Boxing: Hitman nears end of brutal route to world supremacy

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The Independent Online

Early on Saturday morning, when many 26-year-old Mancunians are still sleeping off the excesses of Friday night, the World Boxing Union light-welterweight champion Ricky Hatton will arrive at The Butty Box, a working-man's cafe in Hyde, and order the £3.80 Mega-Breakfast, which comprises three sausages, three rashers of bacon, two hash browns, two eggs, two fat discs of black pudding, a pile of baked beans, grilled tomatoes and two rounds of toast. Hatton likes his excesses to come on a plate, although in truth the Mega-Breakfast arrives on a platter.

Early on Saturday morning, when many 26-year-old Mancunians are still sleeping off the excesses of Friday night, the World Boxing Union light-welterweight champion Ricky Hatton will arrive at The Butty Box, a working-man's cafe in Hyde, and order the £3.80 Mega-Breakfast, which comprises three sausages, three rashers of bacon, two hash browns, two eggs, two fat discs of black pudding, a pile of baked beans, grilled tomatoes and two rounds of toast. Hatton likes his excesses to come on a plate, although in truth the Mega-Breakfast arrives on a platter.

He will consume it in much the same exhilaratingly direct manner that he boxes, scarcely pausing, and will emerge on to the streets of Hyde a marginally less light welterweight, yet dismissive of the opinion, forcefully proffered by both his trainer and his nutritionist, that a Butty Box fry-up is not the ideal preparation for the fight of his life.

Hatton has demolished a huge breakfast on the morning of every one of his 38 professional fights, and sees no reason to change just because this one is against the 35-year-old Russian-born Australian Kostya Tszyu, the International Boxing Federation champ and, pound for pound, maybe the best boxer currently in business.

"I'm not superstitious, but it makes me feel better in my mind," he says. "After 12 weeks of salad, green veg, fish and chicken, it's something I do to make me feel right mentally more than anything. And to a degree it doesn't matter what you eat on the day of a fight, as long as you've had all the starchy foods the day before."

Hatton says this in his usual quiet, authoritative way. To look at, he could only be a boxer. To listen to, he could be a lawyer, albeit a lawyer who long ago dropped his aitches into the Manchester Ship Canal. He is bright and articulate, with a wry wit, and is under no illusions about the task that faces him on Saturday night.

"Tszyu has a massive right hand, so I've had sparring partners of a similar height to him throwing lots of right hands. If I can slip that right of his then I think I've got more tools. But it's obviously going to be very, very tough. For him to come back after two years out injured and beat Sharmba Mitchell in three rounds was a fantastic result. A lot of people thought that showed he wasn't ring-rusty, but I have a different view. He nailed Mitchell with practically the first punch he threw, so it's hard to judge whether there was any ring rust. If I can get him to rounds six, seven, eight, where he's not been for some time, that'll be my chance."

Hatton pulls his Manchester City cap a little lower and leans back against the practice ring in what is grandly known as Billy "The Preacher" Graham's Phoenix Camp, in reality a shabby gym in a former hat factory in Denton, Manchester.

To reach the Phoenix Camp, you climb four flights of rickety wooden stairs and walk across the old factory floor where hats used to be made for members of the Royal Family, but where, now, big sweaty men with tattoos are frenziedly pumping iron. You nod to them, silently celebrating the remarkable fact that the Queen Mum got her cornflower-blue headgear from the same place that Moss Side Mick got his biceps. And then, at the end of the room, you enter Billy Graham's domain.

The first thing you notice is the heat. Graham, Hatton's coach, keeps the temperature up for two reasons; to make his man sweat, and to provide the right environment for Liston the iguana, named after Sonny Liston the boxer. On the afternoon of my visit, Liston has been allowed to roam free inside Graham's ramshackle office. On the wall, there is a peeling photograph of the original Liston destroying Floyd Patterson, another of Cassius Clay destroying Liston. It would be a good place to conduct the interview, surrounded by boxing history, but Hatton takes one look inside and says, disapprovingly, "the bleeding iguana's loose, let's do it out here."

It is in these faintly surreal circumstances that I find myself standing alongside Hatton by the practice ring, inviting him to assess the chinks in Tszyu's armour.

"He holds his chin up, and he's got a very, very wide stance, which means he probably can't get out of the way as quick. He's had fantastic success with the style he's got, but this time he'll be fighting someone who's going to move in and cover the distance quick. I've got to be very, very careful because he's such a massive puncher, but I know he won't like my workrate. He doesn't fight like me, he's more patient, and obviously he has that haymaker, but my usual style will be the one that will beat him, I've just got to be a little bit cuter."

This is as close as Hatton comes to a prediction. He is as non-confrontational out of the ring as he is pugnacious in it, and equably unconcerned by the bombast coming out of the Tszyu camp. The champ has said, in that way that boxers have of referring to themselves in the third person, that "Kostya Tszyu at 35 would beat Kostya Tszyu at 25... I'm fitter, stronger and better than 10 years ago ... sometimes I amaze myself".

