Ricky Hatton will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York in 2024. For a new generation of boxing fans, they will never quite be able to appreciate just what a big deal ‘The Hitman’ was. On paper he is a two-weight world champion who fought the very best boxers of his era, even if he didn’t always beat them. A true great of British boxing.
But Hatton was so much more. A cultural phenomenon. A lightning rod for a golden era of the domestic sport. A folk tale still told on the casino floors of Las Vegas. In the time between the retirement of Lennox Lewis and the advent of the era of Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury, Ricky Hatton was British boxing. As much a giant of the sport as the heavyweights who bookended his pomp.
When Lewis hung up the gloves in 2004, boxing in this country needed a shot in the arm. Joe Calzaghe was unbeaten as WBO super middleweight champion but he remained an aficionado's choice at that stage. The next generation of heavyweights weren’t up to the task of filling Lewis’ immense shoes. Danny Williams stopped Mike Tyson but the hiding he took from Vitali Klitschko brought him back down to Earth. The supporting cast of Matt Skelton, Audley Harrison and Michael Sprott were never going to become world champions either.
With Lewis’ departure, the glory years of Prince Naseem Hamed, Frank Bruno, Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn finally seemed to be over. Enter: ‘The Hitman’.
There was something happening in Manchester. A young, exciting light welterweight filling the MEN Arena to the tune of 20,000 fans before he’d even fought for a world title. Well, not a proper one. Even promoter Frank Warren would struggle to keep a straight face while arguing Hatton’s long-forgotten WBU belt was anything more than set dressing.
The belt might not have been real but the fights were. Former world champions like Freddie Pendleton and Vince Phillips stepped into the lion’s den, as did former title challengers like Ben Tackie and Michael Stewart. Double-tough domestic talent like Eamon Magee did too. But they all walked out losers as Hatton built a fortress next to Manchester Victoria train station. A loud, raucous fight kingdom of which the light welterweight star was king.
It was in this fortress tha Hatton would kickstart his world class career with what remains his greatest victory. IBF light welterweight champion Kostya Tsyzu had not lost in eight years. The lineal champion had been the undisputed ruler before boxing politics saw the WBC and WBA belts stripped.
Tsyzu was considered perhaps the greatest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, he had destroyed all in his wake on the way to Manchester. There was the infamous “chicken dance” destruction of Zab Judah, the chastening hiding he gave the great Julio Cesar Chavez, the one-sided beatings of Sharmba Mitchell. Few experts gave Hatton a chance, despite home turf advantage.
But Hatton would not be denied on that June night in 2005 and neither would his roaring supporters. Tsyzu was swarmed and overwhelmed. When conventional means wouldn’t work he snuck upon Hatton with low blows. So Hatton gave him the most blatant low blow in boxing history in return. Hatton would take over the action and pound Tsyzu into submission, when the champion refused to get off his stool to start the 12th round. ‘The Hitman’ dropped to his knees and rejoiced. He was the IBF and The Ring champion of the world.
This victory lit the blue touchpaper for boxing in Britain. Amir Khan had increased interest in the sport by landing a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics the year before as the sole Team GB boxer. But now the pro game had a figurehead and, for the first time since Benn and Eubank duked it out for Britain’s affections, Britain’s favourite fighter was not a heavyweight.
Ricky himself would tell you he could get up there between fights. A diet of beer, junk food and a self-confessed 12 cups of tea a day had him walking around near the heavyweight limit. But it was part of why people bought into him. This wasn’t a Greek god stepping down from Mount Olympus to grace us with his presence, an aloof air the likes of Lewis had always worn well. This was your mate Ricky from down the pub. A local lad made good. But now his locality had expanded from the boozers and boxing gyms of Hyde to every living room in the country. Ricky was ours, and we were Ricky’s.
