When Ricky Hatton and Manny Pacquiao square up on Saturday before a sell-out crowd of 16,000 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the Hitman's Ring Magazine and IBO light-welterweight belts will be at stake, but the real title will be that of the world's best pound-for-pound fighter.
It is, Hatton says, "a day I've dreamed of", pointing out it is not the first time he has challenged for what he calls the P4P crown. "I did all right last time," he laughs. "I came second."
That was nearly 18 months ago, when he was left wild-eyed and legless in the same arena by Floyd Mayweather, whose flamboyant father is now in his corner and, claims Hatton, is largely responsible for a remarkable ring renaissance.
"You've seen the difference since I went to work with him," he says. "The first thing he said to me when I started training was, 'What fucking weight are you?' Mind you, after three weeks with me, he was on the KFC himself. But seriously, I've never been in such peak condition."
Speaking from an unprepossessing makeshift gym down a suburban side-street which seems a world away from the neon glitter of The Strip, Hatton tells us: "I've been here for five weeks now and, to be honest, being away from home, from my family and my son Campbell, well, it does my bleedin' head in. It's really hard work. It gets me down a little bit, but then I know it's for the family I'm here in the first place. Without a doubt this is the best shape I've been in my entire career.
"Before the [Paulie] Malignaggi fight, some people were saying that I was all washed up, but I put those doubts to rest, I was revitalised thanks to Floyd. I've not gone as daft between fights and not put as much weight on. I'm getting a little bit older and wiser.
"There's a lot of things happening for me outside of the ring, I'm promoting and managing other boxers now. Handling their careers means that I have to be sensible. I don't want to look in the eyes of another boxer and say, 'Sorry I made a pig's ear of that, mate'. But don't get me wrong, I'm still Ricky Fatton at heart and I always will be."
They are boxing's oddest couple – a beer-swilling, self-confessed Mancunian jack-the-lad and a 57-year-old epithet-spewing guru who happily shows you the bullet holes in his legs, the result of being blasted by his brother-in-law, and tells you that he went to prison for "dealing coke". "You wanna buy some?" he jokes.
Hatton's former promoter Frank Warren once remarked of the estranged sire of the only man to beat Hatton in 46 fights: "The only thing he can teach Ricky is how to swear better." What Hatton does swear is that under Mayweather he has been remodelled to the extent that he is convinced he can outspeed and outslug the little Filipino, a fellow 30-year-old who is one of the most personable characters in world sport, a man who has gone from the gutter to greatness in assuming the mantle discarded by Mayweather Jnr as the world's best pound-for-pounder.
Pacquiao has been a champion in four weight divisions from flyweight to lightweight and is a demi-god in his own country. "We're both nice men out of the ring," says Hatton. "Just not so nice inside it."
After the Mayweather fight, before he met and mastered a disappointingly passive Malignaggi last November following a laboured win over Juan Lazcano, Ricky was beginning to look more like Rocky. Hatton admits: "I was just like a wreck, crying into my beer every night. It would have been easy for me to throw the towel in, to say I've won four world titles and be happy with that, but that's not what a great champion's about, and I want to be remembered as a great champion.
"Now this is the best Ricky Hatton that's ever been, even better than the one that beat Kostya Tszyu. I've got a little more finesse and I'm thinking about what I'm doing instead of steaming in. Yes, Manny's a decent puncher, but this is my division. He's a south-paw who stands in front of you within firing distance, he doesn't run for cover, but if I make him miss he can fall off-balance and that's where the openings could appear. I've always been a fan of his, the way he shuffles in and out with his feet and tries to bring you on to the punch, so I think I know what he's up to. I intend to beat him at his own game and bring him on to my punches.
"He's been down several times from body shots and he even got knocked down by a jab once, so he's vulnerable [Pacquiao has three defeats in his 48-fight career]. OK, so he looked great against Oscar [De La Hoya] but with respect to Oscar, he wasn't too difficult to beat that night. Pacquiao was fighting a punching bag, a dead man walking. He has been caught and shook up by [Marco Antonio] Barrera and [Juan Manuel] Marquez. He's going to find me a real handful. I'll be on his chest throwing punches.
"Whenever he gets caught with a shot, he bangs his gloves and comes straight back. He looks pissed off when he gets hit, and that's the danger, because he is very aggressive, but that could work in my favour because that's the way I drew Tszyu into the fight.
