he might not be mentally fit to compete. The fact that Garcia sat out for 15 months following his 2021 breakthrough win over former Olympic gold medalist Luke Campbell by citing mental health concerns only fuels the speculation that something isn’t right with Haney’s opponent. 

When Garcia finally did step up to the elite level last April in a PPV blockbuster with Gervonta “Tank” Davis, he not only succumbed to a seventh-round knockout via body shot, but Garcia was widely criticized — including by his own promoter, Oscar De La Hoya of Golden Boy — that he purposely chose to stay down for the count while still physically able to fight.

But considering how technically brilliant Haney has become as a sharpshooter whose quickness and mastery of distance control knows few peers, he’s still favored to finish Garcia late regardless of whether “King Ryan” will be at the peak of his powers from a mental and physical standpoint or not. 

That’s why it has been so important for Haney to keep his poise and patience each time he has been within proximity of Garcia at each press stop. And considering how much Garcia’s antics appear designed to get under Haney’s skin in hopes of getting him off his game, the fact that Haney lost his cool and pushed Garcia on Tuesday during a face off atop the Empire State Building (after Garcia reportedly disparaged Haney’s mother) needs to be something that Team Haney stays careful to avoid overreacting to. 

“I don’t see it as an advantage or a disadvantage — Ryan Garcia is just another opponent for me,” Haney said. “He’s just another person on my resume. And no matter what he does, it won’t change the outcome of the fight.”

Should Haney keep his head and handle his business as expected this weekend, there’s no telling how much further his growing star will become. In the aftermath of the Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao era, which has produced fellow all-time great welterweights like Terence Crawford and Errol Spence Jr., Haney appears poised to take the baton as the next star of equal critical and commercial renown who will be a big part of boxing’s biggest fights to come over the next decade.  

“Ryan may have the speed but I have the timing,” Haney said. “I just want to show how I am levels above this guy. Ryan is an average fighter with a big name. I am a proven fighter, proven champion [and] I was tested by some of the best fighters in the world. 

“I think Ryan is a C+ fighter and I’m an A+ fighter, so it’s a mismatch. I am here for a reason. It’s me versus greatness.”

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