Boxing: Hatton brings a fighter's heart to a sport too keen to sell its soul to marketing men values

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Whatever the fate of Ricky Hatton, the Manchester battler, in the small hours of tomorrow morning, we must be careful to give him his due. Win or lose against the ageing but brilliant talent - and will - of Kostya Tszyu, Hatton is defying a wretched reality of British boxing that for so long has eaten away at its credibility.

Whatever the fate of Ricky Hatton, the Manchester battler, in the small hours of tomorrow morning, we must be careful to give him his due. Win or lose against the ageing but brilliant talent - and will - of Kostya Tszyu, Hatton is defying a wretched reality of British boxing that for so long has eaten away at its credibility.

He is making good his declaration that he wants to fight the best. He wants to dispute the strongly entrenched belief that what he does isn't a game, noble and ancient and more demanding of courage and honesty than any other, but the most cynical of business.

British boxing, thanks to Hatton, wins this weekend. It asserts the ultimate point of the sport that it is about seeking out opposition that can most truly define your ability.

Hatton could have enjoyed the kind of low-risk celebrity and wealth that was for so long the privilege of "Prince" Naseem Hamed before his American paymasters, Home Box Office, said that there had to be a day when he began to give value for money, when he had to get into the ring with a dangerous opponent.

When he did, when Marco Antonio Barrera dismantled him, physically and morally, piece by piece, we saw what some had always suspected: that his career had been about bombast and bullying and showbiz and when it came to the big showdown, when he had to do the real work, he simply hadn't grown as a fighter.

Hatton has moved in quite the opposite direction. There has been no need to prod him into a real test of his ability. He has chased it, pushing his promoter Frank Warren into the tough negotiations required to bring a fighter who is rated as the world's third best pound-for-pound performer (behind the middleweight Bernard Hopkins and fellow light welterweight Floyd Mayweather) into Hatton's Manchester lair.

It would have been easy enough for Hatton to have settled into the rich compromise of celebrity and wealth in his home town; when his father's old football club, Manchester City, invited him into the dressing-room to deliver a pep talk - one which, he admits with typically engaging candour, was a conspicuous failure, yielding only a tepid 0-0 draw - he had reason to believe that his empire was secure. Now he takes it to the very edge of his capabilities.

Defeat, even by a fighter as distinguished as Tszyu, would no doubt take away a little lustre; not among fight aficionados, perhaps, but those who set boxing's market values. However questionable the list of victims, an undefeated status is still a prize that apparently justifies all kinds of mockery of true competition.

Hatton's only serious marquee rival here is Joe Calzaghe, who is undefeated and talented and rated No 1 super-middleweight in the world, but we have yet to hear from him any great clamour for a defining fight against someone of the quality of Hopkins - or some crusade across the Atlantic.

Indeed, when the subject was broached in Copenhagen a few years ago, he was quite emphatic about his priorities. He said: "As far as I'm concerned, boxing is a business." At the time Calzaghe's promoter, Warren, was pursuing Roy Jones, then arguably boxing's biggest attraction. Jones was unresponsive, preferring to fight no-hope opponents at around $3m (£1.7m) a go.

Did the young lion Calzaghe not despise this approach, did it not demean the sport? "No," said Calzaghe, "if I get in his position, I'll be the same. I've had enough tough fights. What do you think I am? A mug." No, not a mug. A businessman-fighter, a hybrid that Hatton has shown no desire to create in himself.

Does this make Hatton a mug? It all depends on how you look at what he does. If you're a fight fan, no, he is not that. He is what the devotee of the fights craves. He is a man dedicated to finding out quite what he has inside himself, though it has to be said that great trainers like the late Eddie Futch would have been appalled by his tendency to binge between his exemplary work on the build-up to all his fights.

If he should beat Tszyu - and the suspicion has to be that the formidable, almost mystical man born on the slopes of the Urals will still have too much nous, and venom in his right hand - new wars will beckon. The American Mayweather is a giant in the division, Arturo Gatti is a ferocious warrior and some some believe best of all is the Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto, a wonderful stylist and a clinical finisher.

Once, a ringside PR man was issuing flash quotes after a Gatti battle in which the hero had led almost exclusively with his face. He read from his notebook such lines as: "I wanted see what he had... I wanted to take his best punches and show that he couldn't touch me..."

There was more in this vein, but suddenly the PR man stopped and said, "Do you guys want to hear any more from this crazy bastard?" No, Gatti had told the story in the ring. Ricky Hatton will do this tonight. He will announce his fighter's heart.

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