Lennox Lewis, Naseem Hamed and Joe Calzaghe led a renaissance in British boxing, but no one stirred passions more than Ricky Hatton, writes Thomas Hauser
BRITISH boxing enjoyed a renaissance at the start of the new millennium. Lennox Lewis was the preeminent heavyweight in the world. Naseem Hamed made his mark with a string of knockout victories. And Joe Calzaghe was proving to be a special fighter. But no Brit stirred passions more than Ricky Hatton.
As a boy, Hatton loved Bruce Lee films. He took up kickboxing at age eight but was short and stocky with stubby legs – not good for a kickboxer. Then, when Ricky was 10, his father took him to the Louvalite Boxing Club where his tutelege in conventional fisticuffs began.
Fast-forward seven years.
“I had my own gym,” Billy Graham, who would train Hatton for most of the fighter’s pro career, later recalled. “And I kept hearing about this fighter, Richard Hatton. He was an amateur, and I was getting conflicting reports. Some said he was fantastic. Some said he was just a strong kid. There are lots of kids at seventeen who are strong for their age and can punch but never amount to much. Then, one day, I got a phone call saying he was coming to spar at my gym. He was looking at different gyms to see where he wanted to be. I had more fighters than I wanted but I was curious about him. I let him spar. And what he did, he should not have been able to do at that age. It made my hair stand on end. This kid was the best seventeen-year old I’d ever seen. He could punch. But more important, his balance and anticipation were extraordinary for his age. I told him to have a look around the other gyms, that any trainer in the world would want him and I hoped he’d pick me.”
Hatton turned pro under Graham’s tutelage in 1997. Sky TV began calling him “Ricky” and the name caught on. He won the lightly-regarded World Boxing Union 140-pound title in 2001 and successfully defended it 16 times. He was a crowd-pleasing, non-stop-action fighter who proclaimed, “I fight like a lunatic. I’m very aggressive in the ring. It’s very un-British, the way I fight.”
Hatton was regarded in some circles as a paper champion until June 4, 2005, when he challenged Kostya Tszyu for the IBF crown. Tszyu was “the man” at 140 pounds, having knocked out Zab Judah in a title-unification bout and beaten the likes of Julio César Chávez, Sharmba Mitchell, Rafael Rueles, and Jesse James Leija. Hatton put a beating on Tszyu, who failed to come out for the 12th round. It was one of the biggest wins ever for a British boxer. Five months later, Ricky solidified his standing with a ninth-round knockout of Carlos Maussa in a bout for the IBF and WBA titles. That brought his record to 40 wins in 40 fights with 30 knockouts.
Hatton was massively popular in England. But he wanted to be recognized as a great fighter around the world. “I had to come to the United States to prove myself,” he said later. “I had fought for so long in England that a lot of people thought I was a protected fighter.”
Those wishes coincided nicely with business developments in America. HBO had long been recognised as the most powerful force in boxing. But a string of entertaining match-ups on Showtime (including Hatton-Tszyu) had turned heads. That led HBO to offer Ricky a lucrative three-fight contract with an option in HBO’s favour for a fourth bout.
The choice of an opponent was problematic. Naoufel Ben Rabah (the “mandatory” IBF challenger for Hatton’s 140-pound title) was unacceptable to HBO. Sky-TV vetoed Vivian Harris. Juan Lazcano was agreed upon, then injured a hand in training and pulled out. Carlos Baldomir opted to face Arturo Gatti. José Luis Castillo and Diego Corrales decided to fight each other. Kostya Tszyu wasn’t interested in a rematch. Finally, the powers that be settled on WBA 147-pound champion Luis Collazo.
Collazo had crafted a 26-1 (13) ring record. He’d won the WBA 147-pound title by decision over José Antonio Rivera one year earlier and successfully defended it by knockout over Miguel Ángel González. In addition to going up in weight, Hatton would be fighting a southpaw for the first time since 2002. Technically, he was the challenger. The two men would be fighting for Collazo’s title. But make no mistake; Ricky was the one defending what he had.
The fight was scheduled for May 13, 2006, at TD Banknorth Garden Arena in Boston. In later years, the close-knit team around Hatton would be torn asunder. But on this occasion, Team Hatton was united.
The charter members were Ray Hatton (who served as his son’s business manager), Carol Hatton (affectionately referred to in her son’s circle as “the boss”), Matthew Hatton (Ricky’s brother), Jennifer Dooley (Ricky’s girlfriend), and Billy Graham. Also on hand were cutman Mick Williamson, Kerry Kayes (Ricky’s strength coach and nutritionist), Paul Speak (a Manchester police officer who had become a close friend), and Alan Stevenson (another friend).
“We’re a very close group,” Hatton said of the people around him. “It’s not just a bunch of guys on a payroll. We’re family and friends.”
