LAS VEGAS — There’s never a question about whether Devin Haney had the physical tools to be the best fighter in the world. Virtually every active fighter in the world would give just about anything to have his skillset.
Haney holds a version of the WBC lightweight belt — so, too, does Teofimo Lopez, but that’s boxing and it’s complicated — and will defend it on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, DAZN) at Mandalay Bay against veteran Jorge Linares.
Though Haney is a whopping -1200 favorite at BetMGM, the fight with Linares represents a critical step in Haney’s development. Linares is a former world champion who is by far the most competitive opponent Haney has faced in his career.
Now, just like Yuriorkis Gamboa, whom Haney defeated last time out, Linares is long in the tooth. He was stopped by Vasiliy Lomachenko in 2018 and then again eight months later when he was dropped three times in the first round by Pablo Cesar Cano.
He’s not exactly the toughest challenge that Haney could have faced, but plans to make a fight with Ryan Garcia fell through. Garcia said he had mental health issues and is taking a break from boxing, so that left Haney and promoter Eddie Hearn searching.
“We’ve been really searching hard for the right guy,” Hearn told Yahoo Sports. “I believe Devin Haney is the best lightweight in the world. A lot of the other lightweights have been stepping up, and Devin’s been trying to step up but no one wants to fight him. Don’t forget, he chased Vasiliy Lomachenko. When they made [Lomachenko] franchise champion and they made Devin world champion after he won the final eliminator, he didn’t ask for that.
“He wanted Vasiliy Lomachenko. Then he wanted Teofimo Lopez. Then he wanted Ryan Garcia. So I was under massive pressure to deliver a powerful fight.”
Lopez, of course, denied that. He said he wanted Haney but never received an offer.
“One thing I’d like to clear up, the other guys in my division had four months to send me a contract and not one did,” Lopez said.
So no matter how it worked out, Haney’s best option is a 35-year-old whose best days are clearly behind him. It doesn’t mean Linares is a walkover or that he can’t win.
It’s just that the odds, and the oddsmakers, suggest this should be another overwhelming Haney victory. Though he’s only 22, he’s already learned not to listen to the critics or voices outside of his circle. He insists the long odds in his favor haven’t turned him complacent in the least.
“I don’t really pay attention to the bookies like that because sometimes they’re wrong,” Haney said of the odds favoring him. “A lot of the times, they are right, though. But at the end of the day, he is my biggest test on paper. He’s been in there with the best of them. He’s beaten the best of them. I was 4 years old when he turned pro, I think. He has a lot of experience.
“One thing he’s banking on, though, is that experience. He keeps saying he has experience, he has experience, he has experience. If experience played such a role, there would be no new champions in boxing. Boxing would never have evolved.”
Haney’s physical tools — hand and foot speed, quickness, strength — are far beyond Linares. But Linares has the one thing that can often neutralize a speedier, quicker opponent and that’s a great jab and punching accuracy.
But Haney doesn’t buy the notion that Linares’ jab is better than his. Rather than Linares slowing him down with the jab, he believes he’ll neutralize Linares beginning with his own jab.
“I feel I have one of the best jabs in boxing,” Haney said. “Linares has speed, of course, but I feel like I’m faster. But we’ve just got to see. You just never know until you get in there.”
That’s the experience of Haney talking. He’s young and he’s only got 25 pro fights, but he’s learned enough in his short career to understand not to take anything for granted.
There have been many fast-handed prodigies who have come around; few of them turned into the all-around superstar their talents suggested they could.
Haney is determined to be one of them who does. And give him credit: He’s doing it the right way.
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