His world title reign saw him break out of the confines of the MEN arena. Suddenly, Hattonmania was a national phenomenon. ‘The Hitman’ stopped WBA champion Carlos Maussa in Sheffield in his next fight to unify the titles. This electric end to a year where he’d also stopped Tsyzu helped Ricky land The Ring Fighter of the Year award. Amazingly, the Mancunian was the first British winner of the award in its long history.
Hatton had not only become British boxing’s foremost icon, but his popularity had brought others up with him. Calzaghe had caught fire with crowds too, particularly when he wrought one of the greatest one-sided dominations of all time on Jeff Lacy in 2006. Khan’s pro career was taking off too while the supporting cast of heavyweights like Skelton, Williams and Sprott were regulars on ITV. In the years that followed, the likes of David Haye, Gavin Rees, Junior Witter and Enzo Maccarinelli would walk through the door Hatton opened and become world champions themselves.
While the scene was swelling in his homeland, Hatton took off for pastures new. America would be conquered and the travelling fans made sure it was done in style. Hatton knocked down WBA welterweight champion Luis Collazo ten seconds into their Boston battle, roared on by thousands of Brits that had made the trip. The move up in weight seemed to slow Hatton down as the fight went on and he held on in a tough last round for a narrow victory on points.
Boxing fans travelling to the States en masse for the latest big Ricky Hatton occasion became a boxing tradition. Las Vegas grew accustomed to reverberating with the sounds of ‘Walking in a Hatton wonderland…”. Sunburnt out-of-towners in Manchester City kits became as much a part of the strip as the roulette tables and neon-lit skyline.
Hatton’s heroes cheered him on through a decision win over Juan Urango for his old IBF light welterweight title, stripped from him originally for moving to welterweight. They roared him on through a career-best body-shot knockout of the great Jose Luis Castillo. Vegas was now Hatton’s new kingdom. An MEN-away-from-home. Such was the confidence of Hatton, backed by his fanbase, he elected to take on the best fighter on the planet; WBC welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather.
Over 30,000 British fans made their way to the States to watch Hatton face his tallest order since the Tsyzu win two-and-a-half years before. It was a complete British invasion. Las Vegas itself fulfilled the prophecy of the song and became a ‘Hatton Wonderland’. But that vast throng of supporters could not fight for Ricky. He had to do the hard bit on his own.
His challenge was creditable but futile. Mayweather looked at ease under the pressure. Referee Tony Weeks didn’t help. The jumpy official broke up any sort of inside fighting exchanges, taking away the chief weapon of ‘The Hitman’. Unsettled by the poor officiating, Hatton resorted to trying too hard. Gone was the head movement and coordinated attacks. Perhaps too fired-up by his buoyant fans, Hatton bore forward trying to land every punch in the book on Mayweather, who was artful in evading the blows.
The most enduring image of the fight is Hatton copping a vicious short right hook and his head colliding with the turnbuckle pad. It’s forgotten by many that he actually rose from that knockdown, mouth bloodied, before being put down again. For the first time in 44 professional fights, Ricky Hatton had tasted defeat.
There was no shame in coming up short against a fighter who was and would remain the undefeated king of his era. There was also no waning in the ebullient support ‘The Hitman’ attracted as a result. In fact, those supporters would turn out in droves for his homecoming the following year.
Ricky Hatton packed out the City of Manchester Stadium (now known for sponsorship reasons as the Etihad Stadium) to the tune of a then-record 55,000 fans on his comeback. There were warning signs this wasn’t the same Ricky, as he was rocked by contender Juan Lazcano on the way to a wide unanimous decision win. But the fans were in too celebratory a mood to notice. Their boy was back home and back in the winner’s enclosure.
Defying those who thought the Mayweather defeat had put him firmly into his post-prime, Hatton entered perhaps his greatest performance since Tsyzu in his next fight. Brooklyn stylist Paulie Malignaggi was pounded into a stoppage defeat inside 11 rounds back in Las Vegas, as the travelling Hatton contingent once again cheered their man on. But there were clues to Hatton’s decline. Not in the note-perfect in-ring display, but in the Manchester man’s pre-fight admission he would retire if he lost. Instead, he set up a fight with the winner of Manny Pacquiao vs Oscar De La Hoya.
