by David P. Greisman
Rare is the fighter who retires while on top of a profession so brutal that it can break a man in the span of one night. So rare is this, that champions such as Lennox Lewis and Joe Calzaghe were called out for comeback collisions for years after they hung up their gloves for good, seen as if they were but on sabbatical, as if their final bell had yet to be rung.
Life does not incentivize quitting while you’re ahead, not in a culture founded on a belief that there is always another reward around the corner. An actor can always make another movie. A musician can record another album. An athlete can play another season. And a boxer can have another fight.
Except in every industry but that of the Sweet Science, the ability for someone at the top to return for more is dependent on demand — on production studios and record labels and sports franchises. We do not see aging A-list actors taking roles at the community theatre, rock stars headlining Thursday nights at the neighborhood pub, or Hall of Fame shortstops taking to the field in a rec league.
Yet all too often, we see, or sometimes just hear of, pugilists in their futile final fights, acquiescing to the reality that their best days are gone without accepting the true consequences of that conclusion. Rather than retire, they become the faded former champion, the once-acclaimed name now being sacrificed to someone younger, someone who is still relevant.
That’s the best-case scenario. Others, such as Antwun Echols and Vivian Harris, lose to opponents who previously never would have shared a ring with them.
There is shame. But there also must be sympathy.
Boxing is nearly all they have known, beginning with the amateur tournaments of their youth and continuing into the paid ranks. It can be difficult to adjust to a life out of the spotlight and without the disciplined structure of training camps. There is no off-season in boxing in which fighters can acclimate themselves to time away from the rigors, and vigor, of competition.
And for those who never saved — after all, there are no pensions or 401k plans in boxing — or for those who never earned much, there is no paycheck more honest than one earned by getting punched in your vital organs.
* * * * *
Ricky Hatton was as honest as a fighter could come.
He was an everyman in temperament who turned that trait into an extraordinary feature. He never looked the part of an elite athlete, not when he was between fights and ballooning in weight, and not even when he was in the ring, his pale body temporarily thinned out. He fought like Rocky in a bar fight, his chin perpetually exposed, alternating between brutal mauling and comical haymakers.
He became a franchise in Manchester, one of the guys done well — ‘Let’s go see Ricky fight,’ they would say collectively, whether it was in the U.K. or the U.S.A., turning up in droves, chanting Hatton’s name, singing his praises and drinking throughout, celebrating him with the now-famous anthem, “Walking in a Hatton Wonderland.” The variation of the holiday standard led with a chant: “There’s only one Ricky Hatton,” they’d say, though in reality he was one of them, and they would live through him.
He remained approachable throughout.
That is what made his defeats so difficult. He wasn’t just letting himself down, but, in his mind, everyone else as well. A hometown hero will be paraded in victory. Perhaps that meant he would be pitied in defeat.
There was no shame in being knocked out by Floyd Mayweather Jr., as he was in December 2007. The arena in Las Vegas, filled to the brims with Brits, continued to sing his song. There also was no shame in being knocked out by Manny Pacquiao, as he was in May 2009. Mayweather and Pacquiao were two of the best fighters of this era. Hatton, clearly, was not.
But it was the way that he went out — flat on his back, rendered momentarily immobile in a highlight that would be played over and over for months to come — that led to Hatton withdrawing into depression and addiction.
“I was always a very proud fighter,” Hatton said last week, speaking on a media conference call days before he was to step into the ring to face Vyacheslav Senchenko for what would be Hatton’s first fight since that last knockout defeat.
“I was always a very hard fighter, always fought with a lot of heart and was able to dictate fights,” he said. “So you can imagine, when I got destroyed in two rounds by Manny Pacquiao, it was very hard for someone who takes so much pride in themselves, even though it was someone like Manny Pacquiao.”
Nearly every fighter hits his ceiling. Once that happens, he either must be satisfied with staying at a certain level — a level lower than he had strived for, or a level at which he can no longer remain — or he must choose not to stay at all.
Hatton didn’t fight for more than three and a half years since losing to Pacquiao, but he also didn’t officially retire until July 2011, more than two years after he’d last stepped into the ring. His retirement barely lasted a year; he officially announced his comeback this past September.
Rare is the fighter who remains retired. The sport becomes too ingrained in him; his self-worth is defined by what he does between those ropes.
