Monday, May 31, 2021

Opinions and Observations: Haney-Linares

Saturday's lightweight title fight between Devin Haney and Jorge Linares was filled with unexpected surprises. Deviating from standard operating procedure, Haney immediately went on the offensive. Haney had often started fights with a note of caution, working behind his jab and gradually incorporating other punches in his arsenal. But here, Haney planted his flag in the center of the ring and threw his best power punches. In another unexpected twist, Linares, one of the best combination punchers in the sport, played the role of counterpuncher, looking to land single counter left hooks. 

In order to understand why Saturday's fight started in this fashion, one needs to remember recent history. Haney had faced considerable criticism after his last bout against Yuriorkis Gamboa, where he turned in a dominant but passionless performance. Many felt that Haney could have been more offensively minded, that he was too content to go the distance against an opponent well past his prime. On Saturday, Haney was out to prove a point, that he could be exciting and go right after an opponent. 

Haney (right) connects with a body shot
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

In that Gamboa fight, Yuriorkis didn't have much success, but when he did it was with his counter left hook; Haney wasn't seeing that punch well. Moments before Haney-Linares started on Saturday, the DAZN broadcast showed live footage of Haney's dressing room. Haney and his team were warming up and Ben Davison, who was assisting in Haney's corner, was throwing a series of left hooks for which Haney was moving his right up arm to block each shot. To me, that provided a fascinating insight into Haney's camp. Clearly, they had studied their fighter in the Gamboa match and I'm sure that they saw his issue with defending the left hook, with the expectation that Linares would be utilizing that punch throughout the fight. 

Haney's team had studied Linares thoroughly as well. Linares has had a decorated career, winning titles in three different weight classes, but one of his shortcomings has been a susceptibility to power punches early in fights. Coming into Saturday, Linares had been stopped three times in the first two rounds, including a first-round stoppage to Pablo Cesar Cano in 2019. 

Haney established a commanding lead over Linares during the first nine rounds. He showcased a stunning variety of offensive weapons, hitting Linares with every punch in his arsenal. Linares worked almost exclusively behind his counter left hook and he landed quite a few good ones. But unfortunately, his left hook isn't his best punch. So, while his strategy may have been correct, he didn't have the firepower for his game plan to work. 

As part of this surprising offensive fight, there were a number of occasions in the middle rounds where Haney and Linares stood in the center of the ring and exchanged their best left hooks. This display of machismo was unexpected from Haney and these moments provided thrilling action. However, it was strange that Haney, who was ahead on the cards all night, decided to give Linares additional opportunities to land something big.

The fight changed in the tenth round. Far behind on the cards, Linares started to put combinations together. At the end of the round he threw one of his patented three-punch combinations and finished the sequence with a blistering short right hand. The punch cracked Haney's chin and as the bell rang to end the round, Haney stumbled back to his corner. 

Linares found success later in the fight with right hand
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

The final two rounds of the fight produced yet another unexpected twist. Linares, usually the frontrunner who had never lost a decision on the cards, needed a come-from-behind knockout to win and Haney, who had rarely been touched in his career with anything significant, was in survival mode. Linares had two rounds to play with to end the fight and Haney just had to stay on his feet to win it on the cards. 

Throughout the 11th and 12th Linares hit Haney with several big shots; Haney wasn't even trying to win these rounds. Haney held liberally, which was smart, and Linares wasn't able to avoid being tied up. And for all the good work that Linares did in final few rounds, he couldn't put enough shots together to get the stoppage. Although physically diminished, Haney was able to thwart Linares enough to see the fight out. 

Despite 52 previous fights and 19 years as a professional fighter, Linares was in an unexpected situation where he had to pull a rabbit out of the hat to win; his lack of experience in this situation was evident. Haney was reeling, but Linares was too cute with his punch placement. He didn't let his shots go with abandon. He found himself tied up when he should have been working. Even when he was tied up, he didn't attempt to do too much in the clinch. So, despite having Haney on the proverbial ropes, Linares couldn't find the finishing touch. 

Haney won a decision on the cards (116-112, 116-112, 115-113) and evaluating his performance is a classic glass half full/half empty scenario. He displayed impressive offensive gifts and showed a fully developed arsenal of punches. But even with landing his best shots, he never really hurt Linares, who has been chinny throughout his career. Haney had enough weaponry to keep Linares occupied and honest, but it's clear that he doesn't have top-shelf power. 

Even the last two rounds are open to interpretation. Haney got caught, he held on, he found a way to win, and that last point is critical. Sometimes style points don't matter; the "W" is what's most important. However, one needs to be concerned with his recuperative abilities. After getting cracked at the end of the tenth, Haney didn't make an attempt to win the final two rounds. And he took some additional big shots in those final frames. He survived, yes, but make no mistake, it was a survival. Linares had a golden opportunity to finish Haney off and he couldn't. Some of that credit belongs to Haney, who was able to limit the damage enough to retain his faculties. But Haney is also fortunate that he wasn't facing a true knockout artist, someone who was more experienced in that phase of a fight.

Haney raises his hand in victory
Photo courtesy of Ed Mulholland

Ultimately, Haney is still a work in progress. He entered Saturday's fight as having a sterling defensive reputation and what's clear to me is that his defense is less than advertised. He's a sharp fighter. He features a ton of tools in his toolbox. But Linares landed too many big shots throughout the fight. That Haney's chin held up until the 10th round is a credit to him, but others in the division punch a lot harder than Linares does. Haney still hasn't figured out how to defend the left hook and until he corrects this flaw, opponents will always see a way into a fight against him. 

So often after a young fighter experiences a tough bout the platitudes will follow. "He will learn from this." "He will only get better." Well, not always. The flaws from the Gamboa fight where still evident in the Linares fight. Those exercises that Davison did pre-fight with Haney weren't applied in the bout itself. I can't recall an example of Haney using his arm to block the left hook all fight. Haney does so many things right in the boxing ring, but if he can't correct this defensive shortcoming, he most likely won't ascend to the heights that many have predicted for him. And the irony isn't lost upon me that Linares' career, as solid as it has been, has played out this way. Very good, but a limitation or two away from great. It's no crime to have just a "very good" career, but I'm sure that Haney and his team want more than that. To get there, the gym beckons. And not as it has in the past. 

What is needed for Haney is a taskmaster, one charged with fixing his defensive technique. Some painful pick-and-shovel work is required. These are the unsexy, unglamorous parts of boxing, and for Haney it's vital that he embraces it. Without these fixes, his vulnerabilities will be too apparent for top punchers. But at 22, he still has time on his side. Should he take advantage of it, the world can still be his oyster in the boxing ring. But there are no guarantees. It's his choice.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
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