News October 2007

28.10.07 Observer Hatton article

Sunday October 28, 2007 - The Observer

Ricky Hatton

Ricky Hatton leans into the heavy, sweat-soaked bag hanging by a thick chain from the gym ceiling. His short, white, muscled arms drive with vicious intent from all angles at the imagined head, shoulders, elbows and ribs of Floyd Mayweather Jnr never more than a few inches from his own. He will do this every day, preparing for the scariest night of his life. On that night, Saturday 8 December, in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the unbearably gaudy capital of the boxing world, he will get to do it for real against the undisputed, unbeaten world welterweight champion, the boxer regarded as the finest of his time.

The fight ranks alongside, and in expectation even surpasses, the great modern British invasions of American turf: Ken Buchanan against Roberto Duran; Lloyd Honeyghan against Don Curry; Lennox Lewis against Evander Holyfield; Lewis-Tyson; Naseem Hamed against Kevin Kelley. If he does what few expect him to do, if he stands Mayweather on his head, Hatton will vault all of those to be considered in the very upper reaches of his sport. Some will declare him the best of them all - and, given the quality of his opponent, that would not be an outrageous claim to make.

But, for now, few people outside his inner circle (which takes in most of Manchester) think Hatton will beat Mayweather. Indeed, those who regard him as a one-dimensional fighter fear he will be humiliated. For the biggest joker in a serious business, it is a laughable notion. And laugh is what Hatton does often. We're chatting in the torture chamber he calls a gym, Betta Bodies in Denton on the outskirts of the city, and he could hardly be more relaxed. He gives no impression of nerves - although those will come on fight night, no question. But Hatton handles fear better than most. And he figures Mayweather will be the fighter with the most doubts crowding his head when the bell goes.

'He's always had too much talent,' Hatton says of Mayweather. It sounds a curious comment but I know what he means. He thinks the American is so good he has never been in a fight that has asked him hard questions. 'He's not that exciting to watch but his talent is just so good, his speed, his defence, his boxing ability ... that's all well and good as long as you've got the space to use it. I think I'm his worst nightmare. I really do. Because I've been able to watch him for years now, because he's been at the top for so long.'

Hatton's trainer, Billy Graham, who has been with him throughout his professional career, puts it this way: 'Ricky's very seasoned. He's been in more situations than Floyd. He's been knocked down, he's been cut, he's been winded, he's been rocked. It's going to stand him in good stead. Ricky's not shop-worn but he's battle-hardened. There's a big difference.'

Hatton and Mayweather are the two best fighters at or around 10st 7lb that boxing has had for a very long time. And they could hardly be more different in nearly every respect. That is why their collision is one for both the hard core and the vaguely interested, a stay-up-all-night special; such is the contrast in styles, attitudes and personalities that it is shaping up as a fight that transcends even their abilities in the ring.

'Pretty Boy' has the bigger reputation, the bigger pay cheques and the bigger mouth. Mayweather has never been seriously troubled in 38 fights over 11 years, in gathering world titles at five weights, not even last May, when he toyed with the once-great Oscar De La Hoya. He has also beaten, with ease, acclaimed champions such as Carlos Baldomir, Zab Judah, Sharmba Mitchell, Arturo Gatti and Jose Luis Castillo. Only Castillo, in their 2002 rematch at lightweight, has run him close.

The 'Hitman', meanwhile, talks with the quiet and dignified authority of a man who has been an unbeaten professional for 10 years, a world champion at 10 stone for six years. The memorable high point, one that Hatton will need to replicate to trouble Mayweather, arrived in front of his fanatical Manchester public in June 2005, when he forced the outstanding Kostya Tszyu to quit at the end of the penultimate round. The Russia-born Australian got very old very quickly that night.

It was after the Tszyu victory that Hatton's career, hitherto shaped mainly in the north of England, took a dramatic shift. When he split from the promoter Frank Warren two years ago he decamped to the United States. They have since resolved some of their differences, although Warren recently won a legal action that resulted in the first version of the fighter's ghosted autobiography being withdrawn.

In America, meanwhile, Hatton earned $12m (£6m) for fights against three so-so names - but he had only one opponent in his sights: Mayweather. To that end, he briefly moved up a division to welterweight, not altogether convincingly in May 2006 when squeezing past Luiz Collazo, an awkward if limited opponent. He settled back at light-welter and looked at his relentless best in his last fight, burying his glove deep under the ribs of Castillo (the one man to give Mayweather a proper argument) to finish it in the fourth. That stoppage win in June convinced promoters that Hatton-Mayweather would work. And why not? Alongside HBO, the two main promoters are De La Hoya (possibly Hatton's next opponent in the UK next summer) and Mayweather.