Hatton had withdrawn post-Pacquiao. After all, every time people saw him, they would recall his greatest failings. He again went up in weight, though this time it wasn’t coming off temporarily on fight nights. He abused alcohol — no surprise, given his well-chronicled love of a good pint or several — but also turned to cocaine. Anything to fill a void, to bring vigor to a life now lacking in rigor.
It proved to be a greater embarrassment than what had happened on either of those two nights at the MGM Grand in America’s Sin City.
“As soon as Manny beat me, I went into depression, and that led to problems that were well-documented in the tabloids, with suicide attempts and nervous breakdowns and panic attacks,” Hatton said last week. “Not speaking to my parents for two years, and I’m still not speaking to my parents, which has been very, very hard. Losing my longtime trainer, Billy Graham, tending to a court case.
“My life for the past three years has really turned to mush,” he said. “So I’m now returning to my boxing career not just because I got knocked out in two rounds by Manny Pacquiao, but I think I let a lot of people down in that period of time, and I’m here to put a lot of ghosts and demons to rest.”
He had officially announced his comeback in September. Nearly all of the tickets were sold within two days, well before an opponent had even been named.
He was an everyman in Manchester, flawed just like the rest of them. It did not matter that he had lost, or how, nor did it matter that he had struggled in times of mental weakness. They would still be there to give him strength.
* * * * *
“Win, lose or draw on Nov. 24, if it’s not there and if I’m not up to it, I’ll walk away,” Hatton was quoted as saying by The Daily Telegraph a month before the Senchenko fight. “I’ll have done what I needed to.”
Ricky Hatton is still as honest as a fighter can come, but he had deluded himself.
He could speak about how this comeback was about putting ghosts and demons to rest, about picking up the pieces of his life and his career. Yet he was no different than any other fighter who cannot stay retired. The sport is ingrained in him; his self-worth was still defined by what would happen in the ring.
This comeback wasn’t just about exerting self-control, but also about self-esteem.
“I don’t want to be fighting at four- or six-round levels,” he was quoted as saying by BoxingScene.com in September. “I want to fight for world titles.”
He had lost to Mayweather, the best fighter at the time in the welterweight division. He had lost to Pacquiao, who became the best fighter at the time in the junior welterweight division. He would never be able to beat them, but there were other boxers with world titles, other names that could help him prove he still had a place in the sport.
One name mentioned was Paulie Malignaggi. Hatton had defeated Malignaggi by technical knockout in 2008, back when both were fighting at 140 pounds. Now Malignaggi had a title belt in the 147-pound division. They had history with each other, which would help sell the fight beyond the level that Hatton’s fame already could. And Malignaggi, with just seven knockouts in 32 wins, does not have anything approaching the kind of power that Mayweather and Pacquiao had floored Hatton with.
Senchenko was the man Malignaggi had beaten for the belt.
Hatton was deluding himself.
He had hit his ceiling against Mayweather and Pacquiao, and that was when he was still an active fighter. Now he was 34, coming off three and a half years away from the sport, compounded by the fact that his style is the kind that only allows fighters to have a short shelf life. He also was coming back as a welterweight. The years away to heal could only do so much to help; he would still be slowed by the additional pounds as well as the ravages of time.
The jump from 140 to 147 pounds has been difficult for some naturally smaller boxers; Zab Judah, Arturo Gatti and Hatton himself found themselves less effective at welterweight, where their power didn’t necessarily carry and where naturally bigger men — even those without significant power — could hurt them.
Hatton hadn’t changed his style. He still fought like Rocky in a bar fight. His chin was still perpetually exposed. He still alternated between brutal mauling and comical haymakers.
He found some success against Senchenko and was winning on all three scorecards through eight rounds. Yet even had he won, the fight was showing that Hatton was setting himself up for failure. A victory would give him false bravado, false hope that he could contend. His face was being badly marked up by Senchenko. His chin would eventually be tested, too, not necessarily by Malignaggi, but by whomever might come next after that.
Hatton never got the chance to find out. This time it wasn’t his chin that failed him, but his body.
In the ninth round, Senchenko landed a well-placed left hook to the liver, putting Hatton down on one knee. He never rose back up to beat the count, and instead lay himself on the canvas, suffering from the blow, succumbing to his fate.
He eventually got up. Tears welled in his eyes. Disappointment pooled within. He said he wasn’t going to make any rash decisions about his career.
Before the night was over, he had once again retired.
