In 2020, boxing's lightweight division was arguably the most exciting in the sport -- at least based on potential bouts. In many of the conversations about the talent-loaded division, Devin Haney felt like something of an afterthought. Now, three years later, Haney is the man calling the shots as undisputed champion at 135 pounds. Haney will defend his four world titles against Vasiliy Lomachenko on Saturday night in a bout that is.
Lomachenko was at the heart of the 2020 conversation as the WBA and WBO champion and holding the WBC "franchise" championship (more on that later). Despite being just 15 fights into his pro career at the time, Lomachenko was seen as "the old guard" as a two-time Olympic gold medalist and having won world titles in three weight classes while becoming an elite pound-for-pound talent.
In May 2020, Lomachenko put his titles on the line against then-IBF champion Teofimo Lopez, one of the young superstars expected to dominate boxing over the coming decade. Lomachenko turned in a tepid performance that night, losing his titles to Lopez and kicking off what was expected to be a glory decade of young talent in the lightweight division.
Suddenly, the WBC's previously non-transferrable franchise title was transferred to Lopez with the win and Lopez was spoken of as the undisputed lightweight champion, all while Haney held the WBC's actual world title, making Lopez something of a disputed undisputed champion.
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Haney had been stuck with the title of "email champion" by some fans, media and other fighters after he first was elevated from interim champion to world champion when Lomachenko was promoted to franchise status and then was moved from "champion in recess" after an injury prevented him from a mandatory champion back to full champion status, regaining the title without competing in the ring.
Fair or not, Haney had become something of a punchline even alongside the likes of Lopez, Lomachenko, Gervonta Davis and Ryan Garcia. Haney didn't necessarily have the crossover appeal of those other stars, even if he may have had the best pure boxing talent. There also may be some legitimacy to Haney's repeated claims that Lomachenko "ducked" him, choosing to take the franchise designation rather than face Haney, whose interim title made him Lomachenko's mandatory challenger.
Things finally started breaking in the right direction for Haney when Lopez suffered a shocking upset loss to George Kambosos Jr. in November 2021. When Kambosos' planned title defense with Lomachenko fell through as Lomachenko dealt with the Russian invasion of his native Ukraine, Haney got the opportunity to remove any doubt as to his status in the division, traveling to Kambosos' home country of Australia to win the title and then defend them in a mandatory rematch, dominating Kambosos in both outings.
Now undisputed champion, no longer email champion or with a debate over whether his WBC title is the "real" world title for the sanctioning body, Haney is on top of the lightweight mountain.
Except, Kambosos was never viewed by anyone as the best lightweight in the world. He was a man who took advantage of a mentally fragile -- and possibly physically compromised -- Lopez, and someone viewed as easy pickings for any of lightweight's top men.
While Lomachenko is maybe past his peak, beating him would add an extra degree of legitimacy to Haney's status as champion. Yes, he holds all the titles, but he got there without a win over the men who were viewed as his contemporaries in the lightweight renaissance three years ago.
Of course, Lopez is now seen as less of an elite talent than he was then and has moved up in weight and Garcia also moved up in weight and suffered a knockout loss to Davis. That leaves an aging Lomachenko, Davis and the recent addition of Shakur Stevenson, who made his lightweight debut in April, as the top contenders to Haney's titles.
That makes Saturday's fight a big one for Haney. Beating Lomachenko and facing either Davis or Stevenson would cement Haney as the true lightweight king of his era.
This is something that would seem to suit Haney, someone who has focused on results in the ring over the kind of mainstream stardom of Davis and Garcia or wild antics of Lopez.
Get the job done on Saturday and Haney moves another step further from the "email champion" label and closer to the top pound-for-pound talent he's always claimed to be. And, with promotional free agency looming, a Haney win keeps him in the driver's seat for major future opportunities.