IT was the perfect storm of contrasting fighting styles and of personalities and backgrounds, built on one’s status as the finest of their era, and another then seen as his greatest threat. More than a decade has passed since Ricky Hatton’s fight with Floyd Mayweather captured the British imagination in a way no other ever has, delivering an authentic and absorbing superfight build-up that revealed more than ever of two of boxing’s most compelling characters, and a degree of tension and fascination that even those involved did not expect.
Undefeated represented not only the world’s finest light-welterweight stepping up to 147lbs to challenge the world’s very best at what had become his fighting weight, but Mayweather’s first fight since furthering his reputation as an all-time great and becoming the sport’s biggest figure with his defeat of Oscar De La Hoya. The belief was also that the time was right for Britain’s most popular fighter to dare to do what it was felt no other could: to force him into an attritional affair and to inflict his first defeat.
If it was an occasion unlike any other Hatton had known, it also presented Mayweather with circumstances he had never previously encountered. What was at first perceived to be a task beyond the Mancunian’s abilities evolved, through confidence taken from the novel Mayweather-Hatton 24/7 series and a significant shift among observers, into an optimism his conviction and intensity could overcome the American’s extraordinary skills.
Britain’s leading fighter was at his physical peak and the calibre of challenger the public could buy into realistically testing the world’s highest-profile and most-polished champion. The 2005 victory over Kostya Tszyu may have been Hatton’s finest hour, but it might just transpire that, when reflecting on the emotional and intangible elements involved, those before meeting Mayweather prove his proudest.
“It was huge because Hatton by then was a household name across the country,” the BBC’s Mike Costello, who that December 8 night was ringside, told Boxing News. “It was also about Mayweather: he wasn’t the Mayweather of 2017, but had just emerged as a superstar. It transcended sport: everybody was talking about it, and it was every bit as big as any of the Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank fights that we dreamily talk about on ITV.
“With the two personalities involved it was the perfect pantomime setup: the hero and the villain, and Hatton was already established as the boy next door and everybody did relate to him, however much he played on that. There was something special about that relationship between Hatton and the crowd, which I’ve not known with any other boxer. He had to win.
“It was three weeks before Christmas but I spoke to a customs official at the airport, and he said for the whole of December there were 29,000 Brits in Vegas; a lot of those were there for that week.
“This was a fight like we hadn’t covered in Vegas. For all of the big nights with Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis there was just an extra degree of tension around this fight, and an extra degree of American interest. They were fascinated by Hatton, but also transfixed by him. They just didn’t get that kind of fandom in the States, for any fighter.”
Immediately after his memorable stoppage of Jose Luis Castillo, the 43-0 Hatton called out Mayweather on HBO, ensuring confirmation of their fight by early August and the five-month build-up that was to follow.
The juxtaposition of character that already widely appealed grew further throughout their multi-city press tour when Mayweather, his “Money” persona irrepressible though then known as the “Pretty Boy”, referenced his expensive jewellery and tailor-made clothing as often as he goaded his apparently-composed challenger.
“He was a superstar very few people liked,” Hatton, then 29, told Boxing News. “He was very cocky; very brash. But it was made to be the success it was [despite being at 5am it sold a then-record 1.2million Pay-Per-Views in the UK]. It was perfect. I thought Floyd lost his first fight to Castillo, so when I knocked him out in four: I knew it was always going to be big, but I don’t think we’d seen anything like it, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it since.
“It was the 24/7, and going to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York, Michigan, London, Manchester. You’re flying there on your own private jet. I don’t know if it was for the camera: every press conference he was in my face. By the end of the press tour it was getting tedious and I was thinking ‘Will you just p**s off?’. I’d be in restaurants and he’d come in and throw $100 bills on the table, ‘I’ll pay for your meal, man’. He was a f*****g pest.
“I went to his fight with Manny Pacquiao, and if you ever thought one fight could surpass ours it was that, but it came nowhere near, and I hope Floyd agrees.”
“One day I’d told Ricky, ‘This guy, Mayweather, is going to be your Roberto Duran-Sugar Ray Leonard fight somewhere down the line,” added Hatton’s long-time trainer Billy Graham, 62. “I had no hesitation about the fight: I was confident we could beat him.”
