Throughout the lead-up to their fight this Saturday, Devin Haney has taunted Vasiliy Lomachenko with one particular barb: “(You) should have fought me four years ago. Now, it’s only going to get worse.”
Back in 2019, the landscape at the sport’s upper echelons looked a whole lot different than it does now. Hanging on towards the bottom of pound-for-pound rankings was Manny Pacquiao, and at the top of them stood Lomachenko. Fresh off of his victory over Luke Campbell, Lomachenko was the best fighter on the planet in the eyes of at least the plurality of viewers, and in particular, those who cast votes in the fantasy rankings. The double Olympic gold medalist was at the peak of his popularity, and his mythology had reached its greatest heights. It was hard to log on to Twitter or open a boxing message board without compilations of Lomachenko’s tactics autoplaying, or debates about his standing in the all-time rankings despite a truncated professional career.
Around that time, Haney was beginning to win the trust of the boxing public. Devin and his father Bill fashioned a career on their own, at first self-financing Devin’s career and using social media to do the work that a full-scale promotional outlet normally would handle. Due to his in-ring characteristics—defensive savvy, sharp counterpunching—and occasional proximity to Floyd Sr., Haney drew comparisons to Floyd Jr. For some, it was a compliment, but for many, it was expressing skepticism, suggesting that Haney was a mirage, a product of clever marketing, the next in a long line of imposters that never lived up to their billing. Much of this skepticism ignored the fact that Haney was a product of no machine other than the one built in his own household. Haney would go on to sign with major promoters, Matchroom, now Top Rank, but the initial ”hype” wasn’t a third party cravenly selling something for their corporate gain, it was Haney himself. And he believed every word of it.
So much so that when Haney defeated Zaur Abdullaev in September of 2019, despite some labelling him as a prospect who just happened to hold an interim title belt, he took aim at the most highly-regarded fighter in the sport.
"It's No-machenko because he doesn't want to fight me," Haney said during his post-fight interview. "Lomachenko, let's get this fight going. Abdullaev was number two, and I destroyed him. If I'm so easy, No-machenko should fight me and get me out of the way."
The version of events that suggest Haney was actively pursuing a bout with Lomachenko but was refuted in 2019 aren’t disputed by Lomachenko’s side either. In episode one of Top Rank’s “Blood, Sweat & Tears” countdown show previewing this weekend’s bout, Lomachenko’s manager Egis Klimas recalls meeting Bill Haney, and telling him that
"He asked me, how possible is it for us to fight Vasiliy Lomachenko? And I said Bill, it's not happening,” said Klimas. “You guys are just starting your career. It's not happening. When your kid achieves something in the sport, then we can talk."
The tables have tuned, at least in some ways, four years later. Haney is the undisputed lightweight champion, the one with the negotiating leverage, the one with the collection of prizes both fighters covet. However, Lomachenko still guards the door behind which true, unanimous praise seems to reside. In RING Magazine’s rankings, Haney is the No. 1 lightweight, but in its pound-for-pound rankings, he is absent, while Lomachenko sits eighth overall. It’s a factoid that Haney brought up during the introductory press conference announcing the bout, and an issue that has seemingly irked him for some time, at one point in 2022 causing him to “boycott” and dump the RING belt.
Haney’s barbs about Lomachenko making a mistake not taking the fight four years ago are about as self-aware as you’ll hear a boxer be while also managing to be braggadocious. He won’t say out loud that he would have lost, or even struggled with Lomachenko in 2019. He didn’t believe it then, and he doesn’t believe it not. As Haney told Jonathan Snowden that year, "When I was about 13, about to turn 14, I made up my mind. I told my dad, 'I'm not losing no more.' He said, 'All right. I'm going to hold you to it, man.'" However, implicit in his taunts is an awareness than 2019 Devin Haney vs. 2019 Vasiliy Lomachenko is a different fight than one between the 2023 versions of them.
It’s also a much bigger fight than it would have been then. Haney’s profile has exploded, and while Lomachenko suffered his second career loss to Teofimo Lopez, has maintained his luster as one of the best in the sport, one of the most unique and gifted operators to take part in it this generation. Today, a fight between them is one deemed worthy of a pay-per-view slot.
Timing is something both fighters inherently understand. Both were taught at a young age that there is a right and a wrong time to do things, when to throw your jab, when to cover up, when to counter, when to hold. Timing is everything in boxing, as it is in everything else, both in the ring and in the boardroom. They might have had different ideas about when the right time was four years ago, but both are in agreement now, for different reasons, that the timing is now right.
For Lomachenko, the time to regain a reigning status he’s seldom been without since the time he laced up the gloves. For Haney, the time to receive the level of respect he feels he deserves now, and felt he’d deserved long before he had a chance to prove why.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman