TO beat Kostya Tszyu is a momentous achievement in itself. To make the great Australian quit – at the end of the 11th – as Ricky Hatton did before 22,000 loud, passionate and rapturous supporters at the MEN Arena in the early hours of the morning, defied belief unless you were there to see it.
Although it was in no way a match as physically depleting as when Muhammad Ali strained the last ounce of energy from Joe Frazier in the Thriller in Manila back in 1975, the finish had more than a hint of similarity about it.
Tszyu, like Frazier that day in the Philippines, had reached the end of his resources with just a round to go. And his trainer, Johnny Lewis, like Eddie Futch with Frazier after 14 sweltering rounds, bailed him out, thinking more about the boxer’s well-being than the result.
There was not the mildest objection from Tszyu. Irrepressible Hatton had flogged him to the point Kostya, a 35-year-old father of three, could withstand no more suffering. He wanted the torture to end, even with only three minutes to go and, in these days of erratic scoring, the possibility he was actually winning (he wasn’t – Hatton led 107-102, 106-103 and 105-104).
But Tszyu, a proud and vastly accomplished title-holder, had reached breaking point. He’d taken his fill. He admitted to Al Bernstein of Showtime afterwards that he felt he was losing and simply didn’t have it in him to win in the last.
So Hatton is the new champion. Officially, he is the IBF champion. But really he is now the undisputed king.
How that works is simple: Tszyu once held all the belts, was stripped by the WBA and promoted to a sort of ‘Super Champion’ by the WBC. He never lost his belts in the ring.
It was a victory of World Cup proportions and not just because the Manchester faithful, singing as though they were in the football stands, offered their man, a City fan, some priceless encouragement.
It was a British success that will go down in sporting folklore like the 1966 win over the Germans at Wembley Stadium, Kelly Holmes winning two golds in Athens, Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent’s Olympic rowing feats, Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon and many more I could mention.
In fact, Hatton’s immediate celebrations reminded me of Pat Cash’s spontaneous reaction many years ago at Wimbledon when after winning the men’s singles he climbed into the crowd to hug his nearest and dearest.
As soon as a tearful Hatton had picked himself off the floor – once over the initial shock of victory – Ricky climbed between the ropes and down to ringside to share in his joy with his parents and brother, Matthew.
Hatton is such a personable man that you felt at one point even Tszyu, remarkably gracious in defeat, was going to join in the party.
Not quite. But the display of exemplary sportsmanship between the pair brought to an end a sharp chorus of “You’re not singing anymore” accompanied by finger-pointing from the masses directed towards a small group of Aussie fans in yellow jerseys camped in the (relatively) cheap seats.
Hatton grabbed the microphone to thank his legions, telling them they deserved the success as much as he did, and then Tszyu, with one arm over the shoulder of his conqueror, said a few words.
Humbled, Tszyu replied: “I lost to the better fighter. I don’t feel ashamed to say that today Ricky was better than me in every way.” Everyone applauded.
Indeed, Hatton was, living up to the bold claims of trainer Billy Graham years ago that Ricky would one day become one of the greatest fighters Britain has ever produced.
Graham refined that statement slightly in the aftermath, now saying Hatton, unbeaten with 39 consecutive wins, could go on to become the finest.
There is a difference between the best and most successful and given Lennox Lewis’ accomplishments Hatton will have his work cut out on both fronts.
But with a return to terrestrial television for promoter Frank Warren imminent, Hatton could easily become one of the nation’s best-loved sporting icons, equal in stature and popularity to Frank Bruno, who was ringside, and Henry Cooper.
Hatton defending his world title on ITV could give the sport in Britain the same propulsion of publicity as Barry McGuigan’s victory over Eusebio Pedroza 20 years ago.
There is something so cheerfully transparent about Hatton that you cannot help but like him.
While Warren deflected any speculation about what the boxing future might hold for the new champion, preferring to save that for a later day when Hatton has had a chance to fully absorb the magnitude of his achievement, Ricky humoured the press.
One of the Australian journalists quizzed him about a low blow (left hook) which dropped Tszyu in the ninth and looked like a fairly deliberate retaliation to a similar, though not quite as southward bound shot from Kostya in the seventh.
“Look, it’s not a tickling contest,” he said.
“Do you think it affected the outcome?” asked the journalist.
“I hope so,” came Hatton’s quick response.
Hatton was in there to win, almost at any cost, and the way he strode to the ring, utterly focused like I had never seen him before and to a thunderous roar, merely reinforced that Ricky was brilliantly prepared.
The previous day Hatton had scaled 9st 13 3/4lbs at the first attempt while Tszyu had to make two trips, shifting an excess 3oz to come in at 10st.
