Ricky Hatton's alter ego is a comedian delivering ribald one-liners at the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. He leans with one arm draped across the mike as the patter flows. It was this orientation he adopted after his stoppage defeat, his first as a professional, to Floyd Mayweather Jnr five years ago. "I f***ing slipped," he said, the lines of his broken face cracking into a smile. Comedy was the way out, a go-to routine for diffusing awkward moments. Hatton was well beaten that night, and hurt. A fine fighting instinct and courageous heart had met its match in the slick power of the better man.
There was a sense then that Hatton's career, one of the best in British boxing, had run its course, reached a natural full stop. This was his 44th professional fight. Hatton was not a delicate flower in the ring. He did not fight on the end of a long reach, behind a searing jab before stepping adroitly out of range. He walked through incoming fire. He took a punch to give one, in the hope of landing the telling blow in the soft tissues under the ribs. It was attritional stuff, a style that carries a higher tariff the further up the boxing food chain you go.
Hatton went all the way. His victory over Kostya Tszyu in Manchester seven years ago was one of the finest seen in a British ring. By increments he was edging towards Las Vegas and the big show. And what fun it was. Tens of thousands of happy Mancs followed him down the Strip. A band of players from The Sun newspaper piped him in and out of fight week. "There's only one Ricky Hatton" echoed around the casinos. Football comes to Vegas. The weigh-in was mad. The lads stood for hours in queues that snaked around the restaurants and bars and on to the casino floor. The MC inside the MGM Grand Arena could not be heard when our hero stepped out of his tracksuit to reveal the abs of Dionysus on the scales. "Come on," screamed Ricky, "let's 'ave it."
And have it he did, over 10 coruscating rounds. Mayweather paid credit to the bravery and skill of his opponent. He admitted to surprise at how good a fighter Hatton was. Hatton briefly troubled Mayweather early on. There was a shot down the pipe in the third and more aggression in the fifth. But as the fight wore on Mayweather demonstrated his superiority. The eighth was particularly punishing. Hatton was spent and outclassed at the end. This was the kind of defeat that underscores a career. It told Hatton how far he had come and, more importantly, that there was probably nowhere for him to go.
Nevertheless the other great protagonist in the light welterweight/welterweight firmament, Manny Pacquiao, was out there waiting to be taken. Pacquiao offered a different challenge, one that might give Hatton a way of re-establishing his credentials. He would never beat Mayweather in a month of Sundays but to take down Pacquiao, well, that would be something. Out came the pipers. Across the Atlantic did the Mancunian diaspora gather once more in a Hatton-fest that would be different this time.
It was different. Brutally so. Pacquiao smashed Hatton in two vicious rounds. When Hatton's head bounced off the canvas at the end a primal gasp, associated with fear and dread, filled the arena. Hatton lay motionless, his body traumatised by the shock and awe of Pacquiao's chilling attack. Hatton had gone to the well once too often, ballooned and dieted between bouts too many times, trained to the point of exhaustion. Enough was enough. Pacquiao's fists told him so. And so it was that Hatton departed the scene, a first-class career brought to a close over successive bouts by two of the greatest fighters to lace gloves.
But hold on a minute. It can't end like that, lads. That is not how it was meant to be for me. I'm Ricky Hatton. The Hitman. I'm a legend. A fighter. A winner. I owe it to my family, my children, my parents, my city, my people. I have been through some stuff these past three years, brought shame on those who love me and care about me. I owe it to them to go give it one last hurrah, to remind them what the real Ricky Hatton is all about, to show them that the desperate, dissolute, drug-abusing loser that I became has been chased out of town for good.
Oh Ricky. You lovable fool. We never felt let down by you, even at your lowest ebb. We knew you were suffering and admired how, in the end, you acknowledged your troubles and faced them down. You said you were sorry. That was enough for us. You don't have to knock 10 bells out of AN Other to earn our respect, to prove your value. What you were as a fighter is etched in the blood of those you beat, all 45 of them. One more won't make a difference. Another defeat on the other hand, might. Not to us, but to you, and those you love.