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Ricky Hatton homecoming promises real contest after the confessionals

Senchenko should be a tricky opponent but victory tonight may earn Malignaggi rematch

Ricky Hatton is fighting again tomorrow night after an absence of three years, several rehab pit stops, late-nights with a knife at the ready and a few false starts. It will be a relief from the relentless grief when he finally starts throwing punches again.

Tomorrow at the MEN Arena in Manchester, where so many of Hatton’s memorable nights played out in front of his fanatical fans, he will enter the ring in a potentially difficult fight against Vyacheslav Senchenko, who just a few months ago was an unbeaten world champion.

Senchenko’s role has been lost in the last two months as a seemingly endless stream of profiles, reports, documentaries and debates have all featured cocaine, sex and his flirtation with suicide. Hatton has been unwell, now he is better and tonight he fights.

Thankfully, Hatton and his latest trainer, Bob Shannon, have not overlooked the Ukraine fighter and he has sparred for nine weeks and not his customary five. It is a subtle adjustment that has been invisible under the clamour of ghoulish curiosity and it compliments both Hatton’s commitment and Shannon’s intelligence.

“To be honest I quite enjoyed getting hit on the chin again,” admitted Hatton. “It got harder, I got caught, I got marked up but it always felt right. I knew I was back.” There is always the chance when a fighter returns after a bad loss that he left something on the canvas in his previous fight; Hatton and Shannon are unanimous in their belief that there will not be any ‘gun-shy’ moments tonight.

Hatton’s last fight started badly and ended with him unconscious in the middle of the ring. His training camp was a disaster, his preparation diabolical and instead of pulling out with a week to go he went in with Manny Pacquiao. Arguably, the pre-fight disgrace is the root of his post-fight breakdown. “I never should have been in the ring,” Hatton insists. He is right and in Las Vegas that week it was obvious.

Under Shannon, a quality Manchester fight figure without a boast in his body, there has been a gradual camp, always calm and Hatton had looked fantastic for about the last two months. His weight had come down from somewhere near 14 stone to about 11 stone, his skin looked good and even some cynics converted to the comeback. However, he looks a little drained this week and perhaps the last few pounds have proved more difficult than he imagined. In fairness, Hatton always looked drained at weigh-ins, not that his travelling or domestic army is bothered by his drawn appearance. In Las Vegas thousands watched him strip for the scales and it was the same yesterday at the Grand Hall of the town hall where about 3,000 watched him weigh just inside 10.7, the welterweight limit. Hatton is back, make no mistake.  

However, it could all start to go wrong by about round three if Senchenko, who can fight a bit, starts to find his range and leave gaps between his feet and Hatton’s feet. Hatton more than ever needs a ready accomplice for his homecoming party. “I know it will be emotional, I expect to cry and I want to use all that emotion in a positive way,” Hatton admits. I have a feeling Hatton wants it to be quick.

Senchenko’s only defeat in 33 fights was in April when Paulie Malignaggi stopped him to take the WBA welterweight title. Malignaggi was stopped by Hatton in the 11th round in 2009 and is in Manchester for the fight. “I pick Ricky to win on points,” said Malignaggi, who has an open invite to Hatton for a rematch. 

Hatton at 34 is certainly not too old to fight and the choice of Senchenko was an inspired risk because a win puts him, without the need for another fight, in the ring with Malignaggi. Tonight all the known facts about weight, the drama of his life and the horror of his last fight will become meaningless once he is left on his own in the ring. His legs and chin will then finally get the real test that is both impossible to replicate and, equally difficult, to predict. We will all find out by about 10:30 tomorrow night whether Hatton has made a mistake or the best move of his life.