A long forgotten scene, enacted in a back street of Ancoats, one of the tougher districts of Manchester, came back to life this week. It featured a kid, raggedly dressed and with close cropped hair, no more than seven or eight, trailing a stick along the windows and doors of the terraced houses and a large, expensively dressed businessman waiting in his path waiting to remonstrate, maybe even lecture. The kid avoided eye contact until the very last moment, then looked up and said, "Hiya, snotty." The boy walked on, light-footed and assured and inviting the world to take him on. There were no offers that day.
Ricky Hatton wasn't around at the time, but his spirit was, his inheritance was right there.
Almost every utterance of Hatton in Las Vegas has carried the resonance of that unknown boy, restless, edgy, hungry for some kind of action, some kind of recognition, however it came.
Hatton is not the purest fighter you ever saw. He does not have the range and the authority of the Welshman Joe Calzaghe. If you explored every corner of his armoury you would not find a single sure-fire lethal weapon in the highest class. He doesn't have the ease or the judgement of someone comfortable in the shoes of a champion. This is because, like that kid walking down the street, he sees his life not as the exerting but the challenging of authority. He is the outsider insisting that no door can be closed in his face automatically. It can only be done with maximum effort and, almost certainly, a little pain.
Hatton has entranced the nation this week with his brave talk and his provocative swagger. He has taken the fairyland of Vegas at face value, almost swooned at the sight of his own ruggedly cut features projected in neon, but none of this appears to have distracted him from his central purpose. It is to pummel and batter, and perhaps soak up punishment, while confronting the talented, narcissistic Floyd Mayweather, and say to him, in so many words of body language, "Hiya, Snotty... do you really think you can stand in my way?"
On his own face value, Hatton is an amiable refugee from the outrageous TV series Shameless, a young man of huge and violent appetites determined, at all costs, to announce that he is alive. But the reason he has touched the nation, of course, runs a little deeper than that. He is, clearly, what he says he is. He is a fighter imbued with the confidence of a big, old, tough city that has always worked for its living, and its opportunity to play.
Hatton's exuberance on a huge stage, the kind he has dreamt about most of his adult life, is a reminder of the effect of another Mancunian at a moment when the nation was united by a great sports triumph.
Nobby Stiles danced his way into the hearts of his generation when, with his false teeth discarded, he jigged in a discordant ecstasy when the World Cup was won in 1966. There was no coy preening for the cameras. What you saw was what you had, a fierce little competitor who had given everything he had.
Even today Stiles is a valuable witness to the inspiring influence of Hatton on young people in those areas of the city where gang and drug wars long ago brought a new and fatal edge to the old imperative of growing up strong and independent rather than going down under the weight of unpromising circumstances. The diamond jewellry of the Moss Side dealers and pimps are less alluring now when the kids see what Ricky Hatton has won for himself in the gym and out on the road and in the ring.
Forlornly, Mike Tyson once saw himself as such an example of an alternative route through life when he emerged from his days as a mugger clad in a ski mask and an inmate in a youth correctional section to fight for the world title. Tyson went back to his old high school in Brooklyn and reported that so many of his old classmates had died in the streets or were locked up in prison, and that he was there to say there were other ways to make a good living. For Tyson such salvation was a sad illusion, of course, but in Hatton there is the living evidence of a backstreet boy who in the small hours of tomorrow morning will help draw one of the biggest paying audiences in the history of his or any other sport.
The allure of the fighter has always been strong in the streets of Manchester. Stiles recalls, "For a little while I showed some promise as a fighter, winning my first contest very easily. My father allowed me to stay up late to hear the Randy Turpin-Sugar Ray Robinson fight and after the excitement of that, and the thrill of hearing Turpin declared the new middleweight champion of the world, I wore myself out shadow boxing.
"My father told me about the great Manchester fighters who had performed at Belle Vue Johnny King, Jock McAvoy and our own local hero Jackie Brown. Jackie was a superb flyweight and he was revered in the Collyhurst neighbourhood. He lived round the corner from us with his sister Mary, a lovely refined lady, and kids like me would shout 'Hiya, champ,' from a respectful distance when he ran by in the street in his training gear. He was long finished as a fighter and worked as a car park attendant. His aura lingered on, though, and no one wanted to dwell on the fact that the ring had taken its toll on the great man.
"Maybe Jackie was a little punchy after being knocked down 11 times by the Scotsman Benny Lynch at Belle Vue, but in our eyes he was still a star. When he went by us we all felt bigger than we did before and we were proud of who we were and where we came from. I would have liked to have spoken to him, say how much he was respected by me and my mates, but I never got up the nerve. I suppose it was enough to feel his presence among us."
Such is the uplift, exaggerated so profoundly by the white heat of the attention that will be paid to Hatton when he slips through the ropes at the MGM Grand Casino, on offer tonight. Can Hatton deliver? Already, certainly, he has staked out the claim of a fighter who swears that he will dredge up all the best of himself however difficult the challenge. Other British fighters, with the notable exception of Lennox Lewis, have made such pledges in Las Vegas however, and have been ambushed. Barry McGuigan perished in the open-air heat and Frank Bruno, having briefly stunned Tyson in their first fight, subsided without hope in the second. Hatton has hope and fire and something that is not so easy to chart; a hitherto unbreakable belief in his destiny as a winner. Forty-four fights have brought forty-four victories, but then none of them were achieved against the quality of ringcraft and timing Mayweather will bring to his task tonight.
The Mayweather camp has adopted a haughty style, suggesting that not included in Hatton's attributes is the kind of instinctive jab and ring management that has carried their man to his generally accepted status as the world's best pound-for-pound fighter. Mayweather, maybe, has been a little quick to announce his superiority, but then that is his style. A violent, warring and dysfunctional family have perhaps brought shadows to the psyche we cannot truly assess.
Where not even the fiercest of Hatton's admirers can stray is into the belief that so far their man has done more than wage a superb campaign of self-belief to the point where he indeed has the chance to cross the line between the yearning for and the achievement of his life's ambition to announce himself as the best in the world. The suspicion here is that Mayweather will be too knowing, too cunning, and that, after the furies of Hatton are spent, he will triumph by tko around the 11th round. That is where the head resides. The heart? It is back in a Manchester street, looking at a kid who has, for so long, repelled all fears.
Who will win and why
GLENN McCRORY (former world champion)
Who will win? Hatton.
How? All I know is that he'll win.
Why? The reason I am so confident? Because Ricky is so confident. I talked to him and it was great to hear him so relaxed, so focused and so sure of himself. He has a total conviction that he will win. And so do I.