Ricky Hatton: The other Maine attraction

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The Independent Online

Boxer Ricky Hatton spent last Sunday evening punching the air. Usually he's a bit more on target with the old one-two, as nearly a score of opponents' noses bear testimony. But this time he could be excused for an uncharacteristic display that was not so much wild abandon as gleeful celebration.

His beloved Manchester City had just won promotion, and for 21-year-old Hatton, reckoned to be the best young prospect British boxing has produced since Naseem Hamed swaggered into our consciousness, this year could also see his elevation into the big league.

He couldn't make it to Blackburn last Sunday. Instead he was confined to his training camp on the outskirts of Manchester, putting the final touches to preparations for his defence on Tuesday night at the Warrington Spectrum of the World Boxing Organisation inter-continental light welterweight championship, one of the myriad mouthfuls that constitute title fights, of a fashion, in modern boxing.

It will be Hatton's fifth defence of the belt in less than a year and the challenger, Ambioris Figuero of the Dominican Republic, with only 11 bouts under his own belt, and 32 years old, seems unlikely to fare better than his four predecessors, none of whom survived more than four rounds against the youngster they call the Hitman.

For Hatton, however, it is a meaningful enough occasion on a road that is almost certain to lead to a world championship belt. He is equipping himself steadily for that moment, which is why he was in the gym last Sunday rather than roaring on City as a season-ticket holder. In different circumstances he might have been doing more than just cheering them on. It is just possible that he could have been sharing the lap of honour around Ewood Park as a playing member of the Royle family.

Eight years ago, as an England schoolboy trialist and member of the FA School of Excellence, he was on Manchester City's books as an emerging talent in midfield. Football was in his decidedly blue blood, as his father Ray, who now owns two carpet shops in Manchester, played a number of times for City in the Mercer-Allison era before injury ended his career. His grandfather, John, also wore the City shirt before the Second World War.

But Hatton was also developing as a promising amateur boxer, winning two national schoolboy titles. The training regimes were not compatible, especially as Hatton spent much of his spare time scouring the amateur boxing shows for bouts to bolster his record.

"In the end City said to me, 'we're sorry to let you go. It's not for any lack of football ability but just that we don't see enough of you in training.' It was probably for the best, for while I enjoyed both sports it was getting to the stage where I knew I had to choose between them. That made up my mind for me."

Both games are about timing and Hatton could not have happened at a better time for British boxing. The sport has taken a battering of late and as the World Boxing Council president, José Sulaiman, was saying here last week, what talent there is struggles to surface under the swell of hype surrounding Hamed and Lennox Lewis.

Glenn Catley's acquisition of the WBC super-middleweight title in Frankfurt brought an unexpected boost, but in the longer term Hatton, voted Young Boxer of the Year in 1999, could be something of a saviour because of his marketability.

He is young, bright, sensible, articulate and fights like a dream. He has won all his 18 professional bouts, 14 of them inside the distance. As a 17-year-old amateur he went to Havana, not only beating but stopping Cuban and American opponents to win a bronze medal in the World Junior Championships. He would have reached the final but for a decision which caused a major international uproar in the sport.

Four judges voted for Hatton in his semi-final but the fifth gave it to his Russian opponent by a flabbergasting 16-point margin. Such is the bizarre scoring system now employed in the amateurs, this meant defeat for Hatton and so unbelievable was the arithmetic that the errant Turkish judge was later suspended after it was found he had taken a bribe.

The affair soured Hatton so much that he abandoned the amateurs, forsaking a probable Olympic place. But it was quickly evident that his style was more suited to the professional ring, where he is unfazed by the spotlight and absorbs the pressure.

His first fight was in Widnes, the second at Madison Square Garden where a top American trainer told him: "Hey, you're different. You don't fight like a white guy at all."

Hatton says: "I took it as a great compliment. I like to go forward and that's what the Americans love. I suppose I'm a bit of a throwback, really."

What he means is that he is a disciple of the ancient but neglected art of body punching. He likes to throw short punches in clusters and has a devastating, chopping right hand. "I watch tapes of the great body punchers like Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran and base my style on them."

When promoter Frank Warren signed him up he declared him to be "the nearest thing I've ever seen to a certainty". His trainer Billy Graham who works with him at the northern power base that used to be the Champs Camp and is now the Phoenix Camp says: "His potential is unlimited. When I first saw him two and a half years ago I could tell from his first sparring session that he was something special, the best youngster I've ever seen. Some of the things he does make my hair stand on end."

Such testimonies will take a lot of living up to, and the big question is whether Hatton can take as good a punch as he gives. "I know a lot of people question my defence but I'm happy to keep working on it. I've a lot of improving to do and by the time I go for the world title I want to be twice the fighter I am now. I like to think that every time people come to watch me fight they walk away thinking they've seen something exciting and have been given value for money." It's an old fashioned philosophy from an old fashioned fighter, and, like football, boxing is in the genes. His great grandfather, Daniel Slattery, was a famed bare-knuckle exponent in Ireland, and an uncle, Spider Hatton, fought in the Thirties.

There will be further opportunities for the Americans to show their appreciation of Hatton in Detroit on 10 June before his anticipated challenge for the British title. As he says, there's no rush but by the end of the year he could also be a world champion when it will be the turn of his mates at Maine Road to join in his parade.