THE blood poured from a huge, grotesque cut by his left eye.
It was 2000 and the “Hitman’s” fistic future hung by a thread as Jon Thaxton, as gritty a British title challenger as there has ever been, tried to take advantage and open the gaping wounds further still.
Hatton, who then had 21 wins and would not taste defeat for another seven years, had master cutsman Mick Williamson in his corner, and cab-driver Mick might well have spared him being withdrawn.
As long as “Mick the Rub” is on your side a referee will, and should, always give the fighter the benefit of the doubt.
His vision obscured by the blood and the swelling around his eyes, Hatton came through the ugly crisis to retain his British crown on points and maintain his unbeaten record.
“I think was the fight that made me the fighter I was,” Ricky reflects, heaping praise on his Norwich opponent. “I was suffering terribly from cuts and it’s amazing as you go along experience-wise because early on in my career I was a bit young and reckless and I went through a period of getting cut in every fight. The Thaxton one was a massive cut. I needed plastic surgery after that. But, if you notice, shortly after that, when the fights were getting tougher and more cuts should have appeared I never got cut because of that experience. As I was going in I’d just line my head up on his shoulder or I’d make sure I’d come in on an angle. You learn as you go along. And although I was hitting Jon he wouldn’t go anywhere because I think he knew that it could be stopped at any time with a cut like that. At that time I think the most I’d ever done was six rounds, so everyone was like, ‘Oh he’s passed six rounds. Is his stamina going to be all right? But if you remember the fight I was like a train, the fight was 100 miles per hour. He kept in it because he could see the cut and I kept my foot on the gas because I was thinking this could get stopped at any time.
“I think it taught me a lot about how far I could go and it ticked a lot of boxes and answered questions about me for a lot of people.”
A fight with Canadian Tony Pep followed for the lightly-regarded vacant WBU title and Hatton, promoter Frank Warren and broadcaster Sky drew criticism for the fighter entertaining one of the lesser belts.
But he argues the contest, and subsequent defences, gave him invaluable experience that stood him in good stead.
He went in with veterans like Freddie Pendleton, Vince Phillips and Ben Tackie.
He was floored by Eamonn Magee but got up to win and, when he had Stephen Smith in trouble, Ricky stood in amazement as Smith’s father Darkie entered the ring to have words with referee Mickey Vann, getting his son disqualified.
His WBU graduation, which was pain-staking for boxing traditionalists who wanted to see only major titles contested, was completed with victories over Dennis Holbaek Pedersen, Carlos Wilfredo Vilches, Michael Stewart and Ray Oliveira.
“I think I had the right build-up throughout,” Ricky recalls, when asked about his WBU run. “I had the right opponents at the right time. By the time I’d fought Kostya Tszyu I’d been on my arse, cut, had to change me tactics and I think that when I got in the ring with Tszyu I’d experienced every possible thing you could. When you fight someone like Kostya and you get shook up or put on your arse or cut and you might worry, but I’d had the preparation.”
Despite the experience he had collected, however, few gave him a real hope of beating Tszyu, one of the pound-for-pound best in the world.
But Hatton was always confident.
More than 20,000 of his frenzied fans took just five hours to sell-out the Manchester Evening News Arena for the fight, staged at 2am to accommodate American TV broadcasters Showtime. The stage was set for one of the highlights of this British sporting century.
