Before he was blowing up social media with Blac Chyna, before he was being touted as a world title contender during Canelo-Jacobs fight week, before he was appearing on Showtime as "Mini-Mayweather" amid luxury cars and Las Vegas high-rise apartments, before there was the pristine 21-0 record and the 13 knockouts, before he signed up to fight Antonio Moran this Saturday in his DAZN debut, there was Tijuana, Mexico.
While it didn't begin there, that's where the story of boxing phenom Devin Haney truly began to take form.
The room was usually small. Sometimes it was a bar. Other times little more than a ring stuffed into some random room in some nondescript building, distinguished only by the Lucha Libre posters on the wall. A group of Mexican fans would be there, every time. And not a one of them would be happy to see the young American. Curses, spit and beer would fly liberally through the air. Sometimes, still just 17 years old, Haney was a bit frightened.
"It was a crazy experience because the whole crowd is against you," the now-20-year-old Haney remembers. "Literally the whole crowd. There's not one person cheering for you besides the people you came with. If a fighter just grazes you with a punch, the crowd goes wild. You start to trick yourself like, 'Am I losing?'"
For the longest time, Haney didn't understand why he was even on foreign soil. He saw his friends from the amateur scene signing with big promoters, pocketing bonus checks and fighting on television. Meanwhile, he was in Mexico, paying to have his fights recorded for YouTube. Ten of his first 15 fights were there—just across the border, sure, but what felt like a million miles from home.
"When you come out, they're calling you 'puto' and all type of stuff," he says. "People in the business told us not to go. They said it was corrupt. It's this, it's that. It ended up being one of the best decisions I ever made and developed me into the fighter I am today. Fighting there changed my perspective. Instead of being nervous when I made my U.S debut, I was thinking, 'Oh, this is much easier!'
"I came from a place where I was constantly booed to a place where, when I land a punch, the place goes crazy."
And that was always the plan.
Bill Haney, Devin's father, understands better than most the way a talented young performer can be abused by the system. A music industry veteran who's worked with artists like Aaliyah, Tank and Too Short, he has seen it firsthand.
So while Devin's peers took the short money and put their faith in a promotional system that has failed thousands of fighters before, Devin and Bill put Bill's hard-earned knowledge and young Devin's infatuation with social media to work, spawning a plan to control their own destiny.
"Fortunately for Devin, I saw early on that he was onto something," Bill says. "He was building his social channels before social channels were really being managed or operated by professionals. He was a promoter from a young age.
"Getting to his fans and to the people was important. They had been following him since he was an amateur and watching his videos. So, with Mexico, we knew Devin was ready...Our opportunity to film it and bring it back on YouTube, for his people, it was a win for us. It was low-cost, and we were able to do it cheaply."
It started in Mexico, but the locale wasn't important. They were only there initially because California refused to license Devin before his 18th birthday. Conceptually, it was all about control.
"There are a lot of fighters who weren't able to get any juice out of the fight game," Bill says. "There were too many people making decisions, too many people with their hands in their pockets, too much backdoor stuff was going on. And they were the ones getting punched in the head with nothing to show for it.
"We wanted to be able to operate. We didn't want to get put on the shelf. We didn't want to have any misunderstandings with anyone, whether it be a co-promoter or a promoter. Our main goal is getting Devin to the people, and his fanbase keeps getting bigger.
"Some of the best fighters—Floyd, Andre Ward and Mikey Garcia—have been stuck in these long agreements that have dragged on. We didn't want to be in that situation."
Today, Haney's Instagram has more than 335,000 followers. His relationship with Blac Chyna and subsequent beef with 50 Cent have helped. Functionally, it's meant his self-produced YouTube documentary series gets tens of thousands of viewers for every episode, and his early fights have been seen more than a million times.
"Me and Blac Chyna, me and Chyna, we're friends," he says. "A lot of people blew it out of proportion. With that said, she helped me get mainstream. I reached a whole different audience because of that. TMZ. A different world. And that helped me. I picked up a ton of followers and a ton of fans off that whole situation. Of course, I picked up a ton of haters as well."
Until signing with Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Boxing this year, he'd done it all with his own company, Devin Haney Promotions, something unprecedented for a fighter so early in his career.
"I was built on social media," Devin says. "I didn't have a gold medal. I did this on my own. Floyd showed us it was possible. And some other fighters are doing it as well. Mikey Garcia is his own promoter. He's doing it on his own, too. Roy Jones did it as well.
"That's another reason I became my own promoter. I was already promoting myself on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. I never needed a big influencer or corporation to push me. I did it on my own. We have the internet and all these tools to promote ourselves. Back in the old days, they didn't have that. There was word of mouth, going up and hanging up flyers.
"Now you can make a poster and you don't even have to print it out. You can give it directly to 100,000 people on Instagram."
The trip to a boxing gym was supposed to be a harsh lesson for a seven-year-old Devin. Recently relocated to Las Vegas, Bill had gotten yet another phone call about his son fighting. This time, he had to report to the principal's office and address the issue with both the school and his son.
"When I got him in the car, I said, 'You know what, Dev? You think you know how to fight, huh?'" Bill remembers. "So I said, 'I'm going to take you to the boxing gym where there's some other kids who really know how to fight. And we're going to see what you do then.' And he said, 'OK.' No fear. He said, 'OK.' So I took him. I was hoping he was going to get his butt kicked for real."
