Steve Bunce: Brave scrapper Hatton has nous to avoid desperate end

The spectre of Ali's fate hangs over every boxing comeback but Ricky Hatton will be the first to realise if he is making a mistake
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The Independent Online

It is said in closed and private boxing circles that the last man to realise that the dream is over is often the fighter, but I have to tell you that is complete and utter rubbish.

Boxing is a harsh, wicked and cruel business at times where the weak are exploited, the powerful mostly reign without any moral dilemmas and men that should know better allow their fighters to take risk after risk. Muhammad Ali needed rescuing long before the shame of his last fight, but too many people were still watching, applauding and getting rich.

The inevitable news that Manchester's Ricky Hatton will officially put an end to his ring exile early this summer has shocked nobody inside the ignoble art, but divided many.

The rugged and adored scrapper has been wrestling with his conscience since emerging from the painful defeat last May at the tiny fists of Manny Pacquiao. The troubled debate inside his head finished with yesterday's firm declaration to continue boxing. However, it remains to be seen if his body can take him where his head wants him to go.

It also, and intriguingly, remains to be seen if the people supporting Hatton's ring return will watch his preparations through rose-tinted glasses or with open minds. It will not be easy spotting problems because it is hard to gauge a boxer's decline as the gentle dwindling of abilities are only really visible to experts. In the summer of 2008 I was convinced that Hatton's timing and, more alarmingly, his reaction time to punches had diminished. I was ringside with 57,000 people to watch Hatton beat Juan Lazcano at the City of Manchester Stadium and I saw enough subtle hints, moments when he shifted his head a fraction slow, to be concerned. It took several months before Hatton and the people at his side admitted that they were all scared by what they had seen that night. Hatton said that he actually considered walking away. However, they agreed that a combination of factors was responsible for the sudden decline and they sat, talked and it was decided to continue boxing.

In December 2008, with new trainer Floyd Mayweather Snr in the corner, a brilliantly refreshed and rejuvenated Hatton stopped Paulie Malignaggi in 11 textbook rounds. Hatton was moving his head, his feet and thinking with his punches against Malignaggi, who was a world-class fighter and is still a top operator. The old Hatton looked like he was back and it was a great relief to watch him looking that good.

At that point Hatton had been a pro for 12 years and had won 45 fights, fought in title fights for nine years and had lost just the once when he was stopped by Floyd Mayweather Jr in December 2007. The way that he had beaten Malignaggi and, as he put it, his "new love" for the sport put an end to the clamour that followed the Lazcano win of people calling in private and public for him to retire.

Last year Hatton was back in Las Vegas with 30,000 travelling fans at his side for yet another showdown against the world's best pound-for-pound fighter. Nobody, we all need to remember, called it a mismatch before the first bell, but within a minute everybody inside the MGM's Grand Garden knew that the dream was over. Pacquiao was chilling and it ended in round two; it was an ending that very few predicted.

Hatton has been silent since then and only admitted that he will return to put an end to the constant hounding by people asking him if he is ever going to fight again. I was with Hatton last Saturday in Chorley at a dinner. He was in sensational form, performing a flawless set for over 60 minutes and not looking in bad condition for a man who loves a pint and a kebab. It was clear to me that he is desperate to box again and equally desperate to fight a ranked fighter; somebody like the Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez who will really test him, or could even beat him. "I have to prove that I can still do it and I need a good fighter for that," he said.

He will now need to convince his dad, his mum and his brother that he still has something left and that is not an easy triumvirate to win over. Hatton will not fight if anybody close to him thinks that he should stay retired and that is why the training camp will be 14 weeks long. There are no gung-ho cheerleaders in the Ricky Hatton business, trust me.

I think Hatton could be the first fighter to put an end to a comeback long before it is obvious that there is nothing left but bravery. Hatton will never become what thousands in the boxing business shamefully allowed Ali to become and for that reason I will support the return until Hatton calls it off.

Hat's magic: Ricky's record

Born 6 October, 1978, Stockport

Nicknames The Hitman, Ricky Fatton, Manchester Mexican

Debut fight September 1997 v Colin McAuley in Widnes (Won by TKO in Round One)

June 2005 Beats Kostya Tszyu – considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world – in Manchester to win the IBF light-welterweight title

November 2005 Beats Carlos Maussa to add WBA crown

December 2006 Awarded MBE

December 2007 Knocked out by Floyd Mayweather in 10th round at the MGM in his first career defeat

May 2009 Manny Pacquiao ends Hatton's reign as light-welterweight champion