Hit me one more time: Ricky Hatton reveals why he is entering the ring once again
A defeat three years ago left the boxer suicidal and resigned to retirement
"All I have ever done in this world," Ricky Hatton tells me, "is to try to do right. Do right by my kids, do right by my friends and do right by my family. That is all I have ever tried to do. And so there are still times when I feel like asking…" The boxer pauses. "How did it get this fucking bad?"
You might be forgiven for wondering just how Hatton defines that last adjective. He has a luxury home, a one-year-old daughter, Millie, whose mother is Jennifer, his partner of eight years, and a tight circle of devoted friends. He has not – unlike many boxers – squandered his fortune. We're talking over a cup of tea – "a brew" as Hatton still calls it – in his boxing gym and fitness centre here in Hyde, seven miles east of Manchester.
Hatton Health and Fitness is a welcoming and immaculately equipped facility which he could have built anywhere in the world. He chose his home town: a place, the boxer reminds me, otherwise known for the recent killing of two women police officers, and as "the home of the Moors Murderers and Dr Harold Shipman. I was in the same class," he recalls, "as Shipman's son."
Muhammad Ali has been to visit Hatton in his gym. "So did Joe Frazier, God rest him, and Sugar Ray Leonard. They," Hatton says with endearing disbelief, "came to see me."
Hatton, who turned 34 last month, last boxed in Las Vegas in May 2009, when he was knocked out by a vicious punch by the Filipino Manny Pacquiao (then rated as the best pound-for-pound boxer on the planet, at any weight). It was the kind of blow, to borrow Muhammad Ali's phrase, that the recipient felt "before God got the news" and finished Hatton in only the second round of their light welterweight world title bout. He returns to the ring at Manchester's MEN Arena this Saturday, in a fight against the Ukrainian welterweight Vyacheslav Senchenko, who lost his WBA world title in April – Senchenko's only defeat in 33 fights.
Famously derided as "Ricky Fatton", a nom de guerre inspired by his ability to gain and shed three stone between fights, Hatton today is a toned athlete just a little above his fighting weight of 147lb. He enjoys a proud reputation as a promoter and trainer of young fighters from all over the world. It's not immediately obvious what he has, to borrow the Hyde vernacular, to mither about. There's "bad", you're tempted to say, and there's "bad".
But there is a discernible restlessness about Hatton. He has real trouble keeping still, whether he's pacing round his gym, tidying away weights that others have carelessly discarded, or just sitting here at a table, where his hands are in constant motion. There's just the hint of something worrying about his expression. Haunted would be too strong a word. Preoccupied – even troubled – would not.
Most interviewees need little encouragement when it comes to revelling in the more notable achievements of their professional life. They tend to be less voluble when recalling failure, or the emotional difficulties and public embarrassments that have helped shape their character. Hatton's instincts are the polar opposite of the norm. We've hardly sat down when he's off, unprompted, reliving the agonies he has endured since that dreadful humiliation in Nevada. A naturally open and generous person, he talks with the energy of a convivial monk who has just returned to secular life, after some clerical error at the Vatican condemned him to spend a decade as a member of a silent order.
I'd begun by reminding him of an article which appeared in The Daily Telegraph in July 2011. "It said: 'There have been rumours that Ricky Hatton might have been flirting with the idea of a comeback. Wisely he has chosen the right road.' And you're quoted as declaring, 'I will never box again. There will be no coming back. Many times I have woken up and thought I would give it one more go. It was not to be.' Did you say those things?"
"And yet here we are, back again…"
"I couldn't have been in a darker place at that time," Hatton says. "I'd had the defeat against Pacquiao. It was a brutal knockout. You know. You've seen it. It was horrendous."
As Hatton lay on the canvas, Jennifer let out piercing screams that suggested she thought he might have been killed. Just days afterwards, Hatton says, "I wanted to make a comeback, to prove myself."
"So why didn't you?"
"Because I found that everything that had always been so easy; things like the getting up in the morning, the running, the dieting, everything you have to suffer… wasn't easy any more. I just didn't have the motivation."
Before meeting Pacquiao, Hatton (whose greatest triumph came in June 2005 when, against all expectations, he deprived Kostya Tszyu of his light welterweight title in a performance of stunning power and courage) had lost just one other professional fight, in a closer contest with welterweight Floyd Mayweather, also in Las Vegas, in December 2007.
