In Las Vegas, the countdown to the biggest fight of Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton's career, against "Pretty Boy" Floyd Mayweather for the latter's World Boxing Council welterweight title, has begun in earnest. But on the afternoon I meet Hatton, in the rain-lashed Manchester suburb of Denton shortly before he and his entourage decamp to the Nevada desert, a different kind of Countdown is occupying him.
"She's gorgeous, that Carol Vorderman," he says, between swigs of an energy drink. He's watching the Channel 4 quiz show on a television fixed high on the wall in the small cafe at Betta Bodies gym, on the third floor of a converted hat factory, Hatton's home away from home. Round the table, everyone murmurs assent. Like you say Ricky, Carol's gorgeous. But it turns out that the Hitman is just softening us up for one of his gags. "I watched it yesterday and I got aroused. Not bad. Seven letters."
He gets the laughter he was courting, even from the American camera crew who are here to record Hatton's pre-fight lifestyle for an HBO show called 24/7, and who don't know Carol Vorderman from Carol Thatcher. That's how it is with fighters; when they crack jokes, folk laugh. But Hatton, at least, has genuine wit.
The HBO crew have already shadowed his opponent, a posturing, insecure, bling-festooned man who lives and trains in the lap of luxury in Vegas. The contrast between Mayweather's environment and Hatton's is almost laughable, one of them tells me. And the contrast between them as men is no less striking. Mayweather discovered that for himself in September, when he arrived in Manchester to promote the fight. His verbal jabs at Hatton failed to trouble their target; not so Hatton's ripostes. He'd missed his young son while on the promotional tour with Mayweather, he told his audience, but that was all right because he'd spent the week with "another fucking six-year-old". While the flustered Sky Sports presenters apologised for the language to viewers at home, Mayweather fumed.
At the MGM Grand in the early hours of Sunday morning, UK time, he will get his chance to get even. Those odds currently stand at Mayweather 8-15, with Hatton at 6-4. In other words, the undefeated American, fleet of both foot and fist, and rated the best pound-for-pounder in the business, is the hot favourite. Yet the great Sugar Ray Leonard, for one, is among those who think that the 29-year-old Hatton, himself unbeaten in 43 fights, can prevail.
Hatton says he knows it. He has just had another excellent sparring session, and I have watched him warming down on a treadmill. There is no sign of even an ounce of the weight he famously puts on, with his pints and his fry-ups, between fights. He is in the shape of his life, but then he needs to be. "I'm trying not to get too excited," he tells me. "When things go this well you think 'shit, what's going to go wrong?' But I'd rather have it this way than any other. My sparring partners are brilliant. They all fight like Mayweather; very, very quick. There are four of them. One goes flat out for a couple of rounds, then jumps out and the next one comes in fresh. It keeps me on my toes."
The sparring partners were sent over from America by Oscar De La Hoya, whose company Golden Boy is co-promoting the fight, and who fought Mayweather himself earlier this year, losing on a split decision. De La Hoya knows Mayweather's strengths and weaknesses as well as anyone, and there are far more of the former than the latter.
"He's very good at making you miss," Hatton says, "and there's nothing more tiring than punching fresh air. But he spends long periods doing next to nothing, soaking it up, sitting back. That's the last thing he wants to do with someone with a high work-rate who gets stronger the longer the fight progresses, like me. I cover distances quick, I've got lots of angles, a great engine. Everything you need to beat him I think I've got."
According to Hatton's grizzled, chain-smoking trainer, Billy "The Preacher" Graham, Hatton will also benefit from a back catalogue of tougher challenges than his opponent has ever had to overcome. His protg concurs. Mayweather simply isn't battle-scarred. "He's been that good, that talented, he hasn't had to win any of his fights with heart yet. I've experienced every single feeling in the boxing ring. I've been knocked down, I've been cut in the first round, shaken up, hurt. Floyd's not experienced them things. We'll find out if he's got the heart to match his talent."
What Floyd doesn't have is the verbal dexterity. In the battle of wits, Hatton has already won on points. "He's tried to insult me, but you've got to know me as a person. Nobody laughs at me more than me. As that week went by in Manchester he realised he was wasting his time. He said less and less. But he had one more go after the press conference. We went out for a meal, me, Billy Graham, Kerry Kayes [Hatton's nutritionist] and Paul Speak [his agent]. And Floyd comes in and starts throwing his money about. He's like, 'Hatton, you're a bum, you're this, you're that. Can you even afford the bill? I'm giving you your best payday.' I'm thinking 'what are you doing this for now? There are no cameras here'."
To fight Mayweather, Hatton is moving up a division from light-welterweight, which he last did none too convincingly when narrowly defeating Luis Collazo in May 2006. But Collazo was a biggish welterweight and the mistake Hatton made then, he admits, was stepping into the ring too heavy (fuelled not least by one of his huge fried breakfasts that morning). This time, against the smaller Mayweather, who started his boxing career at super-featherweight, that won't happen. "I learnt my lessons," he says.
