On the one hand, the 22-year-old lightweight champion was looking to defend his WBC belt against Jorge Linares, a former veteran champion who still carries great respect in the sport. On the other hand, Haney had to show why he deserved a fight against some of the other big names in the 135-pound division.
Haney has accomplished at least one of these things. He beat Linares by unanimous decision to go undefeated and stay in the running for a big fight against another big name in the division.
But was Haney’s performance enough to improve his long-term career trajectory?
Let’s break down what will come next for Haney and Linares after their fight in Las Vegas.
Who should fight Haney next?
In a pre-fight interview, Haney lamented that the other top lightweights didn’t necessarily line up to face him. Haney also said he shouldn’t have to be the one to convince everyone that he deserves a fight against a renowned opponent because he holds the WBC belt and is ranked among the top 135-pound fighters.
While Haney makes a fair point, the counterargument before this fight was also compelling. Haney has enormous technical prowess, but as a fighter you could say Haney was a high-risk, low-paying opponent for fighters like Teofimo Lopez, Ryan Garcia or Vasiliy Lomachenko.
Well, on Saturday Haney fought like he had something to prove. He was ready to stand in front of Linares and throw some big punches – a noble strategy that ended up costing Haney dear when he was caught with a big right hand at the end of the 10th round.
At that point, it was easy to empathize with Haney. He spent the whole night doing what everyone wanted him to do by leading the fight directly to Linares and not just trying to outsmart him. When Haney faced the risk of this type of fight – and turned defensive in the last couple of rounds – he was reprimanded for it.
Regardless of the perception of Haney’s tight finish as he survived the last two laps, he did more than enough to hold onto his belt and proved he deserved a crack in a big name.
How about Lopez? Lopez will face George Kambosos Jr. in a mandatory title defense on June 19. Lopez, who has the other three major belts in the division, can take on Haney and officially become the Undisputed Champion, and then Lopez can do whatever he wants afterwards.
It’s a big fight that would generate a lot of interest in boxing and have the potential to be successful commercially. It’s the type of fight that could tell us a lot about Haney and Lopez going forward.
Can Haney beat one of the “big” lightweights?
The other big 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 injure Linares and didn’t knock down a faded Yuriorkis Gamboa in their fight last year.
Still, Haney is still so quick and technically strong that it’s impossible to rule him out against the best fighters in the division. Outside of Lomachenko, Haney is arguably the best pure boxer among all the lightweight. Haney has shown that he can stick, move and trade punches when he feels like it, and he can almost effortlessly win rounds. The big question, as we’ve seen against Linares, is whether Haney can withstand the big punch and have the power to be effective at the highest level.
What should Linares do now?
This is not an easy question to answer. It’s hard to say Linares should stop after how he rallied in the last three rounds against Haney. However, if anyone was reviewing the whole work, Linares was clearly overwhelmed and outmatched in arms by someone who was much faster and more precise.
And now what is there for Linares? He was ESPN’s No.7 lightweight on Saturday night, a ranking that seems right after the Haney fight. It’s hard to see Linares, who turns 36 in August, beat one of the current champions.
But he’s still good enough to deserve at least one more paycheck against a quality opponent. A potential Lomachenko rematch isn’t a bad option if Lomachenko beats Masayoshi Nakatani, provided Lomachenko looks for someone else to beat before fighting for a world title again. Or if Linares wants to win, he could face one of the many mid-level lightweight weights that have a name, such as Nakatani, Richard Commey and Javier Fortuna. All that is left of Linares’ career is still enough for an exciting fight.