Boxing: Ricky's army

Wayne Rooney has seen some big crowds but even he was shocked by the size and fervour of the Hitman's support, writes Steve Bunce

Ricky Hatton tells a great story about the night that Wayne Rooney led him through 12,000 fans to the ring in Las Vegas.

"Wayne was shaking and breathing in and sweating and I had to say to him 'Hey, I'm doing the fighting. Fucking calm down.'"

In the ring that night, and I know this because I was doing the post-fight interviews and was in the middle of the joyous chaos, Rooney's eyes were blasted wide as he stared out into the arena like a man watching his first sunset.

Rooney was looking at over 12,000 Hatton fans and it is easy to understand the awe in his eyes, because no one in British boxing history has inspired such a giant group of travelling fans. Tonight, the people that know how to crunch a number in a town built on numbers estimate that 24,000 British fans will be in Las Vegas specifically for the fight.

In the past, a few thousand fans made the same journey to cheer in hope for Frank Bruno and to watch Lennox Lewis, but the exodus from Britain during the last few days is unique. "It's Hatton's very own Barmy Army," said Trevor Beattie, the advertising guru who owns the infamous split gloves that Muhammad Ali wore when he was dropped and so nearly stopped by Henry Cooper. Beattie arrived on Thursday.

The fans started to file into Las Vegas on Monday in swarms of men and women of all ages from all over Britain. There was a time a few years ago when Hatton's gates first started to suddenly increase that people in the fight game thought that the fans were exclusively followers of Manchester City Football Club. That little myth vanished long before the first of many sell-outs at the MEN Arena in Manchester.

Last year the touring started with a dismal trip to Boston during a miserable week of weather, but in January Hatton and his fans set up a branch office in Las Vegas and the sombreros were out. The January fight against Juan Urango was a taster for the American market and a trial run for the 4,000 fans who made the post-Christmas trip. But the intensity of the support and the promise that double the total would return when it was hot, encouraged a casino bidding war for the fists of the fighter.

In June, 12,000 made the Atlantic crossing for Hatton's test against Jose Luis Castillo and long before the first of the loyal fans landed the casino executives here realised they had a product that they liked. There was a scene late at night when it was still sweltering in Las Vegas and the dark streets that separate the arena from the Boulevard were packed solid with fans walking back from the fight. The cabs struggled against the mass of people. It was Hatton's marching and singing army and the Americans were spellbound by the emotion.

They are here now in the lobby and in the bars at the MGM at all hours belting out their chorus of approval: "There's only one Ricky Hatton". They are in every other hotel that I've walked in and out of during the last few days. Most have not got a ticket to the fight, but will be part of the big screen experience and all, and I mean all, have a torrid tale to tell about the trip.

When the fight was announced over 33,000 people applied for tickets but just over 3,300 were lucky enough to get them. "I just had to be here, I gotta be part of it," seems to be the message. There are tales of re-mortgaging, loans, selling cars, not telling the missus and just about everything short of pawning granny. This is a fight crowd on a mission and a devoted one at that.

"There are a lot of people here without tickets to the fight and that saddens me but there was nothing that I could do," Hatton said. "We could have sold 40,000 tickets for this one and I did ask the promoters for all the tickets!"

In the summer Rooney was not the only Premier League player here and it is still unclear just how many players made the trip. I'm sure that Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Kieron Dyer, Shaun Wright-Phillips, David Dunn and Joey Barton were there, but they were not congregated at ringside for a handy headcount of men in slick, silk, slate suits. They had bought their tickets like the rest of the punters and at the aftershow party Rooney did his share of karaoke. Dunn, however, is the new Elvis.

"If it was the end of the season I don't like to think how many players would be here. Everybody that I've bumped into has said that they would come," said Hatton and he is right.

Tonight, David Beckham will be ringside but not, as some have hoped, part of Hatton's ring walk. However, Tom Jones will sing the national anthem, and back in June Jones did call Hatton in the hours before the fight but the boxer thought it was a prank and told the crooner to "Fuck right off, I'm busy!" The following night Hatton and his family went to MGM to see Jones perform and there was a five-minute standing ovation when the fighter was introduced.

But, Hatton is not impressed with the trivial details of celebrity and he tries hard to maintain a normal life without security providing a wall of muscle. He has played golf with Michael Owen and others from the Cheshire high life but it is not his thing. It costs too much and is too far removed from his public.

"If you talk to a fan they will tell you that they have had a pint with our Richard and they probably have," said Hatton's dad, Ray.

During the final days before a fight Ray Hatton and his wife, Carol, keep out of the way. Carol travels with friends and family and is often stuck in the middle of fans and Ray flits between meetings in the closing hours. "I swear dad's looking for a carpet contract," said Hatton's brother, Matthew, who fights tonight, and is one of three people in the house that Hatton rents. Ray Hatton has a carpet business and Carol still sells carpets at market. And people wonder why Hatton is so normal.

On Thursday night after the final screening of HBO's 24/7 programme Carol posed for about 200 telephone photos with fans. She was with Ray and the boxer's lawyer and they were going for a pizza and a drink. No different really to the other 24,000 fans in this casino town.

Who will win and why

JIM WATT (Sky Sports pundit)

Who will win? My head says Mayweather, but my heart says Hatton

How? Hatton has to stop him. That's not going to be easy, but he can do it

Why? Hatton has to set the pace and he has to maintain it. If he lets Mayweather control this fight, he's not going to get close

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