Two years earlier, at age 25, Ricky had moved out of his parents’ house and into a home of his own. It was a 32-second walk from his parents’ front door. He’d actually timed it.
“Usually, it’s bollocks when people say that someone successful is still the boy next-door,” Graham noted. “But Ricky is happiest when he’s with people he grew up with. He has the same friends he went to school with. He goes to the same places he always went to. He’s a regular guy.”
On the morning of the fight, Hatton had breakfast in the hotel restaurant with the members of his team. He laughed, joked, and welcomed anyone who came by to chat. At one point, a middle-aged couple left an adjacent table and the man’s cell phone dropped to the floor. Ricky rose from his chair, picked it up, and called after the man to give the phone back to him.
As a matter of habit, Hatton’s pre-fight breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon, sausage, orange juice, and toast. On the afternoon of a fight, he liked McDonald’s cheeseburgers and french fries. “He’s not fighting on what he eats on the day of a fight,” Ray Hatton explained. “He’s fighting on all the good food he’s eaten in the weeks coming up to the fight. What he eats on fight day is comfort food for him.”
When breakfast was done, instead of going to his room, Hatton relocated in the hotel lobby.
Ray and Carol Hatton had always told their son, “It costs nothing to be nice.” Heeding that advice, Ricky was in the habit of offering a kind word to everyone he met. He was unpretentious, and approachable, talked easily with fans, and was never at a loss for words. Instead of being a matinée idol, he was “one of us.”
Hatton sat on a sofa in the hotel lobby until 4pm, playing cards and chatting with members of his camp, friends, fans, and anyone else who came by. In essence, the hotel lobby had become his living room. Hours before one of the biggest fights of his life, there were no barriers, physical or otherwise, between him and the rest of the world.
There was little talk about the fight to come. Earlier in the month, Ricky had observed, “From what I can see, Collazo has fast hands. He’s a slick boxer who is always on the move. Being a southpaw, he’s just that little extra awkward and more tricky than most fighters I’ve fought. He’s a little taller than me. But when I moved up to welterweight, I expected to see much bigger fighters. Collazo didn’t seem huge or physically imposing to me when we met. I actually felt bigger than him, even though it was me that was moving up in weight.”
Now Hatton’s comments regarding his opponent were limited to thinking back to the final pre-fight press conference when Collazo announced that he had a present for him.
“I expected he’d give me a dress or some nonsense like that,” Ricky recalled.
Instead, referencing Hatton’s penchant for drinking copious amounts of beer between fights, Collazo had given him a six-pack of Guinness. Ricky responded with the thought that they might be adversaries at the moment but, after the fight, they could share the Guinness. Collazo said he didn’t drink and would opt for a cup of tea instead.
“That was music to my ears,” Hatton told those gathered around him in the hotel lobby. “I thought, ‘Now I’ll get to drink it all myself.’”
Billy Graham was asked how fighting away from Manchester might affect Ricky. Hatton was used to entering a sold-out arena with the crowd going wild. Every punch he landed elicited a roar which spurred him on and was heard by the judges. Ricky’s entrance music was of particular note. The Manchester City anthem – a jazzed-up version of Blue Moon – had a unique sound when 22,000 rabid fans sang it in unison. Would a lesser entrance and less partisan crowd matter?
“Not at all,” Graham answered. “Ricky has enormous confidence and belief in himself.”
Then Graham thought back to a moment eight years earlier. Naseem Hamed had come to America to fight Wayne McCullough, and Hatton was on the undercard.
“Naz was mouthing off, as he was known to do,” Graham recalled. “Ricky looked at him and said to me, ‘I’m just as confident as him, you know.’”
★ ★ ★
Hatton arrived at TD Banknorth Garden Arena on fight night at 8.20pm. His brother, Matthew, was midway through an eight-round preliminary bout against a club fighter named Jose Medina. Standing in the rear of the arena, Ricky watched, uttering instructions that couldn’t be heard more than an arm’s length away.
“Finish the round strong. Hook. That’s it. Hook again. Don’t be waiting on him; he’ll steal the round. Put the punches together. Come on, Matthew. Work. Bang him. That’s it. That’s it.”
The decision was announced. 78-74 Medina; 78-73 Hatton; 77-74 Hatton.
Ricky thrust a clenched fist above his head, turned, and walked to his dressing room – a small enclosure with a rubdown table, two wooden benches, a half-dozen folding chairs, and several large British flags taped to the walls. Rock music began to play. He emptied the contents of his gym bag onto one of the benches.
Matthew came in and the brothers embraced.
“Big night; your first fight in America,” Ricky told him. “I’m proud of you.”
Hatton likes a loud dressing room with a party atmosphere. As time passed, a stream of friends, camp members, and others came by. People stood against the walls, chatting with one another. His parents weren’t there.
“Carol and I never go in the dressing room before a fight,” Ray Hatton had said. “It’s not a place for mums and dads. All we’d do is say stupid things like, ‘Look after yourself, son.’ What else is he going to do.”