Unfortunately for Hatton, Pacquiao won that fight in brutally one-sided fashion, stopping a tired and weight-drained De La Hoya in eight rounds. If Hatton was fazed, he didn’t show it. Neither did the 25,000 Brits who made the trip hoping for Ricky’s redemption. Pacquiao wasn’t seen as the sort of cautious, evasive fighter Mayweather was. It was expected he’d stand and trade, perhaps playing into the hands of the Hyde warrior.
In the end, ‘Pacman’ did trade. But with more sharpness and more power at his disposal, that was bad news for his opponent. Hatton was knocked out cold in two rounds. A violent full stop on one of the great British careers, or so it appeared. Hatton retired in the aftermath, heartbroken and humiliated. Though his fans still stood by his side, the fighter himself felt he had let them down.
Hatton was as good as his word at first. He threw himself into training fighters at his gym. Ricky argued he didn’t need the ring and the ring didn’t need him. It is true that he had retired with no shame. Losing only to the two greatest fighters of his era and beating a third in Tsyzu was representative of a superb career. A two-weight world champion with some incredible nights under his belt, the time felt right to step away.
But something nagged at Hatton over his three-year stint on the sidelines. Something he would try to exorcise in the ring. Hatton suffered with depression and addiction issues in his absence. He was not the first great fighter to try and replace the ring buzz with an artificial one. But the motivation of seeking a boxing comeback helped him get into shape and put aside his substance issues. Living well again, ‘The Hitman’ felt the time was right to return.
In 2012, Hatton returned to where our journey began. The MEN Arena in Manchester would host his comeback fight against former WBA champion Vyacheslav Senchenko. It is a fight Hatton would have rampaged through in his pomp. But the Ukrainian was not in England to be the foil in a happy ending. After a bright start, Hatton was broken down and stopped in nine rounds. In front of his own people and against a fighter a level below Mayweather, Pacquiao and the best version of Hatton himself, this defeat stung the most.
Hatton retired again and stayed on the straight and narrow, assembling a fine stable of boxers under his tutelage. But still something was missing. A type of vindication perhaps. But then boxing moved into a new era. Exhibition fights featuring returning legends became commonplace. Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr, Julio Cesar Chavez and Evander Holyfield returned with varying success. One such comebacking icon caught Ricky’s eye. A fighter he’d long idolised and had hoped to fight during his active career; Marco Antonio Barrera.
An exhibition fight was made between the two men last year. It took place at the former MEN Arena in Manchester. Where else?
In a typically-humourous nod to his age and his troubles, Hatton was led out by a pair of models playing nurses while walking with a zimmer frame. But he needed no such support in the ring. Just the familiar roar of the Manchester crowd. Hatton and Barrera turned the clock back, putting on a thrilling and nostalgic display that made one wonder how the fight could have gone in their prime. There was no official winner scored on the night, but both men came out looking like victors. A fine and fun night for boxing fans and redemption for Ricky. Finally, redemption.
It is likely British boxing wouldn’t be where it is without Ricky Hatton. Would Carl Froch have packed 80,000 fans into Wembley? Would British heavyweight greats Fury and Joshua be packing UK stadiums? Would they instead have gone to the United States on permanent residence like Lewis did?
Would fighters like Josh Warrington have built rabid localised followings? Would the vaunted Manchester Arena be hosting so many of boxing's biggest nights? It is doubtful. He was a great champion and a popular ticket-seller. But Ricky Hatton was also a trailblazer. A boxer for whom the very sport in this country would be poorer without his presence. Hatton spent the latter part of his career looking for vindication and redemption. But look around you, Ricky. It is everywhere. As his fans would sing into the Las Vegas night, “There’s only one Ricky Hatton”.