Boxing: Hatton rumbles on but is fat lady warming up?

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The Independent Online

Ricky Hatton won every round on Saturday night, 55,000 people traipsed out of this stadium smiling and a glorious fight in New York is planned for October.

But there was still something wrong with his performance. It sounds like a bad joke, like the apocryphal tale about George Best, the champagne bottles, the £20 notes and Miss World in his suite at The Hilton, Park Lane, when the waiter arrived with a tray of caviar and turned to the boy wonder and said: "Georgie Boy, where did it all go wrong?" Boxing, however, is not a joke.

Long before the wall of denial surrounded Hatton in the post-fight cheering club it was obvious that everybody involved with the boxer is determined to ignore the facts. On Saturday night Hatton was easier to hit than he has been at any point in this truly brilliant career and even more alarming was his sudden reaction to almost every single punch that he was caught with.

There was a time when Hatton shrugged off the most fierce of punches with disdain but on Saturday he repeatedly showed everybody at ringside that for a second at least he was hurt. The second of reaction which is a tell-tale indicator of dwindling punch-resistance was tragic to watch.

Juan Lazcano is a veteran Mexican who was hand-picked with apparent genius because of his inactivity and his lack of damaging punching power against high quality light-welterweights. He often looked uneasy under Hatton's pressure but there were perhaps 20 or even 30 seconds in most of the rounds when Lazcano stood his ground, planted his feet and connected with every punch he threw.

Hatton from a few years ago, when his technical work with his trainer Billy Graham included hours and hours of blocking and avoiding punches, would have walked through Lazcano's punches or simply avoided them. Instead, and to the delight of the capacity and raucous crowd, he was caught again and again and in Hatton's fighting style that meant that he came back again and again.

The glorious homecoming which started off with the boxer entering the stadium wearing a fat suit was becoming increasingly serious as each round passed and the temperature dropped. At no point did Lazcano look in danger of toppling over from the punches but there were several moments when the referee could have walked in-between the boxers and rescued the Mexican.

It seemed that just at the moment of potential intervention something sounded in Lazcano's head that triggered his fightback and Hatton had no reply but bravery for Lazcano's few moments of glory in each round. In the last two rounds both boxers were bruised, cut and tired but, not surprisingly, 55,000 people managed to motivate and move Hatton through the often painful seconds. There was joy and fireworks at the fight's conclusion but in the ring there was a noticeably icy embrace between Hatton and Graham. Rumours of a split have been spreading since the minutes after the defeat last December against American Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas, but in the weeks before Saturday's fight there had been denial after denial.

Hatton was happy with his performance and the men that will promote him in the future, Golden Boy's duo of Richard Schaeffer and Oscar de la Hoya, spoke boldly of bigger fights in front of bigger audiences. Their commitment to the Hatton show is unswerving and their assessment that the Manchester boxer is the sport's main attraction is spot on, but that raises a few disturbing questions.

If Hatton, at 29 and after 11 years as a professional, is finally starting to slow down and feel the effects of both the punches in the ring and the pain of losing weight away from the bright lights, there is every chance that more defeats loom in a future that now seems to be running out.

There is talk of a fight against the International Boxing Federation light-welterweight champion Paulie Malignaggi at Maddison Square Garden in October, which Hatton would in theory start as favourite. Malignaggi came close to losing his title in Saturday night's chief supporting fight but scraped home on points and declared a desperate interest to fight Hatton. However, Malignaggi could be both the worst and the best opponent for Hatton. The New York fighter lacks a devastating punch and that is good for Hatton but on his day he can be amazingly fluid and that could be bad.

If a fight against Malignaggi was taking place 12 months ago the bookmakers would have closed the account because Hatton would have been an overwhelming favourite. Sadly, the new Hatton is just a good fighter and not any longer the outstanding, the thrilling and unmissable boxer he was in the past.