The expectation for the contest has been welling up like a storm since they signed the contracts in July. That was two months after Mayweather had announced with regal finality that he was walking away from boxing. He never really retired, though; the money on offer for a Hatton showdown was always going to be too tempting for a star athlete who measures his worth in bling and, as he confirmed at the time, 'I'm in shape, a real champion's never outta shape.' How Hatton (who goes in and out of shape like a bean bag) fares in making Mayweather quit for good will depend very much on the countless hours of work he does on this humble bag in Denton.

To watch Hatton hone his skills is to understand not just the unglamorous agony of boxing but the finely tuned mechanics of the art. For minutes on end, he will stay transfixed on the target, lungs sucking at the stale air as he props forward at 80 degrees or so to the horizontal. He is prevented from toppling over not just by his proximity to the bag, which weighs about 100lb, but by an invisible force: his own certainty of where his feet and body should be. His footwork is neat, nimble. His shoulders roll and ripple. He never strays out of position, shifting to the rhythm of the smoothly swaying weight, right to left then back again, over and over, his wicked punches carving craters in the worn leather. Above the revved-up music that bounces off the grimy walls, you can hear the spare air hissing out through gaps in the stitching. You would not want to be a big brown bag in Manchester.

It is his body punching that has worn down most of his 43 opponents. He makes it look simple, but it requires split-second timing and nerve to work through a fighter's defence, to get the angles of delivery right and to land with maximum leverage. It is riskier and more complex than conventional counter-punching or orthodox left-lead-right-cross boxing.

Mayweather's defence is probably the toughest of the lot to unravel, as Hatton admits. But he can't wait to show how it is done. This is Hatton's art: through workrate and weight of punch, varying the angles of approach and the pattern of his punching, he makes fighters forget their own skills, their battle plan. Instead, they have to respond to his agenda.

There is only one way to get this good: years of bone-wearying work in the gym - while all your mates are down the pub. Hatton, as much as he would love to be larging it up with his many friends, has a fierce work ethic. And, watching him prepare for Mayweather (who believes Hatton is a fat waster with rudimentary boxing skills, or at least says so in public), it is clear he is blessed with one gift above others: great balance.

A lot of people reckon the renowned Mancunian boozer-geezer is the best balanced boxer in the business: with a pint of Guinness in one hand and a bacon butty in the other. This is no throwaway joke: it is the Hatton conundrum. He is the most engaging contradiction in the fight game, a dedicated, world-class champion with a thirst for work as strong as his addiction to the sort of diet that even his late, well padded but eventually teetotal pal Bernard Manning must have thought extraordinary.

Hatton tires of talking about it now and makes no excuses for it. I think the criticism unsettled him at first, but he laughs it off. When we meet, he looks trim but has enough lard left to shift to allow him to train hard without losing strength or 'diving at the weight', as fighters say. So, he is happy to call himself 'Ricky Fatton'. He is proud of a blown-up, framed newspaper photograph hanging in the gym of him and Manning, poolside with drinks in hand, looking like blubbery twin brothers on a jolly. Is this denial, or Manc cheek? Is he playing to an entirely different audience?

Hatton enjoys nights out with Wayne Rooney, who carries his world title belts into the ring for him. He is a kindred spirit of Andrew 'Fredalo' Flintoff. The footballing maverick Joey Barton is a close friend. Girls who shout to him in the street would like to be as close as it gets. Hatton loves laughing, loving and Manchester City. Before he got serious about boxing, he had trials and could have followed his father and grandfather on to the club's books. And, in the one vaguely celeb-style gesture he has ever made, he has a box there. This irks his brother, Matthew (himself a fine boxer), not because he thinks Ricky is getting carried away with himself; Matt is a United supporter.

Ricky is no movie star, no prima donna, no rich git, but he moves through his northern constituency like the happiest prince there ever was.

He has always been content. Until not so long ago, he was living at home with his parents in their comfortable home in Hyde in east Manchester - and still lives near enough to pop around for a cup of tea with his mum, Carol. 'I'll never leave Manchester,' Ricky has said many times, and you believe him. His dad, Ray, who runs a carpet business, had a few pubs on the nearby and considerably more robust estate of Hattersley and Ricky grew up knowing a thing or two about physical confrontation. It was, as they say, a no-nonsense part of town. Still is. I asked Ray once if he had ever fought. 'Only at chucking-out time,' he said.