"So it wasn't the simple fact of losing to Pacquiao that affected you …"
"No. It was the manner of the defeat. It devastated me. After that my heart wasn't in boxing. I was in a real bad place."
"Bad." That word again.
"Bad. You know: depressed. Suicidal," Hatton explains. "I was drinking more than I ever have in my life." (If you know the history of Hatton's social excursions, you will be aware that this last statement is no trivial boast.)
"I was having blackouts, whether I was drinking or not. Even if I had a week sober, I was just vacant. Jennifer would get up in the morning, come downstairs, and find me crying my eyes out, holding a knife to my wrist."
His partner, Hatton recalls, would sometimes be with their baby daughter.
"I thought, Jesus, I can't have Jennifer seeing Millie watching her dad in tears, holding a knife to his wrist. I decided, this has got to stop."
"You used the word 'suicidal'. Do you mean that literally?"
"So you're saying that you tried to commit suicide?"
"Very much so," replies Hatton (whose replies very rarely lapse into this sort of sportsman's cliché, popularised by, among others, Alan Shearer, before he decided his future might depend on the spoken word).
"Well, you either try or you don't, don't you? And you did?"
"Yes. My staff have seen it first-hand; how low I was."
"So what does it feel like when you wake up afterwards, in A&E?"
"Oh no, no, no," Hatton says. "It didn't go that far. People say, if you are going to kill yourself, you do. You don't. Not necessarily. I did want to. Suicidal people can think: I am going to do it – then don't. Not that day. But it only takes that one other day. And you do it."
"So why didn't you?"
"I didn't have the bottle. I wanted to. I would … try to do it."
"When you held the knife to your wrist, did you cut yourself?"
"A few times. I never went the full… it was just like… tears… just tears, pouring out. I'd be crying hysterically, saying: 'I want to die.' A lot of people blame depression on drink. Well you tell that to my girlfriend. Even if I'd not had a drink for five days, she'd still see me like that. It wasn't that thing of coming home pissed and saying, 'Oh, I want to kill myself,' like you can when you're full of beer."
Seven years ago, following his life-altering performance against Tszyu, Hatton told a reporter, "Outside the ring, I don't let anything get me down. From my boxing, people think I am a headcase. They're surprised when they actually meet me."
Yet it was precisely his experience of depression and a pattern of repetitive self-harm (that Hatton refers to as "the suicide attempts") which principally motivated his return to the ring. "It was a combination of factors. My daughter being born. The feeling that I'd let everyone down: my family, my friends, my community, Manchester, British boxing… everybody. All I can ask for now is a bit of understanding. Because I was a very, very poorly young man."
There are two main memories, the boxer believes, that most people have of him. "The defeat against Manny Pacquiao, lying flat on my back in Vegas. And the drink and drugs problems I've had."
(In September 2010, a red-top published pictures showing Hatton taking what was allegedly cocaine, in a Manchester hotel room. The boxer, who immediately admitted himself to rehab, was never charged with any offence.)
Before his recent recovery, Hatton had already been working as a promoter and trainer. Earlier in the day, I'd watched him coaching a young fighter from Belarus, to the accompaniment of local band Twisted Wheel's track "She's a Weapon". Sergei speaks no English; Hatton has never set foot in Minsk. But there was something hugely impressive about the Englishman's patience, enthusiasm, and ease as a coach. He might never have shone in the classroom, but teaching others is something, you sense immediately, that Ricky Hatton knows he is very good at.
It was precisely through this kind of work with protégés, following his depression, Hatton tells me, that, "I got a little bit fitter. Then I started training again, myself. I was enjoying being in the gym again."
"To those of us outside the business," I suggest, "most of you boxers look like compulsive gamblers. You've always got to have that one last roll; that one last spin of the wheel."
"We're extremists, aren't we, boxers? Anybody who wants to stand up in front of tens of thousands of people and get hit can't be a normal person."
As for his current state of mind, he says, "I feel in the best place I've ever been."
There is just one thing, he admits, that has been preying on his mind: "My dad attacked me the other week. I'd had this falling out with my parents. Which really hit me hard. It was a personal matter. That I don't want to go into." After this incident, he adds, his depression "re-emerged slightly – but I was better able to cope with it. [The attack] was heartbreaking. I wouldn't wish that on any son."
"You say your dad attacked you; how – verbally?"
Hatton, who is hardly ready to see the funny side of this affair, fails to stifle a laugh.
"Verbally? No. He got arrested."