Instead, Haney took on a karate fighter and knocked him around, leaving one of the poor kid's velcro shoes laying on one side of the room while he hit the mat on the other, face speckled with blood from a busted nose.
"The trainer [former light heavyweight contender Derrick Harmon] told me, 'Your son is a natural,'" Bill says. "He was pretty good on the football field, but no one had ever said that Devin was a natural. That was the first time I'd heard him described like that. After that, we just got to working. I got behind him to turn fighting from a negative into a positive."
When he was eight years old, Devin had his first official amateur bout. He was, as advertised, a natural. But he wasn't always sure it was for him.
"I didn't really like boxing, to tell you the truth," Devin says. "When you're playing football, you've got friends on the team. You're a part of something. Boxing is different. Boxing is lonely. You don't have time for other things. You've got to diet all the time, so you can't go out like other people do. There aren't team banquets in boxing or snacks after the game. Parties with the team. I wanted to do all of that. I just wanted to be a kid.
"But as time passed, I started to fall in love with the sport. When I was about 13, about to turn 14, I made up my mind. I told my dad, 'I'm not losing no more.' He said, 'All right. I'm going to hold you to it, man.'"
He didn't quite manage perfection, but Haney did end up compiling an impressive 130-8 record as an amateur. At 15 and 16, he won U.S. Youth championships, both times defeating fellow prospect and social media sensation Ryan Garcia in the process. Already sparring with top pros like Shawn Porter, he was the favorite to represent the country at the 2016 Summer Olympics before a rules change required participating fighters to be at least 19 years old.
"That was my dream," Devin says. "Coming up on the amateur scene, going to compete in Italy, Russia, Dominican Republic, my dream was to represent the U.S. and win the Olympics. But everybody's path is different. When I found out I couldn't compete, I was mad at first for a little bit. But I decided to stay strong and keep on going. Take it all the way in the pros instead."
His rise has been meteoric. To put it in perspective, Haney has more professional victories than he has had birthdays. Training here and there with a variety of trainers, he's again defied his profession's expectations by refusing to settle down in a single camp or system.
"I want to learn as much as I can from everyone," he says. "That's what makes up the Devin Haney style. A little bit of Roger Mayweather. A little bit of Floyd Senior. A little bit of Virgil Hunter. A little bit of Freddie Roach. I never want to be someone who says, 'I only fight this way. I only fight that way.'
"I'm versatile. I can fight like Roy Jones. I can fight like Mayweather. I can fight like Sugar Ray. And I get compared to them all. I get compared to so many different fighters because I've spent time with so many different trainers."
Along the way, his father has done his best to support his young prodigy. He opened his own Las Vegas boxing gym, The Hit Factory, to provide a dedicated training space, then sold it to help fund Devin's career. He saw glimpses of brilliance throughout the journey, but it wasn't until he saw his son in the ring with the greatest fighter of a generation that Bill truly believed.
"He's always had these crazy moments, but I knew he was going to be a superstar when he sparred Floyd Mayweather. I always knew he was going to be a star. But when you see him in there with a superstar," Bill says, trailing off. "When Floyd talks about getting older, about days he's gone to the gym and been upstaged and thinks about whether he wants to box again—that's Devin. He's one of those guys. When I saw that, that was a very, very big moment."
The session was in the lead-up to Mayweather's final professional fight against MMA superstar Conor McGregor. And though Haney has had legendary sparring dustups with established pros like Porter and Gervonta Davis, this one was special. In some ways, it was one generation passing on the imprimatur of greatness to the next.
"I only sparred with Floyd once," Devin says. "It was a crazy moment. It was a dream come true. When I was in there, it felt like deja vu. Maybe because I had dreamed about it so much. I thank him for giving me the opportunity before he left the game. It gave me the chance to say I've been in the ring with him."
Mayweather isn't the last great fighter Haney hopes to see before he hangs up his gloves and calls it a career.
"One thing that inspired me about working with Devin Haney and the team was their willingness to fight everybody now," Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn told the press while announcing a partnership with Haney. "There is nobody that [Devin] wasn't up for fighting. ... You're talking about mega, megafights that this guy is willing to jump into at the age of 20. Quite incredible.
"What Bill Haney has done, what Devin Haney Promotions has done, is to get to a point in their career without the help and without the need of a big promoter. They've done that completely off the ground. They've developed the Devin Haney brand, and I'm pleased that Bill reached out to us and said, 'OK, we've reached here. We want to go to the sky. And to do that, we need a great partner and we need a great broadcaster.' And we're honored that we've been given that job."
Saturday's fight against Moran is just the start. Bigger things are to come. Teofimo Lopez, Luke Campbell, even the great Vasyl Lomachenko—Haney is ready for all challengers right now. And he believes now is the time for those fights if fans want to see a competitive bout. Because the window for anyone touching him is closing. Quickly.
"One thing I can say is I'm far from my prime," Devin says. "Those guys better get me now. That's going to be their best chance. I'm only 20 years old. My body is still maturing. I'm only going to get stronger. I'm only going to get better. You better get me now."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathansnowden.
Ray Markarian contributed to the reporting for this story. Follow him on Twitter: @RayMarkarian