Ricky regularly goes back there, where he is as close to God as many of the residents have come. His son by a long-term relationship is the pride of his life and a regular at his training sessions. Hatton is that old-fashioned phenomenon: a working-class champion who does not forget his roots and would not be allowed to by the many people close to him. The loyalty gives him strength, just as Barry McGuigan fed off the raucous roar of the King's Hall in Belfast, and Joe Calzaghe has always felt more comfortable boxing in front of his Welsh supporters. Tellingly, perhaps, it is not something Mayweather has ever bothered about. His buzz comes from universal rather than local acclaim - and maybe is all the more shallow for that.

A young couple are ushered into the Betta Bodies gym for a photo with their hero. (I can tell you, as someone who has been thrown out of gyms by Frank Bruno and Naseem Hamed, it is unusual for boxers preparing for a big fight to let outsiders anywhere near their workplace, although it will be a no-go area closer to fight time.) They cannot stop smiling. An older man, in his sixties, is here for a photo too - except his wife has used up all the space on his digital camera and he will have to come back another day. 'I've come bloody miles!' he says, in mock complaint. The gym rocks with laughter. It's no problem. Ricky signs his autobiography for him, and the old boy is as chuffed as a schoolkid. 'Isn't he the nicest bloke in the world?' he says on his way out.

Hatton doesn't have an entourage; he has a city.

'There's no better feeling in the world,' he says, 'than when I walk in a pub, or a nightclub or a bar or a supermarket, anywhere, and you see people out the corner of your eye and they're going, "Hey, there's Ricky Hatton. Isn't he a good lad, coming for a pint with us in here?" It makes you feel proud. I'd feel like slitting my wrists if I walked in a place and I heard someone go, "There's Ricky Hatton. Who's he think he is? Look at him. He's full of it." I'd be devastated.

'Fame has never been high on my agenda. I always laugh at people who strive to be famous because all you do is get mithered to death by everyone. It is nice at times but, if I had a chance of winning my world titles and making a living for myself and no one knowing me, I think I'd much rather have that seven days a week. I'm a private person, but I've got used to it.'

As has Mayweather; he can't get enough attention. However, he didn't quite know how to handle Hatton when they reached Manchester on their recent promotional trip and he was lampooned in a performance by the local boy that would not have looked out of place in any northern club.

For a start, Mayweather didn't quite 'get' the soundtrack of 'Walking in a Winter Wonderland' as they stood on the podium. The rap-hipster obviously thought it a little naff. He clowned, went nose to nose in an attempted face-off, put his feet up on the desk, arms behind his head and generally looked out of place. Hatton then took him apart.

'Thank you all for coming,' he said. 'It's great to be back in Manchester. We've had a long tour, a very tiring tour. But it's great to come back and see my friends, see my family ... Floyd, will you stop touching me dick, you poof.'

At which point the Sky Sports voice-over commentator went into embarrassment overdrive. 'This is live,' he whispered. 'We apologise for the language at the moment. Hatton being put under a lot of pressure by Mayweather, with the taunting that's gone on for the past week. We do apologise.'

That wasn't going to stop Hatton.

He continued: 'I've missed my son, my six-year-old son, for a week, but I probably haven't missed him quite as much as you would probably think ... because I've had the good fortune to spend the full week with another fucking six-year-old.'

It was game, set and match to the Manc. His public loved it. But, as Hatton reveals, it didn't end there.

'Muhammad Ali was the one who started it,' he says, 'winding up his opponents, but he always did it with a twinkle in his eye and a bit of class about him. Mayweather is just insulting from start to finish. In Manchester, I spent the whole press conference taking the piss out of him - and he was fuming. He stormed out of the Manchester Town Hall shouting, "No! No! No!", which to me shows that it backfired a bit, because he didn't win the game. I just think he's insecure - and I think he's as scared as he is confident.

'I knew he was going to get up on the stage and do the bad-mouthing and talking, what he does. I was surprised, though, when the cameras went off and there was no press there, no TV or anything, how he continued to be disrespectful and be an absolute so-and-so. I said, "All right pal, there's no cameras here, no TV, I don't see what you're trying to prove?' There's one thing selling tickets and putting bums on seats but you've got to have a little bit of respect, surely. I haven't seen no sign of it yet.' The fight may well have been won and lost in that brief exchange. Boxing is such a mental sport, in every sense, that fighters sometimes never recover from losing a psychological encounter beforehand with an opponent.

Neither Hatton nor Mayweather has lost as a professional, but there the similarity ends. Mayweather, from Grand Rapids, Michigan via Hollywood, Vegas and the bright lights of the celebrity village, is a turbulent 30-year-old genius who has never been stretched in the ring or questioned by an army of sycophants outside of it. He has a record label called Philthy Rich Records. He appeared on the recent series of ABC's Dancing with the Stars - and sacrificed serious gym time for this fight until he and his partner, Karina Smirnoff, were voted off as late as mid-October; it echoed the stunts of Roy Jones Jnr, when he was at the top of his game and would play a full game of basketball on the morning of a world-title defence.