Hatton's response, when pushed, is to say that he has never felt as confident as he does now.

"I'm not making predictions except to say that I expect to win. I've acted this way my whole career and I'm not going to be different now because I've got a big fight, or people will start saying, 'Is he trying to convince himself'? But I'm feeling so good in the gym that I want to shout it from the rooftops."

As long as they were Manchester rooftops, he would get a receptive audience. Hatton is immensely popular in his home city, and can count on deafening support at the MEN Arena in the early hours of Sunday morning. He had fully expected to fight Tszyu in America or Australia, or even Russia, and was surprised to get home advantage. But he knows it will not intimidate his opponent.

"He's used to partisan crowds. He boxed Julio Cesar Chavez a few years ago in front of thousands of screaming Mexicans, so 22,000 screaming Mancunians might affect him slightly, but the difference it will make at this level is tiny. And it shows what confidence he's got, that he's happy to come here."

Hatton will certainly be happy to see him, big match after big match having fallen through.

"I fell out with boxing, to be honest. I kept reading that Ricky didn't want to fight those guys, but Ricky did want to fight. It was cheesing me off. I said to Frank Warren: 'You've got to make one of these fights now, or I'm going to look somewhere else.' To his credit, and it shows what a good promoter he is, he got me the biggest."

It will also be the biggest purse of his career, he adds. How big?

"That's for me to know and others to wonder," he says, with the ghost of a smile. "There's only Frank Warren, me and my father who know. But if I win this, there will obviously be some very, very big pay days."

Yet he would also pay a price, in the form of burgeoning fame, for becoming undisputed world champion. Hatton is not wholly comfortable with the razzmatazz of boxing; there is even a flicker of embarrassment when he tells me that he sponsors his local pub football team, whose shirts have "Ricky 'The Hitman' Hatton" printed across them.

He comes from a football family; his dad Ray was a regular for Manchester City reserves in the halcyon Joe Mercer-Malcolm Allison years, and his granddad played for City before the war. His brother Matthew, too, has become a boxer, with a couple of area titles to his name at welterweight and light-middleweight, yet apart from a distant forebear called Slattery who was a bare-knuckle fighter, football rather than boxing dominates their genes. Indeed Hatton himself was on City's books until forced to make the choice between the beautiful game and the noble art.

"I sometimes wonder whether I chose right when I see Wayne Rooney earning 60 grand a week, and not getting smacked in the nose to do so," he says. And, ironically enough, I add, Rooney comes from a boxing family.

"That's right, yeah. I don't know where I got it from. It certainly wasn't my dad. He couldn't fight for toffee."

Hatton is close to his parents, so close that he only moved from under the parental roof a few months ago.

"I'd been world champion for nearly five years, made 15 defences, and I was still living in the box room at my mam and dad's. I had it so made there that I just never felt the need to move out. But eventually I sat down with my dad and said, 'Listen, dad, this is getting [to be] a joke'. So I bought a house 10 minutes away, still close to what I like to call my kind of people.

"And it's not some flash place with a massive driveway. It's a lovely house, and I've got my games room, my snooker table, my plasma screens, but it suits my character very well. I drive a BMW X5, and I have my box at City, but I'm not a Flash Harry by any stretch of the imagination. I like to keep a low profile."

It suits Hatton that he is not even the most hyped boxer in the Greater Manchester area, now Amir Khan is on the road to riches. But he offers the youngster some cautionary advice. "He says he wants to be world champion by 21. I wouldn't advise him to do that. If he wants to be world champion in the next three years he's going to have to jump straight into British title action. I don't see the sense in that. He should do it gradually, move up in class slowly but surely. It's one thing having the ability, but you've got to handle the ability. He seems a sensible lad, though. He says he wants to retire at 25 and he's on the right lines. You don't want to go on for years and years."

Which begs the obvious question: for how long does Hatton himself intend to stick around?

"Maybe three more years. I'd like to think there's a lot I can do afterwards. I wouldn't mind a job like Barry McGuigan, commentating, or maybe being a trainer. Either way, I'll stay involved in boxing. When you retire and sit on your arse with nothing to do, that's when you start making silly comebacks. I'll find a job I love, and if it's in boxing, that'll stop me from making a comeback."

By now it is pushing 5pm, and "The Preacher" is giving me distinctly ungodly looks: he wants his boy sweating. Hatton has talked so much sense that I have almost forgotten his job is to knock seven bells out of people, but I am soon reminded. He changes and climbs into the ring, where he shadow-boxes with furious intensity for 10 minutes, then attacks a punchbag.

I collect my things from the office, where Liston the iguana is lying on a window sill, motionless but for the occasional flick of his tongue. It's not much of a life, but then his namesake didn't have much of a life, either. They should have called him Ricky.

Ricky Hatton v Kostya Tszyu is exclusively live on Sky Box Office on Saturday 4 June from 11pm. To order the fight call: 08705 800 888.

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