“Everyone was excited about the fight,” Ricky remembers, “but in the same breath they were nervous because of how aggressive I was and with someone who could punch like Kostya Tszyu could, with that right cross that he had, they were apprehensive. He’d flattened Zab Judah, then Shamba Mitchell with that punch and everyone thought, ‘Ricky is easy to hit, you know’. People thought, ‘He’ll give his heart but sooner or later that right hand will land.’ You could sense it in the crowd on the night. They were cheering for one of their own. With me fighting in Manchester at two in the morning with 22,000 people roaring me on you could see, it wasn’t the case of just cheering on a British fighter. It was like they were cheering on a mate because they could always relate to me. I probably knew half the people that were there, either had a pint or a chat with them. There was a nervous tingle in the air where everyone was like, ‘Come on, you can do it Ricky.’ And Kostya kept hitting me with a right hand at the start of every round. Because I was on him so quick he’d come out every round and just go BANG! And he’d hit me every time. I would go right through it. My trainer, Billy Graham, kept saying to me, ‘Ricky you know what he’s going to do every time, why do you keep running in to it?’ He said: ‘You’re just that little too eager to get at him.’ The punches that were knocking Mitchell and Judah out, I was going through them. It was just the atmosphere, it was a really special atmosphere. You can’t really describe it. At the end of the 11th round, when he quit on his stool and wouldn’t come out, you couldn’t have had a better outcome. You can’t say Kostya Tszyu was a quitter because he put up a hell of a performance himself. It was gruelling, hard fight. For these people who say he quit on his stool, and he’s had a bit of stick for it over the years, I think they’re a disgrace because the fight, the pace and the punishment was incredible. You have to take your hat off to him as well. Before that final moment I was sat on my stool just thinking, ‘Come on, Rick. One last round. Just try and summon one last bit of energy.’ And when the referee, Dave Parris, shoved Billy to one side and waved it off it was just an amazing feeling, especially when nobody really gave me a chance.”
What followed in his career were a string of battles against decent, world-level fighters. More marquee names would come later but Ricky did not have things his own way with hardmen like Carlos Maussa, whom he sensationally knocked out in nine, and Luis Collazo in Boston, who seemed hard-done by to lose a decision.
That was for the WBA welterweight crown but it showed that Ricky was best served at light-welter, where he returned to defeat future IBF champion Juan Urango over 12 physical rounds.
Again it was untidy, however, and Hatton needed to deliver when he stepped in with the fading, but still well-regarded Mexican Jose Luis Castillo.
There was not a great deal between them until the fourth, when Ricky snapped his opponent in half with the best body shot he ever threw.
That dramatic ending, when Castillo wheeled away in agony before being counted out on his knees, set Ricky up for the most-financially rewarding night of his life.
It was December 2007 when he met Floyd Mayweather Jnr in Las Vegas. An estimated 25,000 Brits went on a jolly to Las Vegas to watch Ricky fight, drinking the casino bars dry, singing about how they were ‘Walking in a Hatton wonderland’ and infamously booing the national anthem of Ricky’s opponent during the pre-fight staredown.
Hatton was an underdog with Floyd rated the best fighter in the world in any weight class.
“His speed and defence was really outstanding,” says Hatton, who lost in the 10th round.
“It nearly took my breath away at times. The first round started and the first punch he threw, he hit me with a lead left hook. It was that fast I didn’t see it. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ! I’m going to ease into the fight here’ and then I thought, ‘If I stand off, he’s going to have a field day, he’s got the speed, he’s got the technique, that’s the distance he likes iso you’re going to have to do what you do best get in close and bully him’. Because that left hook was that fast. BANG! I thought, ‘F***** hell, I can’t stand on the outside here.’ I moved in on him and I could never really get my punches off. I was landing shots but never really hit him full on. He would slip, shoulder roll or duck. He had a brilliant defence. The odd one would get through but nothing clean or nothing with any venom that would do any damage. But because of my workrate, up to about five rounds, there was not much in it. After five rounds he started to pull away. I don’t think the ref [Joe Cortez, who was widely criticised for not letting Ricky fight in close] did me any favours. He kept pulling me away, pulling me away. It was a hard enough fight as it was. Floyd’s such a master of defence and he was so quick. My stuff was all frantic, but that’s how I had to fight it because of his speed. I couldn’t stand on the outside. I had to use my workrate, bully him and stay close.”
It worked in spots but, ultimately, Mayweather was too good.
