In virtually any other professional sport, a highly competitive contest with performances of astounding skill and courage would be a good thing, translating to plenty of positive attention and publicity, with fans and pundits celebrating what they witnessed. But this is a professional fight for prizes in the 21st century. And no other sport can turn a positive into a negative like boxing.
Last night Devin Haney and Vasiliy Lomachenko put on a fist show of an elite level rarely seen, both boxers showing off their talent, finesse and ring IQ. They were two master craftsmen, both had fun, both played A-game, both rose to the occasion. After twelve rounds, there were few decisions. And almost before the official decision was announced, trolls, neg-heads, and keyboard warriors drowned out the rest of us when the complaining began.
Let’s be clear from the start: the final verdict was not unfair. Devin Haney won via unanimous decision, and while we can lament that one judge drew a rather dodgy card, the other two saw it the same way everyone else saw it: a tight-knit, competitive battle that, as you can imagine, could go either way or be ruled a draw . Anyone who thinks one rider or the other should be the winner with room to spare didn’t understand what they were watching last night. And the fact is that if Lomachenko had been declared the winner with identical results, as many people would have questioned the result as now.
However, the key factor in how this match is perceived at the moment is the mood and what we might call the “underdog element”. Vasily Lomachenko is 35 years old and, in fact, belongs to the featherweight division. Haney is 24 and it’s not hard to imagine him fighting at middleweight one day. Indeed, the size difference between them looked almost comical at times. No doubt many fans came to this matchup with the old adage of “good big man beats good little man” in their heads, while keeping expectations low. So who can blame them if they got caught up in Lomachenko’s thrilling rally in the final rounds?
Without a doubt, there was something heroic in the efforts of the brave Ukrainian. After all, it was he, not Haney, who gave the battle genuine seriousness and excitement as he drained it and lowered his hands to engage in both the tenth and eleventh rounds. This meant the fight was still up for grabs when the bell rang for the last three minutes. It was reminiscent of when Roberto Duran challenged Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the middleweight crown in 1983. Duran was clearly at a disadvantage in terms of size and strength, but he switched gears in the twelfth and thirteenth rounds, lifting the fans to their feet as he landed a flurry of clean right hands on the bigger man. But, like Lomachenko, he didn’t have enough fuel in the tank to impose himself in the end.
But no matter how you scored in the final round last night, here’s where the really deciding factor is Haney vs. Lomachenko: not the later rounds, but the early rounds, most of which were almost too close to call. Every highly competitive fight has “swing rounds”, that is, rounds where an argument could be made for either boxer, but the early Haney vs. Lomachenko bout was so competitive, with exchanges so energetic that it was hard to keep up that almost all of them belonged to this category. There was no denying that Haney landed the harder punches, mostly to the body, but at the same time, it was Lomachenko who often came forward and initiated trades, combining eye-catching shots on top.
Twelve rounds have been the standard distance for championship matches for over thirty years, but once in a while we get a fight like Haney vs. Lomachenko, a clash that makes the diehards miss the fifteen-round distance. What fighting game fan wouldn’t want three more rounds of the high-quality footage that “Hi-Tech” and “The Dream” gave us last night? Who would bet one of them would find a way to take the drama to the next level if they had three more rounds to go?
Instead, to resort to another “four kings” comparison, likewise Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. Sugar Ray Leonard, we are left with something less than fully satisfying or conclusive, a twelve-round contest that raises as many questions as it answers. And one that will be argued about for a long time. That said, there’s no denying that the final score was fair: it can be solidly proven that Devin Haney won seven out of twelve rounds last night. But there is also no doubt that despite the loss Lomachenko gave us one of the best performances of his career. And if only one or two of these “swing rounds” move to the second column, we just get a different result.
So, in the final analysis, there’s only one thing left to do: ignore the outrage on social media, stop complaining, and pay tribute to both fighters. Boxing, an undeniably declining sport, hasn’t had much to celebrate in recent years, but last night should be one of them. Haney vs Lomachenko was an exciting and sometimes even thrilling prize fight between the two best in the game. The simple truth remains that there is nothing better. -Neil Crane