Derrick Harmon has revisited the day he discovered Devin Haney and put him on course to become a world champion.

Haney was eight years old when his father, trainer and manager Bill, responding to a fight his son had had at school, took him to a gym in an attempt to discourage him from fighting again.

What followed was Harmon, a world light-heavyweight title challenger, identifying in him the raw materials to reach the very top. Bill Haney continues to credit Harmon with making him aware of his son’s abilities, and doing so to the extent that Bill withdrew Devin from school and committed to educating him himself so that they could live on the road and prioritise nurturing the talent that has since established him as one of the finest fighters in the world.

On Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Haney defends his WBC super lightweight title against Ryan Garcia – the amateur rival he both defeated and lost to three times as an amateur, in what could even prove his highest-profile fight.

Haney concluded 2023 by dethroning Regis Prograis over 12 one-sided rounds in San Francisco, having previously defended his undisputed lightweight title against Vasiliy Lomachenko in Las Vegas. He therefore enters Saturday’s fight as not only the significant favourite, but as a fighter perhaps recognised as, after years of demonstrating considerable potential, having entered his prime. 

“Bill brought his son to the gym – I believe because he was getting into some trouble at school – and asked me if I could teach him,” said Harmon. “I said, ‘Of course I can’. On the very first day I teached him how to jab, because I think that’s the most important punch in boxing. It’s maybe not the most powerful punch in boxing, but it does everything – it helps you do everything that you need to do, and it prevents the opponent from doing what he’s trying to do. 

“That was the very first thing that I always taught, and if you look at boxing, the person with the better jab; the better rhythm, is the better athlete. If you look at a runner, it’s a rhythm. If you look at a swimmer, it’s a rhythm. So what I did was try to create rhythm in Devin and teach him to jab. 

“I’d been working with Devin for a couple of months before I put him into the ring, and there was another kid that got in the ring with him, and he had been in the gym for a couple of years, and Devin got in the ring and I was like, ‘Oh my God – this kid is a natural’. He got in there like that was his home; he knew his position; he knew what he was supposed to do, and I was so shocked to see that type of talent from a kid that had never had an amateur fight; had never stepped foot in the ring and put on a headgear and gloves.

“When Bill came back and picked him up I said, ‘Bill, you have your champion – this kid is a natural fighter’. I knew right off the top. I knew it. He [became] the undisputed 135lbs champion.

“His ability to listen; his ability to be consistent; his ability to be disciplined. He was committed. ‘Devin, all I want you to do is go out and use your jab, and everything else that I taught you will come along,’ and that’s what he did. He was able to get away from punches, and use his legs; move his head. [It was like] the kid had already had 20 fights. 

“When you get in the ring the first time you expect him to be a little shy; a little hesitant. Not Devin. Devin went in right away like he knew his position, and you’ve seen him do his thing in fights. He goes in and he’s Devin. The same skills and the same way he positions himself now is the same he did when he was a kid when I was training him. He knew his position; he knew what he was supposed to do; he knew his talent; he knew his gift in life, and that’s what it was. I didn’t really see that in a boxing gym coming from a young kid. He just knew where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do right off the top, and I was very impressed with that. 

“I knew if he continued – I knew if he committed himself to the sport – that he could be a world champion. He amazed me then, the talent that he had; I’m even more amazed now that he was able to capture the undisputed 135lbs title.”

It was in 2001 when Harmon shared 10 rounds with the great Roy Jones Jr – a fighter with the natural talent and athleticism to perhaps surpass any ever seen. 

In Harmon’s role with Top Rank he was reunited with the Haneys when Devin Haney, at 25 the same age as Garcia, fought three times under the promoters – his successive victories in Australia over George Kambosos Jr, and over Ukraine’s great Lomachenko in May 2023, when he consistently demonstrated the admirable discipline Harmon also detected at a young age.

“What I mean by it came naturally to him is you could teach a kid a lot of different things – it doesn’t mean he’s going to catch on to it,” Harmon continued. “I taught him how to use your legs; how to use his jab, and when I say it came naturally to him, he knew exactly what to do right away. He just knew – right away.

“I can teach you, but I cannot give you natural ability. You either have it or you don’t, and right away he knew what his talent was. I believe a person is born with two things – a gift and a talent. Boxing is a talent, and the reason why I said ‘talent’ is it has an expiration date on it, as if it was a carton of milk in a refrigerator. He knew right away what his talent was, and he knew exactly what to do, as if he had been in there before. 

“‘Has this kid been in the ring before?’ No, it was his very first time, so I was shocked. When his dad came back I met his dad at the door. ‘Listen, Bill – you have a naturally gifted, talented kid here who has all the ability to be world champion. Do you realise it?’ He continued training and continued competing. He went on to the amateurs; went pro; today we have a champion. He wasn’t doing nonsense stuff; he was respectable; he was just a good kid. I’m proud of him, and proud of the leadership Bill’s been able to accomplish with him.

“Anybody can look good on the mitts. The test is when you put them in the ring and see what their ability is. I teach mitts with plenty of people and I don’t think nothing of it. I don’t think, ‘Oh, he’s fast’, or ‘He’s strong’. Who knows, until you set them into adversity? Adversity’s throwing him into the ring. Two things happen when you have adversity. Adversity doesn’t come to teach you whether you’re weak or strong; adversity comes to teach you who you are and what you’re made of. He told me and showed me who he was. I saw a champion, but I didn’t see the magnitude of it.

“Success comes through commitment – number one – discipline, and consistency. Not all fighters are fast; have a great jab; have been physically strong; a hard hitter. You have some slow fighters. You have some fighters who lack jabs; some fighters who lack discipline; who lack speed; punching power. The person who’s committed; the person who’s disciplined; consistent, is the person who’ll be successful. 

“Devin came along with natural ability; now you see a kid who was able to be committed to the sport; to be disciplined; able to have consistency. That’s what success is. He just had all the natural physical ability to be a champion. [But] it has everything to do with being committed, being disciplined and being consistent. That’s what Devin has done. It takes more than just talent. He’s taken his talent, and added all of the necessary elements to reach his goal, and I’m proud of him.”

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