At around 9:40 PM the night before his son’s biggest fight, Bill Haney finally arrived in Australia.
As he helped his son Devin prepared to fight George Kambosos for the undisputed lightweight title, Bill was waging a legal battle. He was denied a visa to enter Australia due to a decades old conviction, and most within the industry presumed that it was decided that Devin would be without his father in his corner and instead seconded by his close family friend Yoel Judah.
At first, solutions such as a headset in the corner, a tablet in the locker room and more were suggested, but the headset specifically was shot down. Even the Haneys thought it was all but impossible for the ruling to be reconsidered, let alone reversed.
“I asked my lawyer, do you think this is going to work? He said no, but it’s worth a shot,” said Haney in a behind-the-scenes video shared on Top Rank social media.
Devin hadn’t known a world without his Dad at his side at all times. A few years back, Bill asked Devin if he wanted him to step aside in favor of one of their many rotating aides in camp, and Devin said no. Now the decision was being made for him at the worst possible time.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, Devin had a larger than usual group of supporters joining him in Australia, a large collection of family and friends, often dressed in matching red tracksuits. If that were the reasoning, it would appear it had an impact. Without Bill present, Haney was remarkably calm throughout fight week. As Kambosos repeatedly needled Haney with increasingly pointed insults and accusations, such as him being a “rat” and an “informant,” Haney calmly replied or in some cases rolled his eyes and got back to polite formalities in a near-whisper tone.
During one press event, Haney stopped Kambosos and simply said “man, just be yourself,” as if breaking the fourth wall of a sitcom he was unwillingly cast in. As Kambosos sat buttoned into a crisp three-piece suit, monologuing in an attempt to rile up his opponent, the 23-year old sat in a cozy cashmere sweater, arms crossed, microphone tipped diagonally out of his palm.
As unflappable as Haney appeared in public, privately he was distressed. Not about his ability to win the fight or not—of that he seemed sure—but about what it would feel like to reach the pinnacle without his Dad.
“I was going through it without my dad being here because I knew it was a big moment for us,” Haney later said. “We both dreamed of this. Since we started out, we said we wanted to be the best. It would have hurt me to accomplish this without him.”
Bill walked through the airport, hood laced tightly around his head. The first words out of his mouth as he came through the sliding doors to officially set foot on new soil were “I came here for my son.” He met Devin at the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne. Devin couldn’t contain his smile then, just as he couldn’t as he skip-stepped to the ring to DMX’s “X Gonna Give It To You,” his father one stride behind him.
The tenor of the fight was similar to the interactions between Haney and Kambosos outside of the ring. Kambosos tried to create conflict with hard flurries, but Haney deftly calmed the situation and changed the tone with a versatile left hand. Just as he would do on the dais with a zinger every once in a while in reply to his bolder opponent, Haney would detonate a right hand, a hard left hook, or maybe a sly forearm on the inside every once in a while to show that he wasn’t one to be bullied.
In the corner, Bill did what he always does: Assume the role of executive producer, fielding input from the team members and calmly conveying it in a manner that his son would receive well, and in a tone that ensured his son wouldn’t get unnecessarily over-excited in a fight he could win in a more basic fashion.
Midway through the fight, Devin sat down on his stool in between rounds, and Yoel Judah was excited. Devin once carried his son Zab’s RING Magazine title belt to the ring as a ten-year old, and he felt he could have the lightweight version that same belt around his waist any moment now. He felt Haney was breaking Kambosos down, and exclaimed as much. As he was telling Devin that Kambosos was stumbling, and seemingly about to give the hard sell that Devin could close the show, Bill knelt down before his son to apply Vaseline with a different demeanor. Mid-sentence, Judah stopped. Bill didn’t even have to look at him, Judah just knew that it was time to defer to a father who knew best how to control his son’s emotions.
“Relax, relax. Keep working that jab. Keep the feints, he’s reacting to everything, so that’s where it’s going to happen at,” Bill said softly. “I don’t want any wild shit. You see that wild hook? You can always roll under that. I don’t want anything big. Nothing big.”
It was precisely the type of moment where things could have gone wrong for Devin if his father hadn’t been around. Judah may have been right. He saw a fighter in Kambosos who was missing badly at times and leaving himself off-balance. A reality exists in which Haney could have ramped up his level of aggression and knocked him down. That possibility is alluring to any fighter, let alone a 23-year old in the biggest moment of their life. But that scenario may have been the only opportunity for Kambosos to hurt Haney too, and suggesting anything that might compel Haney to take that risk would have jeopardized the ultimate goal. In those sixty seconds, Dad had to do everything to make sure his son would be safe.
After Haney boxed one more masterful round in the 12th, he climbed up onto the ropes, extended his arms and calmly mouthed “what happened?” towards the pro-Kambosos audience in a packed Marvel Stadium. One last nonchalant act of defiance in the face of constant antagonization.
A few weeks earlier, Bill had given his son one final long hug at the airport and sent his son off to be a man. He became the man in Australia. At once, Haney was now mature enough to do it without his Dad, and enough to know he wouldn’t have wanted to even if he could have.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman