Not even four years have passed since Bill Haney handed over fifty dollars’ worth of crumpled bills to the landlord of a bar called El Perro Salado—the Salty Dog—in downtown Tijuana so his teenage son could set up shop in the cramped upstairs manager’s room.
Bill and young Devin, a boxer of much promise, had their plans to compete at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil derailed by the AIBA’s decision to raise the minimum age to nineteen. Rather than wait another five years for Tokyo 2020, the pair decided to cross the border in search of their fortune. They did not find it that December night in 2015, but it paid off eventually.
At seventeen, too young to box as a professional in America, Devin Haney knew his only opportunity to punch for pay would require a trip to Mexico where adolescents are welcome to fight. But when he and his father finally got to the venue, which was only a short walk from US Border Protection, they felt a million miles from the showpiece in Rio.
“It was a bar,” Haney recalls. “What else can I tell you? It was a bar. The first time I boxed there it looked one way, and then I boxed there the next few times, and it was totally different. That was a bit confusing. But it was pretty much just a bar.”
Considering only a week separated his debut victory over Gonzalo Lopez on December 11 and another local man, Jose Iniguez, in his second professional outing, the renovation must have been particularly strange for the teenager.
“There were no changing rooms or nothing, so we paid them like fifty bucks, and they let us use a room upstairs,” he adds. “It was just a manager’s room, actually. Honestly I had heard a lot of bad things about Tijuana. A lot of people were telling me not to go there because I’d get a bad decision or whatever. It was hostile territory, but we went over there and got the job done. That was the start of my career.
“Me and my dad trusted in my talent back then, and we felt like I had the skills to beat anyone, even at the age of seventeen.”
Three and a half years on, his precocious talent has been rewarded by a multimillion-dollar deal with DAZN, who made him one of the most well-paid twenty-year-olds in sport.
“What did I get paid in Tijuana? Let’s just say it was little dollars,” he laughs. “But one thing I saw even then was the bigger picture. I knew that if I sacrificed then that it would pay off for me at the other end. So that’s what I did.”
In fact, Haney’s career to date has been a meticulously planned strategy, the latest part of which was a weeklong visit to London. But it was no holiday for Haney, who instead spent the time sparring three-weight world champion Ricky Burns, performing a public workout in a city-center gym, and rattling off a series of interviews with Britain’s major media outlets.
“I was doing so much media and everything else that I didn’t even have any chance to do any sightseeing,” he says. “Every time I got back to the hotel, I would just crash. My sleep pattern was messed up.
”Of course, this is all a strategy; all of this is part of the plan. I wouldn’t say it was exactly set out like this, but it fits into our plan to make me a global superstar, so that my name resonates wherever I am. That’s what we’re doing. I’m happy with the way everything is going, and I feel like everything is falling into place.
“A lot of fighters aren’t doing this; they don’t seem interested in doing this at all. But I think that’s what separates me from most of the other fighters out there today, including many of the world champions. That’s what separates me from them.
“They’re not traveling, promoting, or getting their name out. They think if they’re known in the US, they’re known everywhere but there’s a whole world out there. It was crazy to see that for myself in London.”
It has been a meteoric rise for the youngster who drew hundreds of fans to the Rathbone Boxing Club, where he performed a short workout in the middle of a Friday afternoon. A year ago, it’s likely no one would have turned up.
“I was actually surprised by the turnout,” he admits. “I knew I had a big following in London but I never knew it was that big. But I don’t feel any pressure because I remember when nobody was talking about me, nobody knew who I was.
“Back when there were a bunch of prospects and a bunch of boxers people were talking about and I wasn’t one of them. I’ve always dreamed of this moment, and it is here now. That means it’s time to live up to it and do what I do. I’ve prepared my whole life for this.”
Much of that preparation was done at the famed Mayweather Boxing Club. Despite being born in Oakland, California, Haney and his father moved to Las Vegas and he took up boxing at the age of seven.
Naturally, the father-son duo gravitated to the Mayweather Gym, and it was not long before junior was making a big impression there. Way back in 2014, ahead of Floyd Mayweather’s rematch with Marcos Maidana in Las Vegas, a group of reporters had formed around Mayweather’s father, Floyd Sr.”
The conversation turned to the young talent in the gym, and when asked to name the most promising star he had seen, the old man quickly named Haney. Long before El Perro Salado, Haney had been forged in the notorious “Doghouse.”
“Coming up in the Mayweather gym, I gained a lot of experience early and learned from a bunch of champions,” Haney adds. “I was working with Roger Mayweather, Jeff Mayweather, and Floyd Senior.
“I learned from many different trainers in there and learned a lot from many crazy sparring sessions, doghouse sparring. That all helped me become who I am now. At a young age it was crazy to see, but all those spars prepared me for all of what’s happening now and made me into the fighter I am today.”
Despite now carrying the clout needed to headline shows, Haney’s next outing will come on an undercard, but he insists it is all part of the plan. Professional debutants Logan Paul and KSI, the YouTube stars with a combined subscriber base of forty million, will fight at a sold-out Staples Center on November 9, and Haney has spotted an opportunity of his own.
“It’s a whole different crowd,” he says, genuinely excited. “A whole new potential fanbase. Especially because the younger generation—I feel they will be attracted to me and my style, so this is a big chance for me. Performing here can open new doors to where boxing hasn’t been yet.
“This is all part of the plan. Global superstar, that’s the goal. People will know my name now, and they will remember what I did.
”We want the Vasyl Lomachenko fight, of course. Would it be the greatest win ever by a twenty-year-old? I think yeah. That win would go in the history books. I would be the new face of boxing overnight, and that’s why I want the fight. There would be so much at stake and so much to gain.
”It’s the same here, but in a different way, and I just want to put on a show like I always have.”