“THAT’S the worst thing in the world,” says Bill Haney of being denied permission to travel to Australia with his son Devin for the fight with George Kambosos Jnr that had the potential to make their careers.
Refused a visa because of a conviction in 1992 – before Devin had been born – when aged 22 he was imprisoned for 40 months for possession and conspiracy to distribute two kilograms of cocaine, his persistence meant that an appeal led to him unexpectedly and dramatically being given a visa to travel the day before last June’s fight, and that as his trainer and manager he would work his son’s corner the night history was made.
The significance of the extent to which his past had continued to haunt him, however – and for all that he knows may have cost victory – regardless remains at the forefront of his mind. “That’s why I want every father and son to be conscious of your past following you,” he continues, to Boxing News. “No matter what you’re doing today, you’ll suffer later on. Even if you are the smoothest, flyest, sharpest, baddest mother– moving. It can come back and haunt you and your kids, and that’s what that did.
“A lot of the time when you’re young, you’re doing it just to be doing it. [But] when Devin got on the airplane I was more relieved that he was going to handle business without me, because we had reached a point where he was no longer just a great fighter and a champion – he was a real man. One hundred per cent a man’s man. ‘Pop, I’m bringing these belts back home to you – I’m coming straight to you.’”
Haney, of Oakland, California, had been studying in Kentucky shortly before his arrest. “Oakland was considered the city of dope; couldn’t be saved by John the pope,” he says. “That’s a Too Short song. I went to Kentucky to get a new start at college; my mum wanted me to get into journalism, and everything was going good. I met some people, off-campus, who were selling drugs. Then when I went back home, for the summer, I didn’t go back to the college, but I stayed in touch with the locals. Just as friends; partying, and stuff like that. I told some friends [in Oakland] – we went back out there for a run, and I was arrested. It wasn’t the first time. It was a conspiracy involving the locals and the guys in California. I was the youngest guy [involved].
“I’ve never wanted to let my parents down, so I never let them know the things that I was involved in. I was selling drugs and stuff at 14, 15 years old, in the neighbourhood. That was the nature of Oakland. It started out as weed, and then cocaine. I’d come from a blue-collar family; mum worked for General Motors; dad worked for the airlines. They told me the right thing to do, but there’s a whole lot of peer pressure that I succumbed to. It landed me in juvenile hall. Instead of calling [my parents] I called an aunt. She posed as my mum and came and picked me up, so for a long time they didn’t know.
“My mum and dad couldn’t afford to buy a 15-year-old kid a car, and I was too young, so I would park the car [I bought] around the corner. It was an Oldsmobile Cutlass.
“[I felt] shame and guilt [when I was arrested]. My dad was going through cancer – he was dying. [My parents] did the best that they could. I went to private school – the peer pressure in the neighbourhood of going to a Catholic school wasn’t easy, so I would take my shirt and sweater off, put it in my bag and wear a white t-shirt with khaki pants.
“My mum came down to the sentencing in Kentucky. It was bittersweet, because I knew it would be either prison or, potentially, I could have died on the streets. Once they laid the sentence down [pauses]… I looked over at her, and of course she was crying, and my eyes were watering, and I just knew that I had broken her heart. When I got back to the cell it was almost like a sense of relief that the whole case and whole conspiracy had come to an end, because it was a long trial.
“[In Lompoc Penitentiary] I got a chance to see all of the guys that were a who’s who of the criminal underworld, so it gave me the education to know that crime wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. All of the big guys were there as well, and they told me I’d got off with a slap on my wrist. To me, at 22, it seemed like an eternity, but a lot of guys took a liking to me, and told me they didn’t want me to come back there, because they all had life sentences, and 20 and 30 years. My oldest son, William Jnr [then two], came to the prison to see me, and I sat down with a lot of old Gs to tell him how much it hurt me for my son to be out there by himself.”
The birth of Devin, his second son, in 1998 gave Haney further cause to reinvent himself – which he partly achieved by relocating to Las Vegas. “The [school] principal asked me what was going on – why was [eight-year-old] Devin fighting?” he says from a sofa at the Top Rank gym in the same city from which he is casually chewing his way through a pack of seeds. “He was insinuating something was going on in Devin’s home life – I hated that. Like a warden from the prison. I took him to a gym to get his butt whooped, so he could get back to playing [American] football, and we run into this guy, right here. Derrick Harmon [sat nearby].
“Derrick said, ‘Man, your kid is a natural’. From that point I did everything in my power to help him with his natural god-given gift.”
Before leaving Oakland, with the help of a fellow inmate Haney had forged his way into the music industry and established a record label that focused largely on hip hop – the same genre of music that can be heard while his son trains. “I worked on the [i]Romeo Must Die[i] soundtrack with Aaliyah, and DMX,” he says. “If you build a recording studio, the artists were going to come. With that theory, I built a boxing gym on Sahara called The Hit Factory. Between Las Vegas Boulevard and Paradise.
“I was able to bring in coaches; have classes. Strippers in the city would come to the gym [“That’s all that was there,” interjects another friend]. I catered to teaching the industry girls on the strip. They paid a premium, and through that I was able to keep the doors open but also attract other coaches and fighters. The sole goal in mind was getting Devin to learn the game of boxing. I’m gonna build this one [Devin’s 13-year-old brother Shaun] an indoor tennis facility.
“We also put a recording studio in the back, to make music, ‘cause I was still dibbling and dabbling in that. But nothing took off or showed the promise that Dev did.”
There evolved the education as a fighter for not only Devin, but as a trainer for Bill. There has been time and money invested into seeing and learning from Roger and Floyd Mayweather Snr, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Virgil Hunter, Roy Jones Jnr, Devin’s godfather Yoel Judah, Billy Giles, Ben Davison, and more.
“I took the hook from Eddie,” he says. “I took the defence from Roger – the roll in and roll out. Roy Jones is, ‘Never be in a neutral position’. Virgil Hunter is, ‘The three lines of defence’; hand-fighting. Floyd Snr, of course, is the shoulder roll. Floyd Jnr was, ‘You gotta be able to go both directions’; the lateral movement, that Ryan [Garcia, against Gervonta Davis] didn’t have. I wanted him to be the best, all-round, complete fighter. Once you pay for it, you learn it – they weren’t doing it for free. They just wanted a token to show that you’re not trying to use them.
“It got to the point that Dev [aged 12] got so good that we couldn’t get the work that we wanted to – the sparring. We were always going to someone else’s gym, so I shut the gym down – the cost and time that I would spend to keep it clean – and put full devotion into Dev and getting on the road. My next assignment was wanting Devin to not be scared of any guy. I didn’t want him to just be in Las Vegas and be, ‘Detroit guys are tougher; Chicago guys are tougher’, so I got a Sprinter van, and we got on the road and I started homeschooling him.
“I sold some property I inherited from my grandmother, in California. I had to do what I had to do as a parent. Those were definitely the tough times [financially]. I was not only shutting the gym down; I was selling everything I had from the drug business, and the legal life. One by one the things were going. The watches; the cars; I was selling my whole life to get him the experience that he needed.”
Perhaps the greatest sacrifice at taking so considerable a risk involved leaving the young Shaun behind – not unlike he had when, with William in his infancy, Bill found himself in prison, or when he first moved to Vegas and, before they could follow him, left his wife Samantha and sons behind.
“[That was] very tough,” continues Haney Snr, who Devin once described to BN as his “best friend”. “[But] he was just in love with the sport, and the sport was loving him back. We were like the Lone Ranger and Silver. He was riding through the amateurs; win after win after win; tournament after tournament. I know [by then] I got something special. As he’s going up the ladder in the amateurs, I still had my music connects – everybody wants to be involved. But no one gave me the complete confidence and dedication that he did. No one believed that I could connect the dots the way he did. [It’s like] I’m in the [music] business and I’m looking for the one artist who’s going to let me not just be a part of it, [but] let me executive produce it. Do what I knew that ultimately I could do.”
The same entrepreneurial spirit inspired father and son to continue to defy established wisdom to then make public footage of what would typically be private sparring sessions, in turn making the gifted Devin – not unlike Floyd Mayweather Jnr – a crossover attraction for the digital age. There was also the vision to take him to Mexico to fight as a professional at the age of 17, in the belief that his progress would accelerate more than if he remained an amateur, and therefore experience gained fighting 10 times in Tijuana – often against physically mature opponents in front of hostile crowds.
“I’m letting him rub shoulders with a lot of the music heads as a marketing plan to attract an audience,” Haney says. “No one was using YouTube like they’re using it now. Everyone wanted to be on linear television. We went to Jay Z’s house to talk about a deal; meetings with 50 Cent; Birdman; the who’s who of Whoseville. Something I learned in music is ownership. Means a whole lot in business. So does it in boxing.
“We went to Tijuana. Met a guy called Repo Rick – the bridge to Mexico. It was the perfect breeding ground for Devin. He would then be able to deal with the crowds. Adversity would prepare one day for us to be at Australia, at Marvel Stadium, with all the boos.”
It was there, in Melbourne, where Haney so convincingly outboxed Kambosos Jnr, the rugged Australian who had so unexpectedly defeated the talented Teofimo Lopez – who in his previous fight had conquered none other than Vasyl Lomachenko. The years of risk and sacrifice from both father and son had ultimately been vindicated. There was even the moment between Haney Snr and Kambosos Jnr – one parent consoling another’s child, more aware than ever that in the realisation of a long-term dream someone else’s had been crushed.
“It was another father-and-son team going for history; legacy,” he says. “You got to love two guys that hang in there through thick and thin. I wished them well. It was strictly about boxing and performing in front of the fans and winning an event, but not destroying another family. I got to know a side of his dad that most people don’t know. A protective, competitive, 100 per cent down-for-his-son father. It was a pleasure sharing that experience with him.
“It was an incredible feeling [to watch Devin win]. Complete euphoria. I’m used to seeing him whoop ass – that ain’t nothing new. But when they actually raised his hand, that’s different than going through the process – [when] I’m caught up in the moment.”
In the opposite corner in Vegas on Saturday will be another father-son team in the great Vasyl and Anatoly Lomachenko. Devin Haney, Gervonta Davis, Ryan Garcia and Lopez were once anointed as the modern era’s answer to the revered Four Kings, but after high-profile defeats Garcia and Lopez have already been discounted. In their absence, Lomachenko, Shakur Stevenson, and most recently Andy Cruz have appeared likelier long-term challengers to Haney and Davis. At the MGM Grand Garden Arena five will then almost certainly become four.
“This is the biggest test of Devin’s career,” says his father and trainer. “This is Loma’s biggest test. That’s what makes for the most important event, as today, of 2023. It’s for lightweight supremacy.
“[We have] one of the blessed partnerships in the world – being a partnership in our last name and not our first. We represent Hidden Individual Talent. That was the [gym, HIT] Factory that Devin came out of.
“When you looked at him, you’d never believe the things he had inside. So I hope everybody being told that their kid is too aggressive, is not paying attention, is fighting too much… Give ‘em a shot. They might be a champion.”