Boxing: Tszyu stirs the animal in Hatton

Britain's favourite fighter undaunted by the prospect of facing a ring legend
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The Independent Online

Ricky Hatton prepares for what he believes will be the bravura performance of his career in the early hours of next Sunday, aware that a future understudy is waiting in the wings. While it may be some years before Amir Khan is similarly equipped for the world stage, there is little doubt he will be groomed to take over from Hatton not only as a potential light-welterweight champion but the biggest box office attraction in Britain. Let us hope that by then Kostya Tszyu, Hatton's awesome opposition at Manchester's MEN Arena, will have gone fishing somewhere in his adopted Australia, and there will be someone rather less formidable from whom to try and wrest the title.

Ricky Hatton prepares for what he believes will be the bravura performance of his career in the early hours of next Sunday, aware that a future understudy is waiting in the wings. While it may be some years before Amir Khan is similarly equipped for the world stage, there is little doubt he will be groomed to take over from Hatton not only as a potential light-welterweight champion but the biggest box office attraction in Britain. Let us hope that by then Kostya Tszyu, Hatton's awesome opposition at Manchester's MEN Arena, will have gone fishing somewhere in his adopted Australia, and there will be someone rather less formidable from whom to try and wrest the title.

Amir will be at ringside to cheer on his new stablemate, who in recent years has become the best supported and arguably most exciting home-bred boxer of his generation. He also happens to be an outstandingly articulate advertisement for his trade, as decent a role model as you will find in any sport. So Amir has much to look up to - and live up to.

But now the 26-year-old Hit Man has a real fight on his industrious hands, surely the biggest in Britain in terms of cash and crowd appeal since Barry McGuigan beat Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road almost 20 years ago to the day. At stake is Tszyu's International Boxing Federation title, together with Hatton's own less-regarded World Boxing Union crown, which he defends for the 16th time in 38 contests.

Coming straight for him, once the 22,000 crowd have finished their thunderous rendition of Blue Moon will be a man who is as hard to defeat as his name is to pronounce. Originally a Russian from the Ural mountains - hence the anticipated presence of erstwhile compatriot Roman Abramovich - Tszyu has lived in Sydney for 12 years but has contested 10 of his last 11 bouts in the US. His only appearance in the last two years, because of heel and shoulder injuries, was the chilling destruction of Sharmba Mitchell, who, as we have seen here, is no slouch.

Hatton's preparation has been conducted as usual with trainer Billy "The Preacher" Graham in a crowded gym of a sweaty bodybuilding emporium in a Manchester suburb. He looks and sounds remarkably confident.

As he chats in the gym office, the Preacher's pet, an iguana the size of a small dragon, scurries up a wall. But Hatton is the one breathing fire. "I have never been as sharp or determined. This is the fight I have been waiting for since the day I first laced on the gloves. I've always had the confidence and the ability. Now I have the opportunity."

The 35-year-old Tszyu knows what it is like to go up against a hostile crowd having beaten Julio Cesar Chavez in front of 15,000 Mexicans in Phoenix but Hatton feels his opponent will not have experienced one quite as intimidating. "It's more like you're at a football match. They're very passionate, they'll be throwing every punch with me." He reckons the huge volume of support he will get in the arena will rock Tszyu on his heels even before the bell sounds. "I know he has handled similar situations pretty well, but I dare anybody, no matter how experienced, not to be daunted by the noise of those 22,000 people. They'll be baying for his blood."

Style-wise this seems the perfect match. Inevitably Hatton will fight the only way he can, going forward with both fists blazing, with the Australian waiting his moment to jump on him and try to pick him off. "The pace of the fight will be a key factor," argues Hatton. "He's won a lot of his fights in the first four rounds, but he hasn't done that many rounds in the last four years because of injury lay-offs. From what I've seen, he doesn't like to fight out of pace, the danger for me is his power, but if he doesn't nail me with that big right hand in the first four rounds - and I intend to make sure he doesn't - then I reckon things will swing my way."

Hatton has been working on a tighter defensive strategy. "My work-rate is what I do best and in the end that will win me the fight, but I know I am going to have to be cautious, get in very close and take as little stick as possible. I know Tszyu is going to bring the best out of me. It's come at the perfect time for me. Had it come three or four years ago, I probably would have fallen short, but now at my prime I've never felt as good."

Tszyu, enticed here by the thick end of a joint £4m purse, aims to become undisputed world champion for the second time before he retires. He has a Wigan-based entourage the size of a football team, and offers this sobering warning. "This will be a hard fight because Ricky is brave and has heart. He may think he can get to me with his body shots. But I've done so much work on my stomach if he wants to punch me there I'll say 'Go ahead my friend, you're welcome.' And then he will be ready for this?"Ominously, he waves his right fist in the air.

The only man who has beaten Tszyu in 33 bouts is the American Vince Phillips (albeit eight years ago), who Hatton himself subsequently defeated. So Tszyu is not Mr Invincible, but while Hatton clearly has the will to win, can he truly find the way? He may need to do a Liverpool - and then some - by coming from behind to score a stunning upset over one of the greatest gladiators of the past couple of decades. It is possible, but the more probable scenario is that Tszyu's right hand will explode on its target around the halfway stage.

Whatever happens this is a ring war that will be brutal, and almost certainly bloody. Watch and learn, Amir. And welcome to the real world.

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