(Police attended the incident, outside the gym, one morning in September. Ray Hatton was cautioned.)
"This was the day before I announced my comeback. He knows how to pick his moments, my dad. In my dark period, that incident would have sent me off on the runaway train again."
While Ricky Hatton is unwilling to discuss his father's possible motivation on that day, the background to their differences is no secret. Two years ago, Ray left his position at the Hatton Group, which included overseeing the boxing stable, branded clothing, and gym.
Reported disagreements over money have been complex and acrimonious: including one between Hatton Snr and his son's former trainer and mentor Billy Graham, who described Ray Hatton, in a Manchester courtroom in December 2010, as having "the biggest ego of anyone I ever met".
"Can you repair the relationship with your family?" I ask the fighter. "No." After a pause, Hatton adds, more with hope than conviction, "Although I suppose you can never say never."
little over a decade ago, the closeness of the Hatton family – Ray and Carol, Rick's parents, have a younger son, Matthew, also a boxer – was first captured in a perceptive piece by broadcaster and writer Kevin Mitchell.
"If a television scriptwriter were looking for a family on which to base a modern version of The Waltons," he wrote, "they could do worse than pop in to see Mr and Mrs Hatton and their sons."
At that time, Ricky and his dad were still playing darts together every Thursday. Ray earned his living as a landlord, before buying three carpet stores.
"Everyone says Richard and Matthew are nice kids," Hatton Sr remarked, back then. "I say, 'Why shouldn't they be? To me, they are just my boys."
Loyalty and a need for affiliation and acceptance, especially within his local community, are instincts deeply rooted in Ricky Hatton. Both his father and grandfather are commonly described as having played professionally for Manchester City (a close inspection of club records reveals that neither man progressed beyond the B team).
Ricky Hatton's attachment to the Premier League champions verges on the alarming. I can personally testify that, friendly as Hatton may be with Wayne Rooney, he seems able to sense, by some kind of telepathy, when a visitor's sympathies lie with the red side of Manchester.
His own supporters have always followed him less like a boxer, more like a football club.
"My fans," he says, "are so loyal; so passionate. That feeds through to you. They consider me one of them. Nothing is fake. I go out to the local pub. I have a pint. I have my season ticket at City like I've always done. I shop at Asda. People say, 'Ricky – what are you doing in here?' I think, where do you expect me to go shopping?"
His celebrity friends – notably Noel and Liam Gallagher, Gordon Ramsay and the comedian Roy "Chubby" Brown – are not people who have sought to be the epitome of manicured cool. After the defeat to Mayweather, a friend of Hatton's told me, "Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie walked into his dressing-room. He just blanked them. It wasn't the right moment." k
icky Hatton grew up in Hattersley, at the less affluent end of Hyde. He had ambitions to play for City, but by the age of 10 had emerged as a brilliant boxing prospect.
"Most of us who know what it's like to be hit in a boxing ring," I suggest, "decide that the experience isn't one we necessarily enjoy. Were you born with a higher pain threshold? Are you just braver?"
"I think that the first day you lace the gloves up, and get hit," Hatton replies, "you either think: 'Ah. I didn't like that much.' Or else you go, 'You bastard' and try and hit him harder. And of course this relates to ability. If you do turn out to be good at boxing, it is very addictive."
"In what way?"
"You get your hand raised. You have beaten another man. Boxing is addictive. That's why it can be so hard to walk away."
In the days when Hatton's relationship with his father had more in common with The Waltons than The Sopranos, their darts team represented The New Inn, Hattersley, one of the pubs Ray formerly owned.
"If you walked out the back," Ricky Hatton says, "you immediately came to the place where Ian Brady and Myra Hindley lived; the house [since demolished] where some of the murders took place."
Hyde, as anyone who grew up around here will be aware, is not Manchester. It is a small (and, you would imagine, potentially problematic) place to exist as a world celebrity. While Hyde falls within the boundaries of Cheshire (Glossop, adjacent to Hadfield, home of the League of Gentlemen, is only seven miles away) it has absolutely nothing in common with the pampered southern villages of that county, popular with actors and international footballers. The elite enclaves in which such stars live are not over-familiar to Hatton.
At one point in our conversation, the boxer is describing his working day.
"I go running at half-six. I have my breakfast and come in to the gym at half-10. Train the lads. Go home about half one, have my dinner. Come back at half-four, do my own training, then go home. Late meal, then bed. I only live a few minutes away from here."