Nor, he insists, will he be at a disadvantage fighting in Vegas. "I could have stayed in Manchester. Once I beat Kostya Tszyu [in June 2005, with a thunderous performance that he will have to replicate if he is to win this weekend], everyone should come to me, really. But I didn't want to be a fighter who stays in his own back yard, in his comfort zone. The American press and fight fans over there have this vision of British fighters staying in our own back yards. I want to be the exception. I want to be as popular there as I am here, and this fight will cement that."
Whatever happens in Vegas, many of his celebrity pals will be missing. I tell him that the 13-times world darts champion, Phil "The Power" Taylor, whose home I have just come from, is gutted that he can't be there so close to his own world championship. "Yeah, I must phone Phil later," Hatton says. "Haven't spoken to him for a while." Hatton, whose father and grandfather both played for Manchester City, and was himself a schoolboy triallist, has also forged a predictably strong friendship with Wayne Rooney, whose father and uncle were both decent amateur boxers. "A lot of Premiership footballers can't get over, which is a shame," he says. "Half the Premiership was at the Castillo fight [in Vegas in June this year, when he finished the highly rated Mexican Jose Luis Castillo, with a devastating left hook to the kidney]. But Wayne phones me most weeks, and asks how the training's going. He always wants to know what the fucking hell's happening to City, winding me up. He says all the lads are going to his house, to watch the fight there."
Hatton doesn't have a spread as grand as Rooney's, but he could, as one of the few sportsmen in Manchester, or anywhere, who can exceed the earning power of a top Premier League footballer. The Mayweather fight propels him into the super league, purse-wise. I ask him whether that matters to him, expecting him to say that he's already got all the money he needs and it's only the title he craves now. But he's too honest for that.
"The money's very important to me, because every time I fight I look across the ring at my opponent and I think, 'he's standing in the way of me making an even better life for my son, and my future family'. People ask me whether Floyd gets under my skin more than most. The truth is that I only ever see it in those terms: someone standing in the way of me making a better life for myself."
He concedes that when he does step into the ring on Saturday, he will also be more than a little nervous. "Oh yeah, the nerves will be jangling.
"I'll be more nervous than normal because of the test in front of me. He's a five-weight world champion and I'm the underdog, rightly so. But I really believe in myself, and every time I've had my back against the wall, I've come through. Against Kostya Tszyu, nobody gave me a chance. Against Castillo, nobody expected me to knock him out in four rounds. In the hardest fights I've always found a bit extra, and I will do against this fella. He may have the talent, the skill, the speed, but I don't think he's got the determination I've got, the heart. I see there only being one winner."
If he can find the punch that ended the Castillo fight, he might be right, I venture. "Yeah, that's my honey punch, if you like," he says. "The punch I've always thrown throughout my career. Mayweather's very, very good defensively, but I'm very, very good at threading punches though little gaps. I did that with Castillo. Mayweather's known for crossing his arms over to block the shots , but that's what Castillo was trying to do, and I still found the gap. I've seen a little a little gap where I think I can get Floyd."
Is there not the danger, though, that he will be so busy trying to find the gaps in the champ's defence that he will leave them in his own? "Yeah, but sometimes the best form of defence is attack. I know he sets traps, but I'll be unleashing that much leather on him, he'll be concentrating on looking after himself. I think Mick Williamson, my cuts man, will play a big part. With my work rate, and the volume of punches I have, I don't see him outpointing me. Kostya Tszyu didn't knock me out, and Mayweather's not as big a puncher. The only way I see him beating me is maybe on cuts, because he has them fast slashing punches. So Mick will play a massive part."
Whatever, one man who will be in the audience as it all unfolds is the world super-middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe, which begs the question: who is the best British fighter currently operating, Hatton or Calzaghe, and might the same man conceivably be the best of all time?
"I'll leave people to make up their own minds," Hatton says. "He's 44 unbeaten, I'm 43. I've done it four years quicker, but he's made record title defences. I don't think you'll find better fighters than me and Joe anywhere, and I can't speak more highly of him. He's different class. But if I beat Mayweather I think I'll go higher than any of them, because he's not far off being an all-time great. Only people like [Tommy] Hearns and Leonard have won titles at all them different weights, so if I beat him, you can't ask for more than that."
And if he does, might he call it a day, and retire to his box at the City of Manchester Stadium and a lifetime of fry-ups?
"I don't like talking about retirement before the biggest fight of my life," he says. "Because if you start contemplating it you've already got one foot out the door. Anyway, even after Mayweather there are still some big fights out there." But none remotely as big as this one.
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