There has perhaps been no series of 24/7 that intensified interest in a fight to the same degree as Mayweather-Hatton, one awarded two Emmys for its depiction of the man-child Mayweather in his luxurious mansion and his curious habit of training surrounded by sycophants in the dead of night, and of Hatton the showman in “The Preacher” Graham’s Denton-based, cramped, modest Phoenix Camp gym.
The chain-smoking Graham honed the happy-go-lucky Hatton’s ferocity on the body-bag after receiving painkilling injections from conditioner Kerry Kayes while Mayweather, with his uncle and trainer Roger – the American then had no relationship with his father Floyd Snr – practiced his effortlessly-graceful padwork and received hand therapy, having also so recently competed on America’s Dancing With The Stars.
“Hatton was phenomenal, and I loved watching 24/7, because he was very entertaining,” Leonard Ellerbe told BN. “I watched it before it aired; they had so much footage they didn’t use. What an exceptional, witty guy.
“When he was throwing darts and talking about the beer drinking, he was a normal, regular guy, and it was a great change of pace to see that; those two coming together just made it that much bigger.”
Interest was such that tickets for the fight at the 16,459-capacity MGM Grand Garden Arena sold out within 30 minutes of going on sale, and despite only 3,900 of those being made available in the UK, estimates vary that between 20,000-30,000 (it is likely some of those were already based in California) British fight fans made the journey to Vegas when so many knew they had so little chance of being present on the night.
The unmistakeable confidence of Hatton, Graham and those around him contributed to the swell of optimism surrounding his prospects, and by fight week those there to support him dominated the Vegas strip.
“I’d always had a big following, but the arrival day at the MGM Grand, I saw how many fans and thought ‘Wow’,” says Hatton.
“I used to come back from meetings at 2am, 3am, to The MGM, and you could hear the fans singing when you came through the door,” Ellerbe recalls. “’There’s only one Ricky Hatton’ at 3am, 4am, and this is Wednesday, three days before the fight.
“That support impressed me the most, and is what made it in my opinion the most memorable fight of Floyd’s career. It was a remarkable night: one I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
That fevered British invasion reached its peak at the extraordinary weigh-in that 6,000 queued for up to eight hours to attend and create the intimidating atmosphere that contributed to Mayweather’s tension and a subtle reluctance to engage with his challenger.
Belief in Hatton – who appropriately revealed his finest-ever condition when weighing in at 145lbs, two fewer than the WBC champion – led to the revelation he had been backed more heavily at the bookies than any individual British sportsman ever had, and before then a change in so many who had predicted Mayweather’s 40th victory.
“There was a welter of opinion that Hatton could win,” says Costello, who continually backed Mayweather. “The theory that developed during fight week was that he would break him down to the body; that he was bigger and stronger than Castillo, who had given Mayweather trouble.
“We did a preview programme on the Friday night: we had Freddie Roach come on, Bernard Hopkins – Richie Woodhall was with us anyway – Oscar De La Hoya. Everybody who came on – everybody – went for Hatton to win. The tide of opinion was that it was Hatton’s time, a story waiting to happen.
“I sometimes wonder how much energy Hatton let go of at that weigh-in. He seemed on such a high. He was rousing the crowd, ‘Who’s going to win?’ and tensing his muscles. He looked so taut, clearly up for it, but in danger of over-cooking. Mayweather was really tense but that was what worried me: I’d seen him looking equally tense at the weigh-in for the De La Hoya fight, and then produce a blissful performance.”
The fight itself was as heavily populated by greats from Hollywood as it was fine fighters from the past as Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt were within reach of Tommy Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard to watch Tom Jones and Tyrese sing the British and American national anthems, the latter amid heavy jeering from Hatton’s support.
“I thought ‘Don’t f*****g do that’,” says Graham. “I hadn’t thought of the ref; I thought about the judges: I don’t trust Vegas judges anyway. And it’s disrespectful: I’m always disgusted by that.
