Ryan Garcia Turned A Sad Show Into A Thrilling Fight

Ryan Garcia’s got at least one hand of stone. Any time his left glove touched WBC super lightweight champ Devin Haney in their stunning catchweight brawl on Saturday, Haney went down or went away hurt. And Garcia touched him often enough to take a majority decision over the heavily favored Haney at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. 

Garcia officially knocked Haney down only three times, but with a different referee or against a fighter with less remarkable recovery skills than Haney’s, he could have been credited with several more. The amount of punishment Haney survived was only less stunning than how easily Garcia doled it out to his formerly undefeated opponent. In the end, the Garcia-Haney rivalry produced both a sad freakshow and the fight of the year.

You really thought I was crazy?” Garcia yelled over the roar of the shocked, ecstatic crowd shortly after he was announced as the winner. 

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Yeah, lotsa folks thought exactly that leading up to fight night. On a related note, despite the win Garcia did not take Haney’s title. Garcia was ruled overweight at Friday’s weigh-in, and at that event he exuded the same wacky aura he’d flaunted ever since the fight was announced in February. He got on the scales holding a full beer bottle and drank its contents while being ruled to be 143.2 pounds, or more than three pounds over the contracted 140-pound limit. At a press conference earlier in the week, Garcia told Haney he’d pay him $500,000 for every overweight pound. Hours after the weigh-in, Haney’s camp said that Garcia had honored his pledge, meaning he’d forked over $1.5 million, so the fight was still on, even though the super lightweight belt was no longer at stake.

The weigh-in stunt (Garcia later claimed the bottle was filled with apple juice and not alcohol) provided one of the rare funny or entertaining moments in the Garcia-Haney promotion. Most of Garcia’s antics before fight night were just awful. He said stupid, mean things about Haney’s mother at press conferences and made cryptic attempts to link his rival to Sean “Diddy” Combs, who is now reportedly under federal criminal investigation for sex trafficking and other offenses. He used interviews with fight publications to rant about child abuse and space aliens. Garcia told ESPN that New York State athletic authorities ordered a mental exam for Garcia. Bill Haney, Devin’s father and trainer added some dark humor to the proceedings when amid all the depraved and hateful comments he gave Garcia a copy of a book titled Psychology for Dummies at a press gaggle.

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Most of the boxing world reacted with shock and awe at Garcia’s decorum. Top British boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, who was part of the pay-per-view broadcast team for the fight, said Garcia was out of shape mentally and physically. “I think Ryan Garcia is going to quit on his stool,” Hearn forecast on fight night. “All this stuff you’ve seen, this implosion, is only going to magnify on the big stage.”

But, the adage that there’s no such thing as bad press is particularly appropriate in the boxing realm. Garcia’s betting odds improved greatly following the weigh-in chaos, and ticket prices on the resale market actually increased even after the revelation that no championship was even up for grabs. Just as Garcia predicted after coming in overweight, people cared more about the fight than the belt.

I know I did. I’ve been a boxing fan my whole life. I grew up watching Muhammad Ali fights with my dad on television. And through the years I ended up seeing some of the greatest fighters of all-time live and in person when they came through D.C. I caught Roy Jones Jr. vs Bernard Hopkins for the world middleweight belt in 1993, and, at the other end of the quality-fight spectrum, saw Leon Spinks get KO’d by a club fighter in just 69 seconds a year later. I was in the Verizon Center the night  Mike Tyson quit on his stool in 2005 in his last fight (I’m not going to count the upcoming Jake Paul exhibition). The last fighter of note I watched work was Vasyl Lomachenko, who was world junior lightweight champ and at the top of his game in 2017 when he destroyed Jason Sosa at a casino in the suburbs. 

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I’ve been following Garcia, who has more than 11 million Instagram followers, for a few years after my eldest son alerted me to him. I’d rooted against Garcia when he got KO’d in 2023 by Tank Davis, a generational fighter who I’d fallen for after watching him train at Bald Eagle Rec Center, an amazing public fight club in D.C. (Garcia blamed weight-cutting for the defeat, his first losing performance as a pro.) But I was all in for Garcia when he signed to fight Haney, a disciplined but supremely boring technician who got what I thought was a bogus decision last year against a diminished Lomachenko. This was a fine bout on paper, with Garcia and Haney having fought each other six times as amateurs and both winning three of the bouts. 

As indefensibly grotesque as the run-up surely was, I wanted to see Garcia and Haney go at it. I bought tickets just before the weigh-in fiasco and me and my son drove up to Brooklyn the day of the bout. And I paid what for me is a whole lot of money. But I’m old and cheap and saw Led Zeppelin in ’77 for $9.50. Then, again, I wanted to see this. 

Margaret Mead would surely back me up on this: The boxing subculture offers wardrobes and characters that you simply will not find anywhere else. Even those who detest the sweet science should experience fight night at least once. The awesome supply of inappropriate Spandex and t-shirt salesmen on the streets around Barclays had me giggling like a madman. But the mood inside, another aspect of the boxing scenes that’s reason enough for even non-boxing fans to take in a fight night, was every bit as intense I’d hoped for. This was a no-giggle zone.

My handicapping of the fight mirrored Hearn’s summation that Garcia’s head and training comportment left him with no chance against Haney. I only began thinking I might be wrong when Garcia put on a crown and walked out real slowly to Kanye West’s “No Child Left Behind.” Both his eyes looked to be looking at the same thing for the first time since the fight promotion started.

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And then the bell rang and Garcia almost dropped Haney just 40 seconds into the fight with a left hook, the very first punch he threw with bad intentions. Haney wobbled badly, and then he was the one with the googly eyes. Haney only stayed up by grabbing Garcia and holding on like a rollercoaster rider does the safety bar. Then a switch flipped, and Haney became the aggressor for the next several rounds, landing frequently and avoiding Garcia’s haymakers. He won rounds two through six on my scorecard and likely also built a big lead on scorecards that mattered. 

But in the seventh, Garcia landed another left-hand bomb, and Haney went down hard, the first time in the champ’s career he’d hit the canvas. Referee Harvey Dock surely came close to stopping the fight, but again Haney survived by grabbing and holding. Garcia got so frustrated that he threw a punch while Dock was breaking up a clinch and got docked a point. By then the crowd seemed united in support for the big underdog, so Dock was booed for assessing the penalty, appropriate as it was.

Garcia wasn’t done doling out the punishment from the left side. He put Haney down again in the 10th and 11th rounds. By then it was clear Haney’s best punch wasn’t going to end Garcia’s night, and that the champ was hoping to just last until the final bell and leave his undefeated record in the hands of the judges. Garcia gave Haney hope by spending the final round sticking his tongue out, wildly wiggling his knees, and generally just clowning around to taunt his wounded foe. 

Once again, it turned out Garcia knew what he was doing. He didn’t need that last point after all. Ring announcer Joe A. Martinez told the crowd that Garcia was ahead on two of the three judges’ final cards, and declared him the winner. Ecstasy filled the building. What a fight! I was among the ecstatic. I hugged my kid as hard as Haney hugged Garcia.

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