“I don’t think he is a big puncher but he’s very accurate,” assesses the “Hitman”. “He chooses the moment. He knows when to fire. He just took the steam out of me and then stepped it up. It was his quality of punches, I must have thrown three times the amount of punches he did, but he threw the ones that counted. He could see me dwindling and then he put his foot on the gas.”
In the 10th round, Ricky was check-hooked to the canvas. A nation’s hopes were dashed but the drinking could begin again. Las Vegas has never seen anything like it. And it’s seen most things.
A mild Hatton rebuilding job began, starting with Ricky’s Homecoming at a sold out City of Manchester Stadium, the ground of Ricky’s favourite football team – Manchester City – where he came through 12 surprisingly torrid rounds with a stubborn Juan Lazcano.
Another Las Vegas working trip saw Hatton impressively whip Paulie Malignaggi in 11 and then, two fights and a year and a half after Mayweather, Hatton was once again in the bowels of the MGM Grand maze, this time facing a Filipino assassin who was challenging Mayweather’s supremacy as the number one fighter in the world, Manny Pacquiao.
“When I got in the ring I thought, ‘This isn’t right,” Hatton laments, with a regrettable head shake.
“For the Pacquiao fight, I felt I peaked four weeks too soon and I felt that my trainer [Floyd Mayweather Snr] at the time should have said, ‘Look, Ricky, have three days off. You’ve peaked here. But he didn’t, he drove me through. All my training camps went smoothly but that one didn’t.”
In the second round Ricky was wiped out by the mother of straight left hands.
He lay motionless on the deck and despite fighting through the fire against Tszyu, perhaps a hard road of tough fights and not living a Spartan life between contests had finally caught up with him.
Tszyu, who said Ricky was prepared to die in the ring the night they thought, thinks some of the shots he landed in Manchester might have eventually softened the “Hitman” up for Mayweather and Pacquiao in the long-run.
“I think it could have done, yeah,” agrees the Manchester man. “There’s a lot of things I’d like to do differently if I could turn the clock back. Believe you me, there was no one more dedicated than me. You can’t achieve what I achieved without dedication. When I went into training I cut no corners. But blowing up in weight is something I wouldn’t do. I would do everything in a little more moderation. I had to lose three stone before every fight and that takes its toll. That’s like a fight before a fight. You get away with it for a bit but by the end of my career Lazcano shook me up a couple of times and there was wear and tear over the years. Vince Phillips shook me up once, Eammon McGee shook me up once in the second round. Tszyu never shook me up, I was like a man possessed that night. But it breaks your body up as the years go by. That fight against Kostya Tszyu was a mountain. It was considered my mountain, my Everest and obviously when you’ve climbed it – from a motivational point of view – people were saying, ‘What are you going to do now?’ Once you’ve climbed Everest, what’s your drive to go on and do more?’”
The drive was to become recognised as the best fighter on the planet and in Hall of Famer Tszyu, who never fought again, and Pacquiao and Mayweather, he fought three of the best of his generation.
Hatton tortured himself over returning but initially decided against it, announcing his retirement in July 2011.
“I’ve always been a proud person and a proud fighter,” Ricky said back then. “So for someone like me to get laid out like that in two rounds was very, very, very hard for me to take. I’d say it was the most embarrassing night of my career. I couldn’t show my face afterwards. I didn’t watch it for seven months. I cancelled all my other functions, out of embarrassment. It was without doubt the worst thing.”
Depression kicked in and Ricky wound up in the tabloids after a cocaine-fuelled night out.
He thought he had wrecked his career but it turns out many wanted him to come good. He fought depression, even endured a stay at The Priory, and continues to fight it today. In 2012, he came back to the ring, but he was a shell of his former self as Vyacheslav Senchenko halted him in nine rounds.
But he is just looking forwards now. The bloody war with Jon Thaxton in the Wembley Arena was 11 years ago. Ricky has lived several lifetimes since then. The wounds have healed, replaced by scar tissue. But some very special memories remain.