Like Jones, Mayweather talks about himself in the third person and has had a fractious relationship with his father. They are fighters who seem to embrace chaos. Floyd's father, also Floyd, whom he sacked as his trainer, was a world-class welterweight; his uncle Roger, his current trainer, who no longer talks to Floyd Snr, won two world titles; another uncle, Jeff, boxed too. Pretty Boy's fighting pedigree is unquestioned - certainly by the man himself. 'I would have beaten up Sugar Ray [Robinson],' he said earlier this year. He calls De La Hoya, who won world titles at six weights, 'a pussy'.

In nearly every part of their make-up - physical, mental, emotional - Hatton and Mayweather clash. It is the most intriguing match-up in boxing since loud and brilliant Muhammad Ali fought monosyllabic and menacing Joe Frazier. Except, in the ring, Hatton is Frazier-like in style - and Mayweather would tell you how much he resembles the boxing god that was Ali. He doesn't.

Yet, for all the bonhomie, for all the goodwill and affection Hatton engenders here and in America, the questions will not go away: is Ricky drinking, eating and laughing his way out of a boxing legacy? Mayweather observes: 'Legacy? What shit? He ain't got no legacy! They can hand-pick opponents for you - you'd be unbeaten. I'm a legend.'

There again, they differ. Hatton needs no bluster. He is respectful of his opponents yet doesn't lack for self-belief. It is a combination as lethal as any one-two because it is genuine. I have seen most of his fights. Not all of them have been classics, but very few have been dull - and in every contest he has prevailed with modesty. Hatton is also a much better technical boxer than Mayweather is giving him credit for. That is what the challenger is banking on. 'There's no more honest place in sport than the boxing ring,' Hatton says. 'You can't tell lies in there, you can't pretend.'

What, then, to make of Hatton's stubborn love of the high life when not in training? Is he not kidding himself when he lets his weight balloon up to and past 12 stone? In his defence, his vices, so far, have had no effect whatsoever on his ability to box like a demented dervish for as long as any contest demands of him. He has had 43 of them, all wins, some of the major ones not that easy. He is a total energy fighter. This is a joy to his friends, annoying to his opponents, very welcome to the promoters and TV companies - and perplexing for Billy Graham.

'It doesn't do him any good, put it that way,' his trainer says. 'He knows I don't like it but, I've got to be honest with you, he's been that way ever since I've known him. He does everything a million miles an hour. He'll be really disciplined when he's in training. When he's trying to learn something, right the way through his career, he's been dead enthusiastic. When the fight's over, he wants to live. He's really sociable. He wants to have fun. He's greedy. He loves a drink. And you're not going to change him.'

The man in charge of keeping the fighter honest at the dinner table and lifting the metal is Kerry Kayes, a former bodybuilder whose weights room is through a door to Hatton's Denton gym. 'He's extraordinarily strong, and dedicated,' Kayes says. 'Strength training can make you faster and more powerful in the ring if you do it properly. And that's what Ricky's done. He's quick. His muscles react to give him extra strength. He can train to failure [of the muscle] very accurately. Do it wrong, and you can injure yourself. Ricky knows how to do it. He's punching harder than he ever has before.'

Nevertheless, when he winds down after a fight, he savages the carbs and the drink, sometimes for days on end. I have drunk with Flintoff; he can put it away and, remarkably, keep his wits about him. People who have been out on the town with Hatton say it takes a lot to get him 'totally arseholed'. One friend told me: 'I've seen him put away 20 pints in a night.' But Graham sees the upside of Hatton's excesses.

'What it will do, his lifestyle, it will stop longevity,' he says. 'But the last thing I want for a fighter, especially Ricky Hatton, is longevity. Longevity does you harm in this business. So I'm not worried about that. When they say he won't last that long? Great. You know what I mean?'

If Graham had his way, this would be Ricky's last fight, win or lose. He has been with him since he was a kid. He cares about him and he has seen him come through some hard nights. How long can Hatton keep punishing himself?

'Well,' Graham replies, pausing for several seconds, 'when you've achieved what you can achieve and you've got enough money, I think ... get out. He's got a life, a good future when he's finished, outside of boxing, but that's up to him. I'd be happy, I'd be content if he beats Mayweather and walked away. But he's at his best now. So to ask a man to give up what he loves when he's in peak form, that's too big an ask. That isn't going to happen.'

