Devin Haney was fighting two different battles on Saturday night.
On one front, the 22-year-old lightweight champion was looking to defend his WBC belt against Jorge Linares, a veteran former champion who still carries significant respect in the sport. On the other, Haney needed to show why he’s worthy of a bout against some of the other big names in the 135-pound division.
Haney accomplished at least one of those things. He defeated Linares via unanimous decision to remain undefeated and stay in contention for a big fight against another top name in the division.
But was the performance enough to improve the long-term trajectory of his career? Let’s break down what’s next for Haney and Linares after their bout in Las Vegas.
Who should Haney fight next?
In an interview before the fight, Haney lamented that other top lightweights weren’t necessarily lining up to face him. Haney also said he shouldn’t have to be the one convincing everybody he deserves a fight against a big-name opponent, as he holds the WBC belt and is ranked among the top 135-pound fighters.
While Haney makes a fair point, the counter argument heading into this fight was also compelling. Haney has tremendous technical prowess, but as a prizefighter, one could argue Haney was a high-risk, low-reward opponent for fighters such as Teofimo Lopez, Ryan Garcia or Vasiliy Lomachenko.
Well, on Saturday Haney fought like he had something to prove. He was willing to stand in front of Linares and throw some big punches — a noble strategy that ended up costing Haney when he was caught with a big right hand at the end of the 10th round.
In that moment, it was easy to empathize with Haney. He spent the whole night doing what everyone wanted him to do by taking the fight directly to Linares and not simply trying to outmaneuver him. When he tangled with the risk that comes with that type of fight, and got defensive in the last two rounds, he was chastised for it.
No matter the perception of Haney’s clench-filled finish as he survived the final two rounds, he did more than enough to retain his belt, and proved that he deserves a crack at a big name.
And why not Lopez? Lopez is facing George Kambosos Jr. in a mandatory title defense on June 19. Lopez, who has the other three major belts in the division, can face Haney, officially become the undisputed champion and then do whatever he wants afterward.
It’s a big fight that would generate plenty of interest in boxing and would have the potential to be commercially successful. It’s the type of fight that could tell us a lot about Haney and Lopez moving forward.
Can Haney beat one of the “big” lightweights?
The other top names in the 135-pound division are well-known to most boxing fans — Lopez, Garcia, Lomachenko and Gervonta “Tank” Davis.
Haney’s biggest flaw is his lack of power against good opponents. He didn’t appear to significantly hurt Linares, and didn’t knock down a faded Yuriorkis Gamboa in their fight last year.
Yet, he’s still so fast and technically sound that it’s impossible to rule him out against the top fighters in the division. Outside of Lomachenko, Haney is arguably the best pure boxer among all the lightweights. He showed that he can stick and move and trade shots when he feels like it, and can almost effortlessly win rounds. The big question, as we saw against Linares, is if whether or not he can withstand the big punch and have the necessary power to be effective at the highest level.
What should Linares do now?
This isn’t an easy question to answer. It’s hard to say Linares should call it quits after the way he rallied in the final three rounds against Haney. However, if someone looked at the whole body of work, he was clearly outpointed and outgunned by someone who was much faster and sharper.
And right now, what’s out there for Linares, who turns 36 in August? He was ESPN’s No. 7 lightweight entering Saturday night, a ranking that seems fair after the Haney fight. It’s hard to see him beating any of the current champions.
But he’s still good enough that he merits at least one more payday against a quality opponent. A potential Lomachenko rematch isn’t a bad option if Lomachenko beats Masayoshi Nakatani, provided he is looking for someone else to beat before fighting for a world title again. Or, if Linares wants to go out on a win, he could face one of the many mid-tier lightweights who have a name (Richard Commey, Javier Fortuna, Nakatani, etc). Whatever remains of Linares’ career is still enough to make for an exciting fight.