LAS VEGAS — Forty minutes into an April workout, Devin Haney, the undisputed lightweight champion, stalked across the ring at the Top Rank Gym to throw punches at a coach wearing target mitts, a thick body pad and, as the session continued, a grimace.
A string of jabs and a crisp right hand. A pivot, and some thudding body blows.
Another assistant coach leaned on the top rope with a clicker in his right hand, and announced that Haney had just surpassed 2,000 punches thrown.
Haney, 24, was not just pitty-pat punching to run up numbers as he trains for his title defense on Saturday night against Vasiliy Lomachenko, 35.
During a brief pause, the coach holding the mitts wandered over to a corner of the ring and grumbled that Haney had nearly broken his hands. When the action resumed, Bill Haney, Devin’s father and head trainer, asked to borrow a reporter’s notebook and pen.
“He’s punching much harder!!!!” Bill Haney wrote.
While the April clash between Gervonta Davis and Ryan Garcia was the highest-profile boxing match of early 2023, Saturday’s pairing between Haney and Lomachenko has higher stakes. Davis and Garcia met at a catchweight (136 pounds) and did not fight for an official title; Haney and Lomachenko are slated to meet at lightweight (135 pounds), with the winner claiming championships from all four major sanctioning bodies.
Lomachenko is a two-time Olympic champion from Ukraine, who has employed a dizzying blend of speed, power and footwork to win pro championships in three divisions — but he has never held the undisputed title at lightweight.
Right now, Haney, 29-0 with 15 knockouts, holds those belts, a distinction that makes him the A-side in a bout between elite performers. He counts his improved punching power as one more factor he thinks will propel him past Lomachenko and cement his status as the top fighter in a talent-rich division.
“I want to be an all-time great in this sport, and this fight is just one step closer,” Haney said after the workout. “Loma is a good fighter. I’ll look to make him look average. I’m kryptonite to his style.”
“They’re going to give me my credit after this,” he added later.
Last June, Haney outboxed the Australian fighter George Kambosos Jr. to become the undisputed champion and provide some sorely needed clarity for people trying to follow the sport. In most weight classes, titles from the four major sanctioning bodies are spread among several fighters, making it difficult to determine which champion is the “real” one.
At lightweight, Haney owns all four belts. One division, one champion.
Still, some peers and potential opponents debate his credentials.
Haney first became the World Boxing Council’s lightweight champion in 2019, when the organization promoted him from interim champion, essentially awarding him a title without a fight. Those events prompted Davis to label him an “email champion.”
And his shot at Kambosos came only after Lomachenko, who was already contracted to challenge Kambosos, turned the fight down. When Russian troops invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Lomachenko paused his boxing career to join the military; Haney replaced him against Kambosos and won three titles.
Lomachenko resumed his career last October, winning a 12-round decision over Jamaine Ortiz. At 35, Lomachenko does not see his age as a disadvantage, but acknowledges that, nine years after he won his first world title, his window of opportunity is shrinking.
“This is my last chance to be undisputed world champion,” said Lomachenko, who is 17-2 with 11 knockouts. “Right now, at this moment, it’s the most interesting weight class in the world, and you need, always, to prove you’re the best.”
Haney first lobbied for a Lomachenko bout in early 2019, when Haney was a highly regarded prospect who had not yet won a world title, and when Lomachenko held title belts from two major sanctioning bodies.
Lomachenko’s manager, Egis Klimas, rebuffed Haney’s camp for logistical reasons — Haney was aligned with Matchroom Boxing, which streams its events on DAZN, while Lomachenko was committed to Top Rank and ESPN. But Klimas also pointed out that Haney had not yet achieved enough to deserve a high-profile, big-money bout against Lomachenko.
“Devin was not a name. Devin didn’t have any titles,” Klimas said at a news conference on Wednesday. “Lomachenko was always chasing champions, the big names.”
Now Haney has the titles and the negotiating leverage.
Haney and Lomachenko’s pairing is the latest iteration of an appealing archetypal sports matchup — the great veteran who might have passed his peak versus the young star approaching his prime.
Those pairings are clear draws in other sports. Football had the Super Bowl for the 2020 season, in which Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took down Patrick Mahomes’s Kansas City Chiefs. The N.B.A. has had informal torch-passings; think Michael Jordan’s Bulls outclassing Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 N.B.A. finals. Haney and Lomachenko are not nearly as well known but their positions in the sport make a wide range of outcomes compelling.
“This ranks right up there with the best ones,” Bob Arum, the fight’s promoter, told reporters at a news conference. “Why? Because it’s so competitive, and there are so many opinions out there as to who will win.”
Either way, Saturday’s winner becomes the top fighter in boxing’s hottest division.
Potential matchups loom with boxers like Shakur Stevenson, the undefeated former 130-pound champion, who, like Lomachenko, is promoted by Top Rank (Haney’s Top Rank deal expires after Saturday’s bout). Hypothetically, the winner of Saturday’s bout could also match up against Davis, whose win over Garcia boosted his profile and appeal. And unlike the welterweight and heavyweight divisions, where negotiations for bouts between top stars keep stalling, top lightweights appear intent on making these matchups happen, even if it means forcing rival promoters to cooperate.
“It’s a good time in boxing,” Haney said. “We’re all young. We should be happy that we’re both in this era of young guys who are all in the same weight class.”