Mayweather reflects the values and fashions of his culture; Hatton stands up for his, sometimes on wobbly legs. He is a product of Britain's lager generation, and proud of it. Like Rooney, Flintoff and scores of others. It is their blessing, and their curse: they are so bloody good at getting wasted, fit young athletes at or near the height of their powers and popularity, that they have been able to get away with it.

The common denominator is: none of them is going to change, whatever their handlers or the media say. There is something comfortingly 'normal' about their attitude. They are throwbacks, doing it on their own terms, admittedly by risking a lot, but putting their lives in a perspective they have worked out for themselves, not one imposed by overweight members of the commentariat.

Whatever happens against Mayweather, Hatton cares only about what his family, friends and fans think. 'There's no airs and graces about me,' he says, 'they know that. Although things are very different for me, I haven't changed a great deal. My feet are still on the floor. I don't doubt they love my fighting style, but they probably look at me as a mate. That's priceless. That's worth more than any money or any belt you could win.'

As he rips another shuddering left into the bag, I see not a drunken lout on the razzle. Nor do I see a celebrity. There is no pretension in the uppercut, no faking in the hook. I see a fighting man, honest to the bone. And the conviction grows that he just might do it in Vegas. He just might, the smiling prince of Manchester.

How to beat Floyd Mayweather

'Whoever he boxes against, Floyd Mayweather is the favourite,' says Jim Watt, the former WBC lightweight champion who is now a big-fight pundit for Sky Sports. 'But the good news for Ricky Hatton is that he already has the style and the skills to cause him trouble. He's aggressive and he's always moving forward, so he doesn't need to change the way he fights.'

Step 1: attack, attack, attack

'Ricky can't allow it to be a boxing match,' says Watt. 'He's got to go in chin down, hands up, and throw plenty of punches. He's got to take the punches that come his way and drive through them. He will take a lot of bumps, but he's got a good chin and his best chance in this fight is to grind down Mayweather.'

Step 2: focus on the body

'Floyd Mayweather is so fast that he can pull his head out of the way in the blink of an eye and he will come back at you with a counter. But he can't do the same with the mid-section. Ricky needs to stay close, working the body every chance he gets, and land a perfect shot like he did when he beat Jose Luis Castillo earlier in the year.'

Step 3: cut off the ring

'Mayweather's going to keep moving and pick off Ricky from range - he's not bothered about knocking people out or entertaining anyone; he's happy to win on points. Ricky has got to cut down the ring and keep him occupied, probably for the full 12 rounds. Ricky's got to stay on top of him and do it with workrate and strength.'

Ricky's big mates

Wayne Rooney

Manchester's football factions came together when City fan Hatton asked the United striker to carry his IBF world welterweight title belt into the ring before his fight with Jose Luis Castillo in June. They met through Rooney's cousin Ritchie, who boxed with the Hitman at youth level. Hatton threatened to punch the footballer if he dropped the belt and, he says, the England star had been pestering him for some time to let him into the gym: 'He keeps joking that he's going to come for some sparring with me. He wants to make the fight for the belt but I'm not sure it will fit around his waist!'

Bernard Manning

Another Mancunian, the king of the politically incorrect one-liner regularly provided entertainment for Hatton's infamous post-bout parties. Hatton missed the funeral of his fellow City fan in June due to his impending fight with Castillo, although he did send a personal message. The memory of Manning still remains with Hatton: the boxer uses a photo of the two looking oversized, slumped on a sofa and wearing only white Y-fronts as a motivational tool to get in shape for a fight.

Andrew Flintoff

The boxer joined forces with the cricketer for another burly combination on Sky Sports' Cricket AM show last summer. After being put through his paces by Hatton and his trainers, Flintoff was told he could not leave the gym until he had sparred with the Hitman over five rounds. Flintoff later asked Hatton to be a guest speaker at a benefit dinner. The pair are also famous for enjoying a drink. 'I thought I was pretty high-class when it comes to enjoying myself, but Freddie is in the Premiership, too,' Hatton has said.

The Gallagher brothers

Raised only a few miles away from Hatton, the Oasis stars share his devotion to Man City. Noel has attended a number of Hatton's fights and reportedly cried when he sensationally dismissed Kostya Tszyu in 2005; at a concert at the City of Manchester Stadium, Liam once sent the crowd delirious after he dedicated 'The Bell Will Ring' to 'the Hitman'. Hatton, who lists the band's 'Little by Little' as one of his top five songs , has used the squabbling siblings' music to transform his dressing room into a 'makeshift zoo' before a fight.

Tim Ridgway

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