Tszyu looked drawn at the weigh-in, but healthier by the time he rather tentatively vaulted the top rope in traditional fashion.
Cocooned in thought, Tszyu was bombarded by boos. He punched his fist into the air before the anthems were played and the boxers got stripped down to their boots and shorts, ready for business with the time at gone 2am.
Hatton expected the early rounds to be riddled with danger. His objective was to set a whirlwind pace, not get careless and deplete the champion’s strength for the later rounds, when Hatton planned to rally even more forcefully.
“The first four or five rounds, he was always going to be at his sharpest,” said Hatton. “Giving ground wasn’t the right thing to do because Kostya’s power is at the end of his punches.”
We all wondered how Hatton would cope if he got nailed squarely by Tszyu’s best punch and how, without getting tagged, he would get close enough to snuggle on Kostya’s chest – from where he could launch his body attacks.
Hatton answered those questions and many more. He was never seriously shaken. Tszyu hit him often enough with hard rights and left hooks, but Hatton walked through them.
Asked afterwards about Tszyu’s power, Hatton politely refrained from saying the Aussie’s blows were not quite as formidable as had been touted. Instead, he referred to when Vince Phillips had disturbed him with a hefty right, as if to say that was a far more memorable crisis point.
From the opening bell Tszyu was obviously flustered by the challenger’s menacing rhythm.
The challenger forged an early lead, but Tszyu seemed to find his timing and judgement of distance much better between rounds three and seven, when it seemed he was taking over. But then Hatton went into overdrive from the eighth and Tszyu simply couldn’t stay or cope with him.
Ironically, we had asked just who had Hatton faced previously to adequately prepare himself for such an outstanding champion, but it was Tszyu who suffered for never having encountered a man with Ricky’s extraordinary surges of energy and determination.
It wasn’t a classic by any means, but absorbing nonetheless. The flow of the contest was constantly interrupted by repeated clinching of which both were guilty.
That’s not unusual in a fight between two punchers who have great respect for one another. Tszyu discovered almost immediately he couldn’t easily contain Hatton. He grabbed often, usually by putting one of Ricky’s arms out of action, or ducked low to come under the challenger’s punches.
Hatton’s right uppercut on the inside was superb. He was also so quick on his feet and that enabled him to move swiftly past Kostya’s radar. Early on, especially during the first two rounds, Hatton’s speed and body attacks were blistering.
But Tszyu tucked his right elbow lower thereafter, making it much harder for Hatton to get home his pet punch, the left hook downstairs.
Tszyu did look an old man at times, however, but that’s not to discredit Hatton. Ricky was like Buster Douglas the night the Columbus, Ohio heavyweight shocked the world to slay Mike Tyson and one hopes – for the sake of British boxing – his reign lasts much longer.
But you can only do what your opponent permits and Hatton didn’t give Tszyu an inch. He set a torrid pace and Tszyu’s punches had lost all potency by the end.
It was a masterful display by Hatton, but not in the graceful sense. This was simply an exhibition of a man doing through sheer determination and effort whatever was required to achieve his goal. Ricky will surely take some beating if he can maintain this type of form and appetite.
Warren said: “[Miguel] Cotto, [Arturo] Gatti…bring them on. Hatton is now the man to beat. He beat the man.”
It is going to take a lot of money to prise Hatton from Manchester. More than ever, Hatton is going to need the backing of his followers. If the likes of Cotto and Floyd Mayweather want Hatton to come to Las Vegas or New York, they are going to have to pay top dollar.
Hatton will most likely make a few relatively comfortable defences before taking on anyone of Cotto or Mayweather’s stature and the trouble now could be finding a suitable venue to cater for the inevitable rush for tickets.
Diego Corrales, the tall world lightweight champ at ringside to challenge the winner, certainly remains a more immediate possibility than either Cotto or Mayweather. That would be a fantastic match and one I think the brave, tough American would have his work cut out to win. Already the rumour mill is suggesting Hatton could defend against Corrales later this year in New York.
The list of possibilities is almost endless and if his rivals are not fearful of Ricky’s threshing style and boundless stamina, they might be a little perturbed at the thought of him insisting he has only just reached his peak.
No one could argue with that after the way he fought with such vigour, passion and tenacity. Hatton made the perfect start. He ruffled the champion, who was troubled by Ricky’s aggression and wrestled sufficiently on the inside to cause English referee Dave Parris to stop the action and ask that the boxers keep the action more orderly.
In the second Tszyu continued to look confused. When he tried again to clasp the challenger’s arm, Hatton just spun away to the side and then backed the champion to the ropes. In close, Tszyu couldn’t find the space to put force into his right. Hatton produced the more telling work. The crowd cheered as a crunching left hook struck the ribs and then a right uppercut found Kostya’s jaw.
