They rolled out the red carpet for Ricky Hatton MBE when he arrived in Las Vegas last week, and the smile on the Mancunian's face was as bright as the lights which illuminated his name along The Strip. It was, he says, a lifelong dream come true. "All my life I've yearned for this moment. Every fighter's ambition is to see his name in lights in Las Vegas. I've never felt so proud."
Of course Hatton is not the first Hit Man to hit Las Vegas. The gambling oasis in the Nevada desert was the creature of the gangster Bugsy Siegel back in the Roaring Forties. But after 41 fights and almost nine years as an unbeaten pro, the 28-year-old Hatton has finally made it to top billing in the fight game's No 1 citadel, where on Saturday he seeks to wrest a title he never lost in the ring from the hands of the Colombian Juan Urango.
They meet for the International Boxing Federation (IBF) light-welterweight belt at the new boxing venue of the Paris Hotel, a typically understated Vegas emporium where visitors can rocket through the roof in a built-to-scale version of the Eiffel Tower.
Finally hitting such heights is a fistic fairytale for Hatton, who promises to give the 3,000 British fans there good reason to celebrate. But a word of caution. Vegas has rarely been Valhalla for British boxers seeking world domination (ask Barry McGuigan, Frank Bruno and Naseem Hamed), and there have to be concerns that, superbly conditioned as he appears to be, Hatton may be taking a great risk, not so much against the 26-year-old Urango, who is similarly undefeated, but with his own body.
He has never made a secret of the fact that he likes to do a spot of carousing between fights, accompanied by his good friends "Mr Dom Perignon and Mr Guinness". Yet he always manages to boil off the excess poundage - sometimes almost three stones - with the assistance of his diet guru and sweatbox training.
He moved up to welterweight in his last bout to acquire another world title against Luiz Collazo with what was his least impressive performance, but has switched down again to try to regain the one he prised so bril-liantly from Kostya Tszyu. This he forfeited subsequently because of his heavier ambitions, and it has now fallen into the relatively unproven fists of Urango.
So no more "Ricky Fatton". He says he is trimmer and fitter than he has ever been, despite a break in training because of a pulled arm muscle, and he certainly looks it. But in grinding himself into that shape, how much has he left in the gym?
Consistent rapid weight loss has been the downfall of many champions, sometimes with fatal or near-fatal results. As Muhammad Ali's former trainer, Angelo Dundee, once observed: "When a fighter 'goes', it can happen at any time. It only takes one fight, one round. Suddenly the hands drop and the legs go numb. You can go to the well once too often."
The Las Vegas oddsmakers argue that this won't happen to Hatton in this fight. And he even quips himself: "The only problem with my legs is that I can't walk past chippies!" But having to endure the continuing jibes about his weight "pisses me off", and they serve only to inspire him, he says.
Urango, a southpaw like Collazo, has a record of 17 wins and one draw, largely against nondescript opposition. But as his last half-dozen bouts, including his title victory over one Nafael Ben Rabah, have taken place in Hollywood, Urango will not be dazzled by the bright lights of Vegas, or by seeing Hatton's face dominating the big screens.
Hatton knows such exposure is his springboard to superstardom in the US, and he relishes the opportunity against a short, muscular opponent who has been compared to a mini Tyson because he squares up and comes forward. "All hooks and no jab," says Hatton.
On the same bill the former lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo of Mexico meets the undefeated Canadian Herman Ngoudjo in what could be a tune-up for an already planned match with Hatton in June. If Hatton was fighting the fiercer-punching Castillo now it really might be a case for crossed fingers and hearts in mouths. But one suspects he still has the physical cap-acity to outgame and outpunch the Colombian, though he may need to rely on the ringside judges and his cuts man in what could be a 12-round war. "One thing's for sure," says Hatton. "Nobody will be snoring in their seats."
The Sky Box Office programme begins at 10pm with a live screening of the first defence by Hatton's long-time pursuer Junior Witter (below left) of the World Boxing Council (WBC) version of the light-welterweight title against a useful Mexican (aren't they all?) Arturo Morua, from London's Alexandra Palace.
It was at the same venue five months ago that Sheffield's Witter underscored his claims to an eventual showdown with Hatton by comprehensively defeating the American DeMarcos Corley. For years now, Witter's Sheffield mentor, Brendan Ingle, has insisted that his man "would stand Hatton on his head".
It is a logical match-up which, like the ill-starred pairing of the British cruiserweight rivals Enzo Maccarinelli and David Haye, has been undermined by what Lennox Lewis famously termed "boxing politricks". Whether Hatton ever meets Witter is a question of wait and see. Whether Hatton beats Urango may be one of weight and see.Reuse content