“I knew it was impossible for Floyd to keep Ricky out, but he was bigger on the night than on the tour. I wanted Ricky to slip and slide, put singles in, to the pit of the stomach, round the side, and screw-shots; single shots to slowly try to break him down. I wanted Floyd to keep on moving; I knew he’d be able to tie Ricky up. After about seven rounds, by that time he’d have had to engage, would have been weakened, and been in a fight with Ricky, who would have still been fresh. Those were the tactics.”
Hatton was regardless ultimately unable to apply them when, despite moments of encouragement and forcing Mayweather to fight at an unusually-high pace, American referee Joe Cortez repeatedly undermined his greatest chance of success by forcing the fighters to break amid Hatton seeking to fight on the inside.
He had previously spoken of his need to walk through Mayweather’s punches in the same way he had with Tszyu, and so it would prove as the American consistently landed with both accurate and concussive right hands.
“It’s very hard; it breaks your rhythm,” Hatton explains. “You’re working hard to get in, trying to let your hands go, and Cortez is always [interfering].
“I had half-a-chance. [Then-commentator] Manny Steward had it level after six rounds, and in the last six I normally kick on stronger, but by then Cortez had done between me ears. I’ll always look back at that and say ‘What if?’ He wasn’t fair that night.
“My speed was causing him trouble in the early rounds – it was working even with all the breaking – but when I got close, I wasn’t given a chance to punch.”
Cortez in the sixth deducted a point from the-already frustrated and bleeding Hatton for a punch behind the head that didn’t land, prompting him to bend over in front of the other two men in the ring and the start of the period in which he was broken down.
“For the first time in my career my head came right off my shoulders,” Hatton explained. “Instead of kicking on in that last six rounds, Floyd was able to find the gaps and take me to pieces.”
The tiring challenger was hurt in the eighth by a right hand as powerful as any Mayweather has thrown, and in his aggressive pursuit of his own fight-changing punch, in the 10th was knocked down for only the second time in his career, having gone headfirst into the corner-post when the American landed that hurtful check left hook.
“When Floyd knocked me out, it wasn’t the power: it was his accuracy, his timing, and fatigue,” Hatton says. “You’re working to try and get in and then when you do, someone a weight above you is holding you, smothering you: going into the eighth I felt f****d. By the last few rounds I barely had anything left, because of the way the fight was being refereed. But even in defeat, it was still one of the proudest moments of me career with that following.
“To this day, I talk about how brilliant it was. It was something I’ll never forget. It’s said ‘You probably pushed him as close as anyone – that’s one of my proudest things’.”
Hatton had returned to his feet but as he sought to cling on, he struggled to defend himself amid Mayweather’s latest assault and again hit the canvas as Graham threw in the towel at the same time Cortez waved the action over.
“I had Matthew Macklin – him and Paul Smith were the two best at spying on the scorecards – say ‘Billy, they’ve got him a fucking mile behind’,” says Graham. “I told Ricky ‘They’re fucking robbing you; you need to knock him out’, and he ended up getting done himself.
“Cortez was disgusting. Afterwards, the arena was emptying out; I’ve seen Sugar Ray and Thomas at ringside chatting to each other. I walked up to them both and said ‘Sorry, guys’. They said ‘Sorry? The referee was diabolical. He wouldn’t let you fight inside at all’, and swearing. Both of them, right away.”
Despite requiring one of his finest performances to secure victory and Ellerbe describing it as one of his “top three wins”, the 40-year-old Mayweather – even more appreciated a decade on – responded, when asked by BN where Hatton ranked among his toughest opponents, with: “Toughest? What the f**k is you talking about, toughest?
“Do you mean one of my easiest? It wasn’t tough at all, but one thing about Ricky Hatton, he has the heart of a lion, is a tough competitor, is going to go out there and compete hard every time he’s got to compete. But facing me, you’re facing nothing but the truth.”
“There was definitely a lull [after the stoppage],” Costello recalls. “There was an element of the bubble being burst; ‘There are many great fighters out there and Hatton might not be on that top echelon’. That was the first stark realisation.
“It just felt like – not the end of the story, because he was too young and had hardly taken a battering – but the end of that first part of the story. The unbeaten record had gone.”