It might have been easier, I suggest, to move to California and live in a mansion with a swimming pool in the shape of a boxing glove.
"Or sit on a beach," Hatton says. "But my fighters, that I train, are my friends. I'm not going to drop them. I know that most people, when they get money, move to – where is it – Hazel Grove?" (A comparatively modest area of Stockport, a few miles away, Hazel Grove is scarcely Stella Street.)
"You mean Alderley Edge," I tell him. And those other villages [south of Manchester] near Wilmslow. Like Prestbury."
"Right. No disrespect, but if I moved to Prestbury I would go mad. 'For Sale' signs would be going up all round me."
Staying in Hyde, he points out, means he is close to Campbell, his 11-year-old son from a relationship with a previous girlfriend, Claire. "You don't see me on red carpets or on Strictly Come Dancing," he tells me. "And I am asked to do these things. I can't be arsed with any of it."
Some consider that Hatton's commendable determination to remain bonded to his fans has brought its own problems. His desire to remain accessible – to belong – meant that he tended, when celebrating victories in Las Vegas, to join his supporters in a popular Irish bar. It's a pattern of socialising adopted by certain stand-up comedians when on tour, and one which risks aggravating a performer's tendency to excess (from a misplaced obligation to live up to a hedonistic reputation) and heightening their vulnerability to bad publicity.
Hatton's eagerness to remain "one of the lads" facilitated reports such as one Mirror story in 2010. "During a four-day binge," the paper claimed, "he downed 57 pints, 17 vodka and Red Bulls, four vodkas, three whisky chasers and a bottle of champagne."
It must have required a ringside seat, a strong head and a calculator to be certain that 19 per cent of the vodkas he supposedly consumed over a 96-hour period were neat. As Kevin Mitchell wrote in 2010: "Ricky Hatton's weakness was never his chin, or his skill, but an overwhelming desire to please his mates."
The boxer has never claimed to be a stranger to the pleasures of a night out. "One time," he recalls, "I came back to this hotel after a dinner. Anyhow, it's late. I go to sleep. The noise of a Hoover wakes me up. I say, 'Excuse me. I don't want my room servicing.' This voice says, 'Sir, you are not in your room. You are in reception.'"
In the year following his defeat to Pacquiao, Hatton was photographed bingeing "almost every week". Friends boasted that he would drink 20 pints of Guinness, then spirits, and repeat the exercise "night after night". At one point, Hatton (5'6") says his weight reached almost 15 stone.
The Mirror claimed he had been knocked out by a bodybuilder in a dispute over a fruit-machine queue, in Hyde. "I don't remember that happening," Hatton says. "But all of that stuff was my own fault."
"And this time, after the Senchenko fight, once you're out of training, will it be any different?"
"You are never going to get me going on Sunday-afternoon strolls. But my life has changed. My priority is my kids, my family and my fighters. As they used to tell me, everything in moderation. I'm following that advice now."
Hatton's worst collision with the press came in 2010 when the News of the World printed the pictures of him allegedly taking cocaine. When the article appeared, Hatton seems to have realised he had crossed a significant line. His friends in the New Inn darts team might have identified with his choice to shop in Asda. Taking class-A drugs in luxury hotel suites was another matter.
The News of the World incident, Hatton says, "was very hard for me. Because I've always come across as being down to earth; a 'local lad done well'. Then k that happened. I don't even remember the night in question. That's how bad it was. All I can ask for is a bit of sympathy."
The woman boxer who leaked the pictures claimed she did so in order to save his life – a feeble defence that turned out to be curiously prescient.
"Looking back," Hatton says, "the News of the World thing forced me to get a grip. If I'd carried on as I was, I might not have been here today."
It's hard to imagine Hatton sitting in a circle in rehab, in a "Thank you for sharing that" sort of environment.
"It was something I had to do. My life was off the tracks even before that stuff in the paper. I went into the Priory because, after I was beaten by Pacquiao, I was devastated. My life ran away from me. Then I got myself right."
"In rehab, did they suggest that you give up alcohol altogether?"
"They did, yes. I went for help because I was depressed. My problems were not just related to alcohol. Some of them would tell me, 'No. It doesn't matter. You are an alcoholic.' But I did learn a lot from them. I took a lot on board. Some things you agree with, some you don't."
After he emerged from treatment, he recalls, "there was the fall-out with my parents. When that happened, I thought, Jesus Christ, is there any more shit that life can throw at me?"
