Devin Haney's historic first title defense is taking a backseat to KSI-Paul, but he isn't complaining

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaaf/players/287806/" data-ylk="slk:Devin Haney">Devin Haney</a> trains during a media workout at Rathbone Boxing Club on Sept. 27, 2019 in London. (Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images)
Devin Haney trains during a media workout at Rathbone Boxing Club on Sept. 27, 2019 in London. (Photo by Jack Thomas/Getty Images)

Years from now, when their status as celebrities has flamed out, boxing historians will try very hard to figure out how it was that Devin Haney, one of the sport’s most talented and personable champions, made his historic first title defense as the co-main to Logan Paul versus KSI, a pair of YouTube stars making their pro boxing debuts.

Haney won’t be 21 until Nov. 17, but on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, DAZN) at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, he’ll defend the WBC lightweight title against Alfredo Santiago, in the process becoming the youngest boxer in more than 30 years to defend a world championship.

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Mike Tyson — ever heard of him — became the youngest heavyweight champion in boxing history on Nov. 22, 1986, when he stopped Trevor Berbick in the second round at the Las Vegas Hilton. He was 20 years and four months old.

Before he turned 21 on June 30, 1987, Tyson had made successful defenses against James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Pinklon Thomas.

Haney will turn 21 on Nov. 17, so he’ll just manage to sneak in under the finish line if he beats Santiago, as expected, and becomes the first 20-year-old since Tyson in 1986 to successfully defend a world title.

None of this surprises Haney’s father, Bill, who has expertly guided his son’s career to this point. People often tell him his son reminds them of one or another of great fighters from the past, and it’s not all that surprising considering what Bill did as Devin was on the rise.

He brought his son to a slew of elite trainers, including Floyd Mayweather Sr., Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Mike McCallum, Virgil Hunter and Roy Jones Jr.

Devin Haney had gone 130-8 as an amateur, and Bill Haney saw no reason for him to go on and, like current pound-for-pound great Vasiliy Lomachenko did, fight nearly 400 times as an amateur.

“I just didn’t think it made sense to fight 200, 300, 400 fights as an amateur and then basically perfect that amateur style,” Bill Haney said. “Devin’s muscle memory was developing and I wanted him to learn what it took to succeed in the pros. So I put Devin with all those guys and he took some things from some of them and other things from others, and he made it into a style that became his.

“We have different plays we can call now and he’s like a combination of all those guys, a lot of the greatest trainers in this sport right now. To me, that really helped accelerate his development as a pro.”

Devin Haney (R) follows through on a right to Zaur Abdullaev during their WBC interim lightweight boxing match Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in New York. Haney won in four rounds. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Devin Haney (R) follows through on a right to Zaur Abdullaev during their WBC interim lightweight boxing match Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in New York. Haney won in four rounds. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Devin Haney is 23-0 with 15 knockouts, and his quick hands are reminiscent of a young Manny Pacquiao’s. He only won a world title in his last fight, and it was an interim one at that, but he’s already among the finest overall fighters in the sport.

In addition to his blazing fast hands, Haney has an uncanny knack for putting his punches together, plus terrific footwork.

He’s fighting in a division filled with elite talent, both developed now and on the rise. But with young 20-somethings like Haney, Teofimo Lopez, Gervonta Davis, Ryan Garcia joining Lomachenko, this division has the chance to become the modern version of what the late author George Kimball dubbed “The Four Kings.”

Kimball, a long-time boxing writer for the Boston Herald, wrote a book titled “The Four Kings” about the intersection of the careers of Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. Given their ages — Lomachenko is 31, while Lopez is 22, Garcia is 21 and Haney is 20 — maybe this quartet could be dubbed “The King and the Three Princes.”

Lopez and Garcia are still developing and haven’t fought for a title yet. Lomachenko is regarded by many as the pound-for-pound best (he’s No. 3 on Yahoo Sports’ list), while Haney is a champion and moving into that territory.

Devin Haney has called out Lomachenko, who was recently elevated by the WBC to what it calls its franchise champion. That elevated Haney from interim champion to full champion. He’d have preferred to score a knockout in the center of the ring to win the full belt, but couldn’t get Lomachenko to agree to fight him.

“I hear everyone talking about him as this all-time great and the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, but he didn’t want to fight a 20-year-old kid,” Devin Haney said. “I wanted that fight. I told the world I wanted that fight.”

Bill Haney praised Lomachenko, but had no qualms about putting his son in against Lomachenko now.

Lomachenko is focused on facing the winner of the Dec. 14 fight between Lopez and IBF champion Richard Commey, and hasn’t seriously considered Haney. Bill Haney, though, doesn’t put Lomachenko on the same level as he put guys like Leonard, Duran, Hagler and Hearns.

“Those guys, they were a Murderer’s Row,” Bill Haney said of ‘The Four Kings.’ “They’d send you out on a stretcher. [Top Rank’s] Bob Arum described Lomachenko as in that class and called him a generational fight. We disagree. I know he’s one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. I know he’s a very dangerous fighter, but he’s not that all-time, generational fighter yet. Not with 14 pro fights and 400 amateur fights. 

“Devin could quite possibly awaken the beast that is Loma which has been dying, or at least which has been dormant in the last couple of fights. But he’ll get invigorated by a huge challenge and he knows there is greatness on the other side. He knows that. If Devin would knock out Loma right now, he’d be on the threshold of being one of the greats of the sport.”

He’s not fighting Lomachenko, though, at least not yet. And he’s not even the main event, as a pair of YouTube stars get top billing.

Devin Haney, though, isn’t complaining at this stage. He is wise beyond his years, but he’s not always going to be content playing second fiddle.

“This is a chance to expose my talents to a very large and different audience and build that fan base,” Devin Haney said. “People who haven’t seen me before, or who don’t really know me, are going to get a good look. I don’t want to make a habit of this [of fighting in the co-main], but it makes sense at this particular stage.”

He laughed before continuing.

“There are going to be some big fights coming down the road that people are going to want to see,” Haney vowed. “Nowhere else to put those but where they belong, in the main event.”

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