"Mayweather was a master of defence, a counter-puncher. He'd set traps for you and he was a damn sight bigger than me. Manny's different, he comes for you, and I'm bigger than him. He'll be thinking, 'Jesus, this is going to be tough. This fella doesn't leave you alone.' When I stand next to him I feel so much bigger; it's unusual for a short-arse like me to have a height advantage, albeit a slight one.
"Everyone gets carried away with his speed, but don't forget I'm a bit of a whippet myself. In the past I've been a little crash, bang, wallop, but now I'm back to my boxing. I accept that Manny is the favourite, but I'm surprised his trainer, Freddie Roach, says he'll knock me out in three rounds. It certainly doesn't make me shit me pants. I'm so confident for this fight, it's unreal. Remortgage the house and put it all on me."
This is a fight that is as much about the egos and strategies of their respective high-profile cornermen as the combatants themselves. Roach, 48, is known in the business as The Professor and is now bracketed among the world's greatest trainers, alongside Angelo Dundee and the late Eddie Futch. Though battling Parkinson's, Roach has been named trainer of the year for an unprecedented third time after helping Pacquiao overcome De La Hoya. Just as Mayweather seems to have transformed Hatton, Roach has reconstructed the career of Amir Khan and has also worked with Mike Tyson. Mayweather, according to Roach, "is a legend in his own mind. I know he is trying to deprogramme Ricky from being a one-dimensional puncher, but it's too late. The fact is Floyd couldn't programme a VCR."
However, Mayweather seems to have managed to call time on Hatton's famed between-bouts binge drinking. "I don't think me cutting out the booze totally will happen," says Hatton, "But I've tried to meet him halfway. I am what I am and that's what makes me. It's like Roy Keane or Wayne Rooney. If you took away the fire in their belly, they would not be the same on the football pitch. I have done it like that my whole career and I am sick of hearing my lifestyle will catch up with me. How many fights do you want me to have? I've had 46 and been a pro 12 years. When is it going to catch up with me? When I've had 62 fights?
"I've come up my whole career with people thinking I was just a fat little brawler who puts on too much weight between fights. Tszyu was going to flatten me. It seems like I've spent my whole career with knockers. Nobody is giving me a prayer in this fight either. It's them knockers that I'm going to knock on their arses.
"Actually I don't give two shits what people say. Here I am still top of the bill in Las Vegas. But I admit I'm down the home straight now. I don't want too many more fights."
If this is to be Hatton's Last Hurrah (and my own hunch is that there could be a repeat of the Mayweather scenario, with a mid-fight stoppage or a steaming points win for Pacquiao) at least Hatton's future is secure. He will carry on in boxing. "Ricky Hatton without boxing would be like fish and chips without salt and vinegar. I've now got my own company, Punch Promotions. I think I've done everything beyond my wildest dreams, I've had so much happiness out of boxing, I've achieved all my goals, and once I hang my gloves up the next best thing to replace it with is to help fulfil the dreams of other fighters. I'd like to be a friend to my fighters and to be honest with them, which is sometimes very rare with promoters.
"This fight means everything to me. You can't go higher than being the best P4P fighter of all the weight divisions. And no matter how many pints you have, no matter how many parties you go to, when you get your hand raised at the end of a fight, it's the greatest feeling in the world.
"I've never gone along with all that celebrity bollocks. I've no airs and graces and you'll always get a straight answer out of me. Look, I'm not saying I'm the best fighter who ever lived, but if I could be remembered as one of the best, well, that'll do me. I'd be very, very content with that."
Hatton versus Pacquiao is live on Sky Box Office. To order the fight, call: 08442 410 888
Hitman v Pacman
David Haye 'If Ricky beats the genuine No 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world it'll be a mammoth achievement. This guy is the real goods. Hatton will need to fight better than he did against Kostya Tszyu to beat someone as savvy and in their prime as Pacquiao.'
Amir Khan 'It's 50-50. If Ricky settles down he could take it, but if Manny starts fast and Ricky lets him win the first two rounds it will be tough for him to get back. I've sparred a lot with Manny and he's the fastest guy I've ever been in the ring with, so the big question is whether Ricky can handle his speed. I see it as a close points verdict either way.'
Mike Tyson 'Pacquiao will win. I like Ricky but he is just not elusive enough to handle Manny's pressure attack. With Manny, it's something like I used to be, his punches come in bunches.'
And the bookies... Pacquaio is the 2-1 on favourite, Hatton is 6-4Reuse content