While Hatton insists that his years of angst are behind him, you can't help wondering – given his overwhelming commitment not to betray his roots – what may be the long-term consequences of his estrangement from his family, who still live close to the boxer's large house (a property he named Heartbreak Hotel). Other than family, what clearer embodiment of roots, and loyalty, and belonging, can there be? Ray Hatton once said that Ricky's stratospheric ascent had proceeded at "hundreds of miles an hour". If it's reasonable to see his career still as an upward trajectory, then the familial rift looks worryingly like a hairline crack in a fuel tank.
Some years ago, I tell Hatton, I interviewed Chris Eubank who, at one point, disappeared to find a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary with which to supplement his conversation. If there's one word that the man from Hyde might have used, but didn't, with reference to his coming fight, it's "cathartic".
The Senchenko match, Hatton says, will be the most important of his life. "Some guy said to me: 'The road work, the dieting and the sparring: what you put yourself through really is hell.' I said, 'Do you honestly think I'm worried about training or getting hit after what I've fucking been through?' Other boxers' idea of hell," he adds, "feels like home to me."
His best fight, as he recalls, "was when I beat Tszyu in 2005. Nobody gave me a chance. I beat him into submission. I broke his heart."
This Saturday's contest, he says, "is about much more. I feel everything I have ever achieved has been useless, because of those lost three years. I'm coming back and asking for forgiveness. This is about more than boxing. It is about redemption." This last statement seems to intimidate Hatton himself. "Fucking hell," he adds, as though the enormity of the situation has dawned on him for the first time.
Historically, I suggest, redemption has taken many forms, most famously crucifixion. What if he loses?
"Let's have it right," Hatton says. "If I can beat a former world champion after three-and-a-half years out, I have still got it. In which case I'd go on and fight for another world title. If I haven't still got it, I'll pack it in."
"What did Jennifer say when you told her you were going back in the ring?"
"She said, 'Rick – please don't.'"
"And I told her what I've told you. Now she sees me coming back from the gym with a spring in my step. She's got the person she fell in love with back again. She knows this is something I have to do."
"You've talked about the effect that defeat to Pacquiao had on you. What if you lose to Senchenko?"
"If I give 100 per cent and get splattered, I'll still be happy. I would rather get splattered and know I gave it a go. To find that redemption. Because in my mind I am a failure. And I need to get that feller off my shoulder who tells me that, every single day."
"A failure in what sense?"
"I have people saying, 'He got beat by Pacquiao, then he got caught by the papers doing this, that and the other.' I don't want my career to end that way. I don't want, when I'm gone, people saying to my kids: 'Your dad was a hell of a fighter, but he flushed his life away.' I want them to say: 'Hey. Your dad was some boxer. He had his problems but, Jesus, didn't he come back fighting.' I want my kids to be proud when people talk to them about their dad. And as it stands, I don't think they will be, not at the minute. And so," he adds, "here we are."
I find myself troubled by a vision of Hatton, always an instinctive and courageous fighter, coming out of the blocks too recklessly, an explosive incarnation of revenge for those years in which, as he says, "the world has been picking on me".
Any boxing performance, Hatton replies, "has got to be controlled aggression. The heart and the passion that I have for this fight is one thing, but if I were to step out like a chicken with no head… It has all," he repeats, "got to be controlled."
Win or lose, Hatton insists, "before the bell even goes to start this fight – before I have even stepped in the ring – I have won. Because of where I have come back from."
A pessimist might envisage other consequences: defeat, for instance, might cause him to rediscover the consoling powers of two gallons of Guinness. If he wins, he risks consigning an ageing body to the mercies of this least forgiving of occupations.
As I leave Hatton, he goes back to his training programme, his body alive, as always, with a kind of restless certainty. Whatever the result on Saturday, the boxer repeats, in his own mind he will have won, "because of where I have come back from. I'll be able to look myself in the eye, with pride, in the mirror."
He says this with absolute assurance.
Even if you can't help suspecting that some part of Ricky Hatton may still be privately unsure as to which outcome – victory or defeat – might, in the longer term, constitute the more dangerous form of triumph.
Ricky Hatton vs Vyacheslav Senchenko will be shown live on Primetime, Channel 498 on Sky and Virgin On Demand, on Saturday for £14.95. To order, call 0871 200 4444 or go to primetimeboxing.co.uk. Follow Ricky Hatton on Twitter, @HitmanHatton
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