The centre of the room belonged to Ricky, who was in non-stop motion, walking, shuffling, singing, skipping, punching.
At nine ‘clock, referee John Zablocki came in to give the fighter his pre-fight instructions.
There was a reason that 25 years had passed since the last major fight in Boston. Boston isn’t a big fight town. And the Massachusetts State Athletic Commission wasn’t known for competence.
One day before the fight, commission chairman Nick Manzello was insisting that Hatton-Collazo be contested with 10-ounce gloves despite the widely accepted requirement that eight-ounce gloves be used in 147-pound championship bouts. Finally, he relented.
On fight night, Hatton’s pre-fight preparation in his dressing room was interrupted four times by commission officials who wanted to pose for photographs with him or get his autograph. One official requested that he sign two boxing gloves. A fighter doesn’t want someone from the governing athletic commission to be angry with him. So in each instance, Ricky complied. When it was time to begin taping his hands, there was a delay because no one from the commission was present.
Zablocki, like the judges assigned to the fight, was from Massachusetts. When he was done with his instructions, he asked if there were any questions.
“We just want a fair shake if Ricky gets cut,” Graham said. “We’ve got a great cutman. Will you give us that chance?”
“I know Ricky fights through cuts,” Zablocki told him. “I’ll give him and the cutman every opportunity.”
Zablocki left. Ricky began warming up again, circling, throwing punches, stopping only to turn the volume of the music higher to a near-deafening decibel level. Graham and the others shouted to each other to be heard above the din.
A second from Collazo’s camp came in to watch Graham tape Ricky’s hands. Then Ricky pulled on his trunks. Blue, silver, and black, adorned with two British flags and elaborate white fringe. The trunks made the Pope’s ceremonial garments look drab.
“John L. Sullivan never wore anything like these,” Ricky noted.
At 10 o’clock, Hatton gloved up and began hitting the pads with Graham. Then a switch inside his head flipped and a ferocious look crossed his face. A loud grunt accompanied each punch. He was no longer nice Ricky, the boy-next-door. He had become Freddie Krueger, who no one would want living in their neighborhood.
Record rains had fallen on Boston for three days, which limited the size of the crowd. Those in attendance were overwhelmingly pro-Hatton.
The assumption in Ricky’s camp was that the early rounds would be difficult for him but that over time he would break Collazo down. In reality, the converse was true. Ten seconds into round one, Hatton decked the champion with a sharp left hook. That was followed by damaging body blows through the first two rounds. Then Collazo began using his height and speed more effectively. The first half of the fight was all action with the only blood coming from a cut high on Collazo’s forehead that resulted from an accidental clash of heads. After that, the pace slowed.
Hatton was never a one-punch knockout artist. He wore opponents down with constant pressure and an accumulation of blows. But against a natural welterweight, those tactics weren’t as effective as they’d been in the past.
Also, Hatton was an inside fighter. “In close,” he would say, “you’ve got to hold a bit and move the other guy’s arms around to get your punches in. It’s an art to make room for your shots.” But there were times when Zablocki broke the fighters when he could have told them to punch out. And midway through the fight, a second accidental head butt began the process of closing Ricky’s left eye.
Collazo was the one who finished strong, staggering Hatton with a series of blows midway through the final round. It was a close fight. Ricky outlanded his foe 259 to 213 with a 254 to 167 differential in power punches. The judges’ verdict was unanimous: 115-112, 115-112, 114-113 for Hatton.
In his dressing room after the fight, Ricky sat heavily on a chair and held an icepack to his left eye. The eye was almost closed, and the skin around both eyes was black, blue, pink, purple and swollen.
“Are you all right?” his mother asked.
“Of course, I’m all right.” Ricky smiled and countered with a question of his own. “I don’t make things easy, do I?”
Without waiting for an answer, he went on.
“I fought Kostya Tszyu. That was a tough fight. Then I fought Maussa. That was a tough fight. And after that, like a fucking lunatic, I go up in weight and fight another champion. Did the fans get value for money?”
They certainly did, he was told.
“This was my toughest fight,” Ricky continued. “I felt that I was stronger than Collazo, but the difference in strength wasn’t as great as when I fight at 140. I asked myself several times during the fight, ‘I can still make ten stone; what am I doing this for?’ I rose to the occasion against Kostya Tszyu, and Collazo did the same tonight. He’s a good fighter. He’s tricky and he has a style that’s hard for me. He took the body shots well. I know they hurt him, but he took them well. The last round, he shook me but I had my faculties about me the whole time. It was just a matter of riding out the storm. People remember fights like this. I don’t want too many of them, but it’s important to win a few like tonight.”
Ricky stood up and started toward the shower, then added a final thought.
“Show me a fighter who has an easy night every time, and I’ll show my ass in Woolworth’s window.”
Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honour – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.