Mar. Jul 16th, 2024

LAS VEGAS — Devin Haney, fresh off another grueling sparring session, is hunched over in the locker room adjacent to the ring at the Top Rank Gym. It’s the day after Thanksgiving and Haney is weeks away from taking the next step in his already celebrated boxing career.

A pink towel is wrapped across Haney’s neck as he cracks open a container to snack on a protein ball and a date. He’s more at ease during this camp since he can eat more and even rest more. Haney, who has campaigned as the undisputed champion at 135 pounds, has an extra five pounds to work with leading into his junior welterweight debut Saturday against WBC champion Regis Prograis in San Francisco.

It’seasy to see that Haney’s back is far larger than ever before, both in muscular definition and width. At 5-foot-8 with a frame to match, he isn’t some undersized boxer simply moving up in weight to grab an easy title and become a two-division champion.

In his maiden voyage at junior welterweight, Haney (30-0, 15 KOs) will challenge a dangerous southpaw puncher, a divergent path from the usual boxing playbook.

When fighters make the leap in any of boxing’s 17 divisions, the first opponent is usually a softer touch, a «tune-up fight.» Certainly, it’s not an explosive southpaw puncher where the A-side’s power and punch resistance will be tested out of the gate.

When Oscar De La Hoya made the leap from 147 to 154 pounds, he did so against Javier Castillejo, where he picked up an easy title via decision. More recently, Haney’s rival Shakur Stevenson made his 130-pound debut with a decision win over fringe contender Jeremiah Nakathila.

Haney, however, wants to continue building momentum following his career-best victory, a thrilling, disputed unanimous-decision victory over future Hall of Famer Vasiliy Lomachenko in May.

«I never thought about [an easy first fight at 140]…,» says Haney, ESPN’s No. 7 pound-for-pound boxer. «I am a throwback fighter … I want big-money fights. I’m not into fighting no-name guys or people who I really can’t really gain off of just to win a title.»

Haney will surely look to stake his claim for fighter-of-the-year honors with a convincing victory over Prograis (29-1, 24 KOs), but that in no way is going to be easy, even if Haney is a -450 favorite, per ESPN BET.

There are questions about Haney’s punch resistance and power, even if there’s no doubt about his boxing talent, ring IQ and athleticism. Now, Haney must prove he can both take a punch and punch hard enough to gain opponents’ respect at 140 pounds where he’ll fight bigger, stronger, more powerful foes.

«I want to fight the best fighters in the world,» says Haney. «I’m 25 years old now and I’m only getting better, I’m only getting stronger, I’m only getting more comfortable in the ring. So why go backwards?»

AS WAS THE case with Manny Pacquiao, Terence Crawford and Canelo Alvarez, fighters sometimes develop enhanced power at a higher weight class. But far more often, the opposite is the case. Floyd Mayweather was a feared puncher at 130 and 135 pounds. At 147 and 154? Not so much.

Haney is far from a power puncher. Sure, there was his KO of Antonio Moran that won 2019 ESPN’s KO of the year and a fourth-round TKO of Zaur Abdullaev four months later. But he hasn’t scored a stoppage win in his last seven fights.

The last five of those bouts came against much stiffer opposition, and Haney didn’t score a knockdown in any of those matchups — Jorge Linares, Joseph «JoJo» Diaz Jr., two bouts with George Kambosos Jr. and Lomachenko — and never had any of those foes in serious trouble.

He boxed beautifully throughout those 60 rounds, especially against Lomachenko, his best opponent yet. Haney sank some punishing shots to the body in May and left the Ukrainian with a battered-and-bruised left flank.

Haney showed off his guile and boxing intelligently but also his doggedness in that firefight against an all-time great. Power has never been his calling card.

Against bigger opponents, though, power (or lack thereof) could be more important than ever. Haney’s jab is one of the best in boxing, but at some point, Prograis will close the distance and connect with a powerful shot. And Haney will need to land with enough conviction to dissuade Prograis from pouncing.

«You haven’t had a knockout in four years,» Prograis, who has campaigned his entire career at junior welterweight, told Haney at Thursday’s news conference. … Who have you knocked out? Nobody.»

Sometimes, fighters are so weight-drained, their true punching power isn’t revealed until they compete at a more comfortable weight.

«Will I be much stronger? A hundred percent,» Haney says. » Will I go in there and get the knockout? God willing. Inshallah.»

Crawford scored some solid KOs at 135 and 140 pounds, but at 147, he’s a different fighter. All eight of Crawford’s fights at welterweight have ended in knockout, and against better opposition than he faced at lower weights.

«When transitioning to a new weight class, it sparks doubt: Will I have the strength? Will I maintain my speed? Can I take a punch?,» Hall of Fame boxer Timothy Bradley Jr. told ESPN. «Moving up from 140 to 147 pounds, I faced Luis Carlos Abregu, an unbeaten puncher with 23 knockouts in 29 fights. His punches were forceful and landed as if he were carrying dumbbells, which made me keenly sharp, alert, and cautious. He tested every ounce of my ability.»

«I want to see how Regis takes my punch… I think Regis will be shocked [by my power]. I think the world will be shocked.»

Devin Haney on moving up in weight

Last December, Crawford delivered one of the best KOs of the year when he separated David Avanesyan from his senses. His most-recent performance was his biggest power display yet, a ninth-round TKO of Errol Spence Jr., that featured three knockdowns.

Punching with power is about technique above all else, but there are myriad other factors.

