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Boxing: New faces for 1999: Hatton the natural phenomenon

New faces for 1999: Britain's `next boxing superstar' has already attracted comparison with one of the all-time greats
SPORTING SUCCESS and the sky blue sector of Manchester have hardly been joined at the hip in recent years. But the decade could yet end on a happy note for the long-suffering side of town thanks to the former Manchester City apprentice, Ricky Hatton. It seems cruelly unnecessary, however, to point out that the Stockport-born 20-year-old called time on his football career some years ago.

Soccer's possible loss is boxing's considerable gain - there is no hotter prospect than the unbeaten light-welterweight in British boxing today. Hatton's promoter, Frank Warren, has described the 5ft 7in pressure fighter as "the nearest thing I've ever seen to a certainty". And few who have seen the exciting body-puncher go to work would argue. "His potential is unlimited," said Billy Graham, the Manchester manager-trainer who became the boxing equivalent of a lottery winner by securing Hatton's services when he turned professional two years ago.

A truly outstanding amateur career had made Hatton's head the most hunted of any British amateur in recent years. On the home front, Hatton won an impressive seven junior national titles and an Amateur Boxing Association championship, the highest honour available in domestic amateur boxing.

But it was Hatton's achievements on the international scene that left professional managers salivating over his signature. The youngster had proved himself to be as rare as a City success - a British fighter capable of taking on and actually beating crack opposition from the amateur boxing world's superpowers. Twice he defeated Russians on their home ground, while at the World Junior Championships staged at Havana in November 1996 Hatton not only beat but stopped his Cuban and American opponents - absolutely unheard of for a British amateur. The stage was set.

Hatton was 17 when he first entered Graham's gym in Manchester's Moss Side district, the blue-collar powerbase of the successful Phoenix Camp stable that has produced fighters of the calibre of Carl Thompson, the World Boxing Organisation cruiserweight champion. "He was sold to me as just a strong kid who had knocked everyone out as a junior amateur," said Graham, a former pro himself. "But from his first day of sparring I could see there was so much more to Ricky than a big punch. Even at that stage he had exceptional balance, skills and strength - he's a natural. Everything I try to teach him, he picks up straight away.

"He can do anything. He reminds me of Julio Cesar Chavez in some ways; Ricky can pile on the pressure all night long, but he's just as comfortable as a counter-puncher. And like Chavez, his left hook to the body is excellent."

Comparison with Chavez, the magnificent Mexican whose mastery of the pressure-fighting style brought world titles in four weight divisions, is flattery of the highest order for a youngster such as Hatton. And trainer Graham, known as "The Preacher", is aware of the pitfalls inherent in heaping on the hyperbole at such an early stage. But where Hatton is concerned, Graham cannot stop himself from spreading the word. "I just wish I had two of him," said the trainer. "Some of the things he does in the gym makes my hair stand on end."

However, it is in the competitive ring that fighters are judged and Graham, while fully confident in Hatton's ability, is determined that his prospect's career will be advanced at a sensible rate. Graham preaches caution. "It's a really exciting time for us, but things can happen too quickly - and I ain't gonna mess this chance up, believe me," he said.

"Ricky could win one of those Intercontinental titles right now, and he could beat the British champion, Jason Rowland, too. But we don't want the British title yet; once Ricky wins it, he's on another, higher level. Ricky has enormous potential, but the kid's only just 20 and he's still learning his trade."

However, Graham recognises that if Hatton continues at his current rate of development it will be damaging, if not impossible, to hold him back. He conceded: "If he's ready young, he's ready young. And to be honest, I believe Ricky will get there early. He'll be this country's next boxing superstar."

And he is being groomed as such. Already Hatton has received American exposure, having featured on the undercards of the featherweight champion Naseem Hamed's two title defences across the Atlantic. But while Hatton has been placed on the fast track, his trainer insists that the fighter's feet will remain firmly on the ground.

"He just seems to take everything in his stride," said Graham. "He's tough mentally now, but when he becomes a man..."

Hatton still holds a Maine Road season ticket, perhaps due more to a sense of professionalism than previous ties with the club for which his father and grandfather both played. After all, he must learn to soak up punishment somewhere and, after nine fights, there has been no sign of this happening in the boxing ring. That will not always be the case, but the early signs suggest that when the day comes, Hatton is one blue nose who will not catch a cold.