At the end of the round the audience burst into a chorus of “Easy, easy…” But Hatton didn’t allow the dream start to go to his head, even though from the third Tszyu began to claw his way back and looked almost a different man.
The Aussie started this round like almost every other thereafter – with a big right – and, surprisingly, Hatton fell for it each time until the 11th, when Ricky finally ducked.
Tszyu looked as if he had adjusted better to the beat of Hatton’s drumming attacks. He whacked the challenger with a hard right to the body, made Ricky miss more often and even manhandled the local star a little.
The switch in superiority caused one anxious supporter to yell “To the body, Ricky.” Hatton obliged, with a left hook, and finished the round better than he started it.
I had the fourth much closer. Tszyu couldn’t match Hatton’s output, but got in a hard left hook late in the round. The action heated up. They threw punches after the bell, first Tszyu.
But the third and fourth, like the fifth, were hard to score. Hatton was far busier, but Tszyu landing more solidly.
There was a curious moment in the fifth when Hatton, after getting caught by a right-left hook, stopped for a second and dropped his hands. But it was more as if he was gathering himself than in any way shaken.
Undoubtedly, Tszyu was picking off Hatton much better, though the champion’s mouth hung open and he was breathing hard.
A worried Vlad Warton, Tszyu’s promoter, visited Kostya’s corner between rounds. Tszyu controlled the sixth with his jab more effectively, creating more space for himself, but Hatton wasn’t away from him for long. He blazed forward to land a three-punch combination to the head.
Tszyu’s face was damaged – he was nicked beneath the left eye. But he measured Hatton with his jab and landed a hard right. Hatton took it and ploughed forward, sometimes coming in dangerously with his head and was warned.
Amazingly, facial damage was at a minimum. Hatton was bruised, but not cut. He still had that bounce in his legs for the seventh. Tszyu continued to make him miss, though, and picked off the challenger. The match was interestingly poised as Kostya worked his jab and lead left hook, timing Hatton’s advances, while Ricky incessantly went forwards.
Late in the round a left hook aimed at the body went low and made Hatton drop to his haunches, but the action wasn’t delayed for long.
The eighth was scrappier, with lots of hitting and holding. Tszyu blocked many of Hatton’s attacks on his arms and late in the session he tripped Ricky and shoved him to the floor by the ropes.
The final exchange saw Hatton walk through a Tszyu right to connect with one of his own.
A chant of “Come on, Ricky” bellowed around the arena to start the ninth and coincided with a timely improvement in the challenger’s form. Hatton landed a firm left, then worked more effectively as Tszyu tried to claim him in close.
Ricky upped the pace and forced Tszyu to the ropes. Kostya came back with a flurry towards the body that strayed slightly low and he was warned. Hatton, though, almost immediately buried a left into Tszyu’s protector and sent the champion to the deck. Kostya took a short rest and Hatton was admonished.
They swapped left hooks to start the 10th, but Hatton was now confidently taking the fight to the champion, fearlessly swarming over him with almost bewildering intensity. Tszyu got in a few rights that proved hardly distracting, whereas a Hatton right knocked the champion back.
Tszyu was feeding off scraps and by his own corner forced to end the round fending off a barrage of right hooks and uppercuts.
Mouth bleeding, Kostya nodded to trainer Lewis as he turned to go to his stool, though the champion’s weariness was now obvious.
Instantly in the 11th Tszyu was made to give ground and looked uncomfortable under the tireless pressure. Briefly, Tszyu rallied with a big left and followed it with a hard jab to jolt Hatton’s head. But Ricky moved in close and smothered, like someone putting out a fire with blanket.
Driven, Hatton surged again, not to be denied and Tszyu was consumed by his energy. The crowd sensed it, too. They cheered knowingly as the bell went.
Referee Parris visited Hatton’s corner to remind them there was one round to go. He then walked across to the champion’s.
The crowd was upstanding almost to a man in anticipation of the final session of a glorious encounter. But then suddenly Parris spread his arms. The fight was over. Tszyu had retired. Hatton could barely believe it.
You knew the beating had to be serious for Tszyu not to come out for more.
“To beat someone like Tszyu is end of the rainbow stuff,” said Hatton. “I had plenty in the tank for the last five rounds. It was a physical fight – right up my street.
“I fought to the level of my opponent. I had to be more cautious. I conserved my energy for the final stretch.”
It’s now back to the pub, fried breakfasts, darts and dominoes matches for the new champion, who said with typical modesty: “I honestly don’t believe I am any different to the man in the crowd.”
But, quite clearly, he is.