Is Devin Haney vs. Ryan Garcia good for boxing? Should super lightweight title fight be happening?

Boxing’s great nights are steeped in legend. There are few greater than the Thrilla in Manila and, as such, the legend is weightier.

One story from Joe Frazier’s camp that emerged in the years after his unfathomably brutal rubber match with Muhammad Ali in 1975 was that every night in the days leading up to the fight, Smokin’ Joe would complete a solemn vigil of staring out into the South China Sea for hours on end. It took him to a place of maximum focus and detachment in preparation for unleashing maximum violence upon a rival he loathed.

Quite what the late Frazier might have made of Ryan Garcia engaging in a 2 a.m. Twitter spaces in the week of his showdown with the sublime WBC super lightweight champion Devin Haney is anyone’s guess. But you can be fairly sure he’d have wanted to boom some withering home truths all the way from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

Haney is one of the finest fighters in boxing today, a masterful technician who stepped up to to 140 lbs last December to dethrone Regis Prograis and become a two-weight world champion. By contrast, this is Garcia’s first fight for a full world title, but he is the man driving much of the attention and engagement. 

EXCLUSIVE: Devin Haney speaks to The Sporting News ahead of Ryan Garcia grudge match

In the dubious age of YouTuber/influencer boxing, Garcia has tapped into that market more effectively than any other legitimate boxer. A good-looking young man with lightning-quick hand speed and a withering left hook will always go down pretty well at the box office. “King Ry” has the added advantage of boasting 10.5 million Instagram followers (for reference, Haney has 2.8 million) and this is a big part of him being a rarity nowadays. Elite fighters — and Haney is a prime example of this — usually have to secure a few alphabet belts before they can consider becoming crossover stars; Garcia is indisputably famous without being world champion,

The reckless abandon he displayed in a stoppage loss to Gervonta “Tank” Davis last year did little to damage the brand. Since then, things have gone from weird to utterly bizarre and downright disturbing. A decent chunk of those 10.5 million followers are rubber-necking as the erratic behaviour of a 25-year-old who previously spoke with admirable frankness about his mental health struggles has delved into vulgar conspiracies, expletive-laden rants and astonishing oversharing even for such an obvious digital native

Devin Haney - Ryan Garcia

(Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing)

It’s all led to obvious questions over whether this fight should be happening at all. This isn’t just because Garcia is behaving in a highly unusual manner on the internet. An easy and lazy critique would be to say he’s an extreme example of a generation warped and unfocused due to their smartphone addiction. But boxers behaving strangely before fights is a tale as old as the Queensberry rules. The medium and the means are just different in 2024. How exactly do you think the 1990s version of James Toney would have fared with a TikTok account?

Frazier’s foe that fateful night in Manila has been cited in mitigation. When he first won the title, the loudmouth boxer still known as Cassius Clay behaved wildly in his pre-fight interactions with feared champ Sonny Liston. Plenty wondered publicly whether Clay should be allowed to box at all. Box he did and masterfully as Liston quit on his stool after six rounds of befuddlement. 

MORE: How Ali overcame “blindness” to beat Liston

“Eat your words!” the new self-proclaimed “King of the World” told sportswriters at ringside. Ali had strung everyone along, and made them think he was crazy while being the smartest man in the room all along. Perhaps, the argument goes, Garcia is riffing from that playbook and turning it up to 11.

Unfortunately, that feels like too generous a reading of events to be credible. Although the ever-growing number of hangers-on around Ali shamelessly contributed to him boxing on too long after the Frazier rubber match, he had a dependable core of people around him throughout his history-making career. Esteemed trainer Angelo Dundee was Ali’s foil, watching on through the ropes from the shuffle to the rope-a-dope and beyond.

Muhammed Ali and Joe Frazier

Garcia will have Derrick James in his corner in Brooklyn on Saturday night, a trainer held in the highest regard who has steered the likes of Errol Spence and Anthony Joshua. However, Garcia is new in his camp, having worked with Eddy Reynoso earlier in his career before switching to Joe Goosen for his defeat to Davis. 

Before his previous bout against Oscar Durate, Garcia was in open warfare with his promoters at Golden Boy, Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins. De La Hoya, who has navigated personal struggle of his own in the recent past, remains in his fighter’s corner but seems to be keeping Garcia at arm’s length. 

It amounts to a talented, over-exposed and vulnerable boxer having no discernable support network. Where Ali had Dundee to offer a knowing glance through those famously thick specs after every madcap press conference, Garcia has the 2 a.m. Twitter Spaces crowd blathering on that “God is with you”.

They’d better be right because in what should be a well-matched battle between two former amateur standouts, whose rivalry in the unpaid ranks ended all square at three apiece, it’s beginning to look like Garcia might need Divine intervention against a laser-focused Haney entering his prime.

EXCLUSIVE: Ryan Garcia promises “bad ending” for Devin Haney

This is a fight that should have been sold on the simple grounds of the best fighting the best, two young fighters putting it all on the line and all those other things the fight game is too often guilty of not facilitating. Haney vs. Garcia is still all of those things, but Garcia’s hijinks add an element of freak show. That sells too. It always has and always will. In a predictably wayward interview at this week’s open workout, Garcia channelled Mike Tyson when he said he was willing to “bite both [Haney’s] ears off”. The infamous “Bite Fight” with Evander Holyfield in 1997 damaged much for “Iron” Mike but not his box-office appeal.

Boxing has a place for lawlessness and voyeurism like no other sport. For all that it is a platform for often unparalleled feats of athletic excellence and bravery, it also appeals to baser human instincts. Haney vs. Garcia is burnishing both sides of that coin this week.

The idea of what is “good” for boxing is a pretty nebulous concept and depends on your position and interests. But outside of the old adage of “if it makes money it makes sense” it is hard to make a case for celebrating this weekend’s showdown in the manner it should be as a pure boxing contest.

Given how The Thrilla in Manila chimes through the ages, few would argue against it being very good for boxing. Without question, boxing has done very well out of Ali and Frazier’s deeds that night. But part of the fascination with that incredible battle comes from the damage done. Both men were diminished and in poor health when they died aged 74 and 67 respectively, declines that could be traced back to that night by the South China Sea. 

Mortality loomed over the exploits of those two fighting supermen in the Philippines. “Round 14 was the closest I’ve seen somebody come to killing somebody,” said Ali’s fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, recalling the beating his man administered to Frazier, who was effectively fighting blind by that point. There was no triumphalism from Ali, who labelled a defining victory as “the nearest thing to death” he had experienced.

These are the extremes to which two well-matched fighters with bad intentions can arrive. One of the ways those of us on the other side of the ropes are able to make peace with that reality is through the assumption that the brave warriors who lace gloves have undertaken the most rigorous, diligent preparations to steel themselves against the grave risks of their trade.

MORE: What has Floyd Mayweather got to do with Devin Haney vs. Ryan Garcia?

Ali and Frazier did. As the pre-fight talk turned predictably poisonous once he and Haney reached New York, it was hard to look at Garcia and conclude he has done the same. As he trumpets to his followers, “King Ry” has passed every medical, scan and drug test en route to the Barclays Center. He is medically fit to fight. 

The concern is that once Haney gets to work against a hated foe who appears to be mentally all at sea, those passes won’t be worth the pieces of paper they’re written on. It’ll be a beatdown, a humiliation. Such defeats can unmoor the most stoic men and Garcia does not appear remotely prepared to deal with the consequences.

Alternatively, and understandably, few people are giving credence to this, what if he wins? What if Garcia’s anticipated fast start concludes with him uncorking that beautiful left hook and turning Haney’s lights out? It would validate all of his deeply troubling behaviour and keep him on a road where it is impossible to foresee a happy ending.

It’s why many of us will be watching the fighter De La Hoya has labelled “the face of boxing” through our fingers on Saturday night.

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