«I think all of us when we move up in weight will be bigger punchers,» says Jamaine Ortiz, who is advised by Bill Haney and dropped a close decision to Lomachenko in 2022.

«I think just cutting a lot of weight … takes away a lot of the potential we have and the power we have, the stress we put onto our bodies. … safe to say 90% of fighters are fighting at the wrong weight.»

IN 30 PRO fights, Haney has never tasted the canvas and never been on the verge of being knocked down. Nonetheless, there are questions about his ability to take a punch.

The concerns reached a fever pitch in his victory over a faded version of Jorge Linares in May 2021. Haney scored a close decision win over the former three-division champion, but not before Linares sent him wobbling back to his corner following a clean right hand at the end of Round 10.

The fighter’s father, trainer and manager, Bill Haney, says he’s seen «a level of confidence in Devin that’s different than the last camp.» Belief in his chin stems from withstanding «a Loma flurry with [eight-ounce gloves on,» says the eldest Haney.

«Regis Prograis seems to think that he has more punching power than Loma,» the father said. «I beg to differ. I think that they’re both incredibly talented … Devin is pretty sharp. So he was seeing the punches that came from Loma.

«He saw the punch that came from Linares, and although it rocked his s—, it’s expected in boxing.»

Any chin concerns are only amplified ahead of the Prograis fight. While Prograis is coming off a lackluster split-decision win over Danielito Zorrilla in June, prior to that, he scored four consecutive wins inside the distance.

The most impressive of those stoppages came in his previous victory, an 11th-round KO of Jose Zepeda to become a two-time champion at 140 pounds. Prograis, 34, who fights out of Houston, sent Zepeda crashing to the mat in brutal fashion with a flurry of punches in the penultimate round.

There’s no doubt Prograis can end a fight with one shot. But he’s never done it against an A+ opponent. His lone pro defeat came against the only elite foe of his career, a majority-decision loss to Josh Taylor in the World Boxing Super Series final in October 2019.

«Even when I watched fights from back in the day and people used to dehydrate themselves … they get knocked out, they get knocked down… and it’s very dangerous,» says Ortiz. «So I definitely think when you fight at the appropriate weight class, your ability to come out of the sport safely, where all your fundamentals, your tools, your mind sharp, comes with having a safe weight loss.»

Haney is one of the best defensive fighters in boxing. He knows how to measure range and doesn’t often get hit with a clean shot. But Diaz was able to connect with some sharp overhand lefts late in their 2021 bout, even if they never forced Haney to waver.

Prograis and Haney are 5-foot-8 with a similar build. Just maybe, Haney was fighting at the wrong weight for the last couple of years.

«It was taking everything out of me to make 135,» says Haney, who after entertaining the idea of moving up, remained at the weight for two fights vs. Kambosos last year in Australia for the undisputed lightweight championship. «I’ve been at 135 since I was 17 years old. I’ve matured so much since then.

«My body, everything has got bigger so it was only a matter of time and I was making a sacrifice and then it became a point where my sacrifice wasn’t even respected. They weren’t respecting me making the sacrifice and staying and making the big fights happen.»

NO MATTER WHAT Haney says — and no matter whom he faced in sparring — nothing can truly prepare him for that first clean left hand he absorbs from Prograis in San Francisco.

There are those who believe Haney’s hubris in selecting Prograis will result in his first pro loss. And already, Haney tells ESPN he eyes a jump to 147 pounds in his first bout of 2024.

«He goes up to 140, not even testing the water. I wouldn’t encourage him to say that he wants to go up to 147 pounds because he’s going to have his hands full with Regis Prograis,» Bradley said on last week’s State of Boxing on ESPN+. «I gotta give a ton of respect to Devin Haney. … He’s one of those throwback fighters.»

Of course, it’s not enough to simply chase greatness. Haney must now deliver in the ring against Prograis following a heated promotion that involved lots of verbal exchanges.

«I want to see how Regis takes my punch…,» Haney says. «I think Regis will be shocked [by my power]. I think the world will be shocked … I’m preparing for Regis to be able to take my punches and me to keep hitting him. So if he takes the power then he takes the power. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. …

«I’m not banking on just my strength to win me the fight because that’s what he’s doing. He’s just banking on strength and power and one big shot. I’m banking on skills, athleticism, my IQ — all of them.»

Haney says he’s «much more calm, much more relaxed,» ahead of his 140-pound debut. When he trained for Lomachenko he did so with something else on his mind.

«Before I was training to make the weight,» he says. «Right now I’m training to get better and focus on strategy and stuff like that. And it feels good, man. It’s been a long time coming.»

There were many who doubted he could handle Lomachenko’s speed, precision and angles, and even those who believed he didn’t deserve the decision.

So Haney is out to prove them wrong again. In pursuit of silencing the naysayers, Haney is again taking on a tough challenge. And he’ll do so in the Bay Area, where he spent his childhood before relocating to Las Vegas.

«It’s not just about money; it’s about being great,» says Bill Haney. «And that’s what it is about Devin. You can’t pay to get on the Mount Rushmore of boxing. You got to work. … This fight right here will show that he’s the best fighter of this year, but he’s also the best fighter on the planet.»

For now, he must show Prograis — and the world — that he can both pack a punch and absorb one at junior welterweight.

«When I beat Regis and the way that I am going to beat him, I think a lot of people will respect it and acknowledge it,» he says. «I feel like it’s my time right now. … I’m going in there to hurt him. And show him how great Devin Haney truly is.»


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