James Lawton: Hatton falls short of greatness, but for him there is no shame in defeat

Yes, twice he failed, both occasions with humiliation, but he did so at the highest level

Boxing history will no doubt consider Ricky Hatton much less favourably now, especially when he is compared to Joe Calzaghe. Yet why does this cause a certain degree of unease in the wake of the Manchester Hitman's evisceration here at the breathtaking hands of Manny Pacquiao?

It is because only the harshest judge would fail to separate crucial aspects of the triumphant Last Hurrah of Calzaghe at Madison Square Garden last November and what could well prove to be the climactic trauma of Hatton's ring experience at the weekend.

The difference, of course, is that while Pacquiao is in the prime of a career that has carried him to the unchallenged status of the fight game's best pound-for-pound performer, the man against whom Calzaghe fashioned his hugely lauded exit was the shell of a brilliant fighter formerly known as Roy Jones Jnr.

You might say the talented Calzaghe had a much sounder strategy – and surer sense of what he could do and what he couldn't at various stages of his career. But the fact is that twice Hatton elected to go in with men acknowledged to be the best across all the weight divisions, first Floyd Mayweather Jnr and then, catastrophically as it turned out, Pacquiao.

There never have been, and never will be, prizes for finishing second in boxing. Yet if something had to be given to the broken Hatton, apart from his $8m (£5.3m) pay-cheque, as he sought the Las Vegas shadows – and refused to speak to a British media which has generally treated him as a rough but still shining national treasure – it was the concession that he had taken the talent he had been given to its very limits.

Yes, twice he failed, on both occasions with some sharp humiliation, but what can never be taken away is that he did so at the highest possible level.

Had he remained under the protective grasp of his former promoter, Frank Warren, who presented him with the prize of Kostya Tszyu at a time when the great champion's own sense of his dwindling powers had taken him into retirement, he may not have been required to live through the purgatory which came to him again in the MGM Grand Garden in the small hours of Sunday morning. He might have avoided the most dangerous flame, as, it must be said, did Calzaghe, a stranger to America until his last two fights, against opponents of a combined age of 82.

There might have been more comfortable yet still lucrative options, but then this is about the art, and the business of match-making and promotion. It doesn't so often carry us to the cruel truths that exploded around Hatton's head against both Mayweather Jnr and Pacquiao – and detached his army of stunned fans from their old understanding of what precisely constituted a great fighter.

It doesn't take us to the heart of boxing's most basic appeal, the prospect of fighters coming into the ring at the peak of their powers and against the best possible opposition.

What brought many of Hatton's fans to Las Vegas, apart from the likelihood of a boisterous good time, was the answer to the question that is properly asked by any group of supporters. How good are their heroes? It will never be, how good are their promoters, and how cleverly have their careers been shaped?

So whenever now the question of how good was Ricky Hatton is asked, his record provides an indisputable answer.

It says that he was tough, a born scrapper, and that he took himself to a series of world titles and a rich and much applauded career. But it also says that he did not belong in the highest class, and if there was any doubt about this it was resolved, with overpowering evidence, by Mayweather Jnr and Pacquiao.

It was not the conclusion Hatton pined for last week here as he became riled by the growing suspicion that whatever he produced against Pacquiao would not be nearly enough, but his suffering in the ring did yield that answer to a compelling question that is far from so readily available in the record of Calzaghe's career.

How good was Joe Calzaghe? The truth is that we will never truly know. His ability was, no doubt, self evident but when he was ushered into the company of great British post-war fighters, perhaps even as the greatest someone no less distinguished than Barry McGuigan suggested, it was reasonable to ask where and how often and in how difficult the circumstances it had been tested.

This was maybe not a popular view at the time of those victories over Bernard Hopkins and Jones Jnr but for some of us at ringside it was again hard to resist in such close proximity to the terrible ordeal inflicted by Pacquiao.

Hatton's dilemma over the timing of his retirement, so soon after talking enthusiastically about the possibility of victory over the Filipino and the enhancement of his legacy in fights with Juan Manuel Marquez and Mayweather Jnr, was shrouded on Sunday by his refusal to meet the press. Given the warmth of the coverage of so much of his career it seemed, even in difficult circumstances, a graceless gesture, especially when set against the mystification and concern seen on the faces of so many of his fans when he went for his post-fight examination at a local hospital.

What couldn't be doubted was the pressure to retire that must now rest on Hatton. He created much of it himself when he talked so freely about the consequences of an upset victory over Pacquiao. He said he wanted to fight Marquez and then re-write the Mayweather Jnr defeat. The outrageous scale of that ambition was savagely defined by the superb performance of Pacquiao, one which now would make something of a mockery of any alternative fight plans that might be hatched in the void of such a crushing defeat.

It means that in this most unforgiving of sports Hatton has effectively sealed his own fate, at least one not weighed down by an inevitable undertow of ridicule. That may sound harsh but, really, having set himself the targets of Pacquiao, Marquez and a return with Mayweather, and seen them swept so far beyond his reach, what really can he now achieve in the ring?

Only the glum acceptance that he has been forced down from the peaks of competition he set himself with considerable nerve and courage. This is a reality that Pacquiao enforced from the first bell and Hatton and his people will discard only at grave risk to the reputation he sought to protect here at the weekend.

It was one that put him in the company of more gifted British fighters like Kenny Buchanan and John Conteh and, supremely in more recent years, the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Lennox Lewis. He elected himself to the terrain of fighters who were ready to fight anywhere and anyone in pursuit of their belief that they were the best.

It means Hatton's fall so far below his own expectations here should be a matter not of shame but sorrow, and this is particularly so when we consider the quality and the background of the man who took him down.

Apart from his sublime talent, Pacquiao also represents the purest of fighting spirit. In his passions and his pieties, and the intensity of his arrivals in the ring, he is, if you like, something of a throwback to the great Roberto Duran. No doubt a more benign version of the man reputed to have knocked down a horse with a punch to its temple, and who shared with Hatton a tendency to blow up between fights, most notably when he failed in his second collision with Sugar Ray Leonard, Pacquiao certainly has the aura of an implacable warrior.

More than anything, though, he represents the idea of a fighter who works ceaselessly to meet any challenge in the ring. In the truest sense, he operates with the force of a deep sense of vocation. This is something Ricky Hatton has from time to time conceded is not within his power to claim. However, at a time in his career when he could have taken an easier course, he elected to go into the hardest possible place boxing could offer him – a ring which contained the sport's best fighter. This, on its own, is an epitaph of some considerable honour.