Devin Haney Brought The Future To Regis Prograis
11:17 AM EST on December 11, 2023
SAN FRANCISCO — A city that is home to only the rich and the poor is a broken place. That is what San Francisco is. Market Street is where you live when you can’t afford to live anywhere, a scene from the Great Depression sprinkled with fentanyl. And for miles in every direction, young men who look like they were until very recently playing for the UC soccer team occupy $3,500 per month one-bedroom apartments. A little pane of glass between the functional and dysfunctional worlds, and no space in between. We’re used to seeing cities fall through the stages of urban decay: the industries leave, the jobs disappear, the once-grand downtowns empty out. But San Francisco is the best reminder that cities can be destroyed by too much money as effectively as they can by too little. You can still see the outlines of a cool, raffish place that this once was, before the dystopia of too much success arrived, purging whole segments of the population and leaving only the desperate and the determined-to-ignore-the-desperate behind.
The Chase Center, a space ship of an arena that sits picturesquely on the edge of Mission Bay, drenched each night by perfect pink and yellow sunsets, is new and shiny and clean in a way that places with character cannot be. Even the sidewalks outside of the Chase Center sparkle in the light. I’m sure this is just due to some exotic variety of sand in the concrete mix, but it does lend a literal sense of walking on diamonds as you approach the place. The bank arena in the billionaire town is a little on the nose, but Saturday night, it was home to E-40’s version of The Bay much more than Marc Andreessen’s. It was a night for the real self-made success story, not just those who just fancied themselves that way. Boxing is infinitely harder to succeed in than venture capital. In a lounge on the upper deck, one man reclined in a long, custom-made leather jacket emblazoned with the words, “It Takes the Hood to Save the Hood.” I guess that’s true.
Devin Haney was born in San Francisco, and this was his big homecoming. Trained by his father Bill, he’s been groomed for all of this like a piano prodigy. At 25 years old, he’s 31-0, a lightweight champion, fresh off beating the legendary but aging Vasiliy Lomachenko. Before that he went to Australia twice in the span of four months to beat the shit out of hometown hero George Kambosos, and then do it again, just to prove it was no fluke. There is something a little unsatisfying about Haney; he’s very technically sound, but not a big puncher, and he has the blank self-confidence of someone too young to have been humiliated yet.
Trying to humiliate him was Regis Prograis, also known as “Rougarou,” the only big-time fighter from New Orleans, who walks to the ring in a terrifying feather-bedecked wolf mask as a paean to his nickname, which describes a legendary Cajun werewolf. Prograis, a southpaw, is nine years older than Haney. It has long been clear that he was one of the best 140-pound fighters in the world, but he always seemed to be nibbling around the edges of landing that big-money fight, which he now had. He fights in a sort of shuffling crouch, a style that would look at home in a scratchy black-and-white newsreel from the 1930s. His feet are flat, but fast; he moves forward in short little steps, and bobs left and right, and closes distance. He can knock you out to the body or the head with either hand, something that Haney cannot do. The peak Prograis punch is his straight left hand dead in the face, out and back, which always reminds me of what would happen if a logging truck hit its brakes and sent a tree carcass hurtling at your head like an arrow.
As soon as I got to San Francisco, I got the flu. The night before the fight I was wracked with fever dreams, the kind where your brain cycles endlessly through unbidden images while you toss and turn and pray for sleep. After hours of this, I struck a deal with my brain that, if it would let me sleep, I would promise to include in the story I wrote this insight, which it kept thrusting into the center of my mind: Snap and slap and swap are only one letter apart from each other, and they can all be used to describe types of punches (swap as in trading punches).
I have now fulfilled the promise I made that night.
The main undercard match featured Montana Love, a B-plus fighter with an A-level name and an A-plus love of flair. Love wears pink sunglasses and lavish outfits and often is accompanied to the ring by his pet French bulldog, Papi, who always looks nonplussed in a charming way. Love was fighting Liam Paro, an undefeated Australian. Australia is a country that regularly produces boxers who are very tough but not particularly refined and who sooner or later are served up as food for the best American fighters. The fight immediately fell into the familiar dynamic of the more technical fighter, Love, laying back and keeping distance and waiting to counter, and the more aggressive fighter, Paro, not being skilled enough to crack Love’s defense, and by the second round the crowd was already booing the unexciting stalemate. This continued until the sixth, when Paro finally stepped in and split Love’s guard with an uppercut, knocking him down, and then knocking him down again with a straight right, and finally causing the ref to stop the fight to the great relief of the restless fans. Montana Love is made for pro wrestling, a sport where his abundant personality could benefit him and his flaws as a boxer would not matter.
Devin Haney entered the ring in a big puffy black jacket that looked like a garbage bag with air pumped through it, and trunks festooned with pieces of rope that hung down to the middle of his shins. He looked like he had scavenged his outfit from the dump, for reasons that I am not interested enough to explore further. Prograis is a very dangerous fighter, but his style was a bad match for Haney’s. “Styles make fights,” wise boxing people will tell you. “Styles make fights,” even unwise boxing people will tell you. It is one of those cliches that is both true and inscrutable, a koan of violence. Prograis had more power, but Haney is taller and longer and well-schooled enough not to get lazy and do something stupid that would allow Prograis the opportunity to move in and punch a hole in his gut.
Fundamentally, Prograis’s problem was this: Haney had longer reach, and used it, and also was always moving to keep himself in the center of the ring, and that is a formula that guarantees a victory for the guy with reach. Prograis would have needed to either shoot forward fast enough to get in Haney’s chest, which he wasn’t capable of, or push Haney back onto the ropes, which Haney was too alert to allow. Instead Haney just picked him apart and maintained his distance, an experience so dispiriting that you could almost see the fire of the Rougarou evaporating into feathery mist. That old-timey crouch style was great in Rocky Marciano’s time, but now we have self-driving cars and global internet and supremely well-conditioned boxers who will snipe you to death from the outside while you’re doing your little forward shuffle. Shit evolves. You’ve gotta have wide feet in the 21st century. You’ve gotta be springy.
In the third round, Haney dropped Prograis with a fast lead right hand. This didn’t hurt him too much, but it did seem to signal which way the dominance was flowing. From that point forward, there was nothing more for Prograis to do but to suffer through the fire. Haney took a wide, wide victory, a definitive victory. “That motherfucker is good,” Prograis admitted after the fight. Time goes on and new young people are always rising up to replace us. Self-driving taxis prowled the streets around the Chase Center, their radars whirring menacingly. Evolution is a beast. As soon as you decide you’ve had enough of it, it eats you alive.