LAS VEGAS -- Faced with his stiffest competition yet, Devin Haney came of age with the best performance of his career.
Haney, 23, retained his WBC lightweight title with a unanimous decision victory over Joseph Diaz Jr. on Saturday at MGM Grand Garden Arena.
Haney won over the judges (117-111, 116-112, 117-111) with superior activity, a sharp jab and clean punching. Most of all, Haney dictated the pace. He consistently beat Diaz to the punch, and when Haney was pressed onto the ropes, he usually pivoted out of danger and onto the attack.
But Haney (27-0, 15 KOs) didn't cruise to victory after he jumped out to a commanding lead. He was forced to overcome some challenging moments, particularly in the final round after Diaz (32-2-1, 15 KOs) connected on a bundle of overhand lefts that he loaded up on.
Many of those shots met their mark, but Haney stood his ground. He was able to fire off a left to the body followed by a right hand to the head that kept Diaz at bay. The result was another exciting fight for Haney following criticism earlier in his career that he played it too safe in the ring.
"He said he was going to bring the dog out of me, and that's exactly what he did," said Haney, a Las Vegas resident. "He hit me with some good shots. They say I have no chin, but I think I showed it in this fight."
Haney's punch resistance was questioned after his last performance, a May victory over Jorge Linares. Haney was buckled toward the end of Round 10 that night and was forced to tough out the championship rounds.
On Saturday, Haney was again in danger late in the bout but said he was never hurt.
"We got into some great exchanges," Haney said. "I wasn't shy to exchange with him. I want to entertain the fans."
Haney accomplished that goal and moved one step closer to his ultimate mission: the undisputed lightweight championship. George Kambosos Jr., who upset Teofimo Lopez one week ago in New York, was ringside in Las Vegas to scout his potential next foe.
"I saw many things," said Kambosos, who owns four 135-pound titles. "I've been studying this guy for many years. I know exactly what I have to do if that fight is next."
Kambosos, 28, also mentioned other potential opponents and said he was looking forward to watching Sunday's lightweight contest between Gervonta Davis and Isaac Cruz in Los Angeles, followed by the Vasiliy Lomachenko-Richard Commey clash next Saturday in New York.
"It comes down to what excites me the most," Kambosos said.
Whomever Kambosos chooses, he made one aspect clear: The fight will be in his homeland, Australia.
"I'll go to Jupiter if I got to," Haney said. "Come on, George Kambosos, let's do it for all the belts. The real undisputed [champion]. Let's do it next. No more dispute with who's the WBC champion."
On Saturday, the three judges were in agreement over the first eight rounds of the bout: Haney won all but Rounds 4 and 7. He did so with a pinpoint jab that controlled distance and used all of his seven-inch reach advantage.
Haney also was far more aggressive than usual. He applied pressure, but when Diaz attempted to fight on the inside, Haney took a step back and fired a combination.
Finally, in Round 4, the fight broke out as Diaz, 28, was able to assert himself. He made it ugly in the clinch and let loose with chopping punches to the body.
Haney was able to fend Diaz off once more, but Diaz broke through again in the seventh. He punished Haney with a smattering of sweeping left hands that connected square on the chin. The adjustment: Diaz waited for Haney to throw a right hand then countered over the top.
But just like he did following the fourth, Haney once again found his footing. By the time Diaz unleashed his final flurry in Round 12, he needed a knockout.
"I was trying to dictate to the body, trying to break him down," Diaz said. "I ended up coming short ... but it was an entertaining fight for the fight fans. ... I'm just going to learn from it and adapt from it and just get better."
As Diaz added, "This is not the end of me; I still want to challenge the best. I feel good at 135 pounds. I think I'm going to stay at this weight."
In defeat, Diaz raised his stock, according to Kambosos, and it's plain to see why. Diaz pushed Haney to the brink and never stopped coming forward. Diaz did so despite a badly swollen face and a cut over his left eye. Most of all, Diaz has proved he is truly willing to fight anyone, a rarity in the fight game.
The Southern Californian entered the year a 130-pound champion but lost his title in February after he failed to make weight. He fought to a draw with Shavkat Rakhimov, then Diaz defeated contender Javier Fortuna in July in his maiden voyage at 135 pounds.
With the spirited effort against Haney, Diaz will surely land more meaningful fights. But Haney is in line for even bigger opportunities.
The breakout 2021 campaign proved that Haney can box as well as he fights and that he is worth the tremendous hype that has swirled around him for years.
"Every time he steps in there, it's a performance beyond his years," said Haney's promoter, Eddie Hearn.
While Kambosos heads to Los Angeles to grab an up-close look at Davis, Hearn returns to England with an eye on May and the prospect of a Kambosos-Haney tilt in Australia that could crown the young boxer king of the lightweights.
"I'm going to press for these [marquee] fights for as long as I can, but if these guys just won't fight me, then I'll go to 140 [pounds]," Haney said. "I want to test myself. I want to fight the so-called best fighters out there. I'm not ducking or dodging anybody."