“I know it isn't there anymore,” Hatton was quoted as saying afterward by BoxingScene.com. “It's too many hard fights. I've burned the candle at both ends. I've put my body through the mire in and out of the ring. But it doesn't matter how hard I train. I couldn't have done any better.
"I'm a happy man tonight,” he said. “I don't feel like putting a knife to my wrists. I have got the answers I needed. I got the opportunity and I got the answers and no matter how upsetting it is, I have got to be a man and say it is the end of Ricky Hatton."
He is as honest as a fighter can come, but he’s still deluding himself. This is only the end of his boxing career.
This is a profession so brutal that it can break a person in the span of one night. It is a pursuit that has taken the measure of him as a warrior, but it is what Hatton does outside of the ring that will take the measure of him as a man.
The 10 Count
1. Sometimes the winner isn’t the story, as evidenced by the 2,000 words above about Ricky Hatton. Unfortunately for Vyacheslav Senchenko, he will merely become the answer to a trivia question. He wasn’t interviewed on Showtime after he beat Hatton, nor will he necessarily be rewarded in this country for the victory.
That’s just not the way it works. Pro boxing isn’t a tournament where one win guarantees you another big fight. Senchenko has fought nearly his entire career in his native Ukraine, with a couple bouts taking place in Russia and one fight in Monaco.
Paulie Malignaggi traveled to Ukraine earlier this year to dethrone Senchenko. Now that Malignaggi has the World Boxing Association’s belt, and now that the new Barclays Center arena has opened in Brooklyn, it’s highly doubtful that he would travel back to Ukraine for a Senchenko rematch.
No other sanctioning body has Senchenko ranked in its top 15. We’ll see how the welterweight division shakes out. I’d love to see Malignaggi defend against the heavy-handed No. 2 challenger — Marcos Maidana.
2. At the beginning of 2012, I was among those who had had enough of the nonstop PR blitz from Robert Guerrero’s team about “The Ghost” being a viable challenger for Floyd Mayweather Jr.
At the time, Guerrero hadn’t fought a single bout in the welterweight division, and had last been seen competing at lightweight. Ten months later, I still don’t think Guerrero can beat Mayweather — then again, I would say that for every other name at welterweight — but I’m also no longer opposed to the idea of Mayweather vs. Guerrero.
That’s because Guerrero did what he needed to in these past four months, first by outpointing contender Selcuk Aydin in July, and now by taking Andre Berto to the trenches and taking a win over the two-time former titleholder this past weekend.
Guerrero’s win over Berto was at times ugly and dirty, but there was beauty in the way he made Berto uncomfortable, and there was wisdom in the way that he got away with whatever the refereeing of Lou Moret allowed him to do. It was a gritty, gutsy battle from both fighters.
Guerrero is a Golden Boy Promotions fighter, which helps his cause for being a Mayweather opponent once Floyd makes his return to the ring.
Of course, all that could change if Miguel Cotto beats Austin Trout this weekend, or if Golden Boy makes Mayweather vs. Canelo Alvarez for what would be a huge Cinco de Mayo or Mexican Independence Day weekend pay-per-view.
3. There is a tendency for some in the boxing world to root against Andre Berto, given that he is one of the many fighters represented by oft-villainized powerbroker adviser Al Haymon, and given that HBO hyped Berto tremendously before he had ever proven his standing in the sport.
There needs to be some acclaim for Berto. He’s never going to match the hype, but he’s now shown some serious guts in defeat against Victor Ortiz in 2011 and against Guerrero this past weekend.
Berto seemed on his way to an embarrassing early loss after being knocked down in the first and second rounds against Guerrero. Yet he got up and fought through two seriously swollen eyes, putting up a sometimes-stiff resistance against his otherwise-overwhelming opponent.
I wish we could see Guerrero-Berto 2. I’ll settle for a fight we were supposed to have gotten earlier this year before Berto tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
Let’s get that rematch with Victor Ortiz.
4. Dad, on Keith Thurman: “I’m not sure if he’s Jeff Lacy or not, because his hands are not so fast. But maybe he’s a Marcos Maidana, that his hands are so heavy that when he hits you, something could happen.”
5. As much of a pleasure as it was hearing Jim Lampley pronounce the name of 122-pound contender Poonsawat Kratingdaenggym…
…a demented part of me wishes that the Dec. 15 fight between Kratingdaenggym and titleholder Guillermo Rigondeaux was being called by Teddy Atlas and George Foreman.
6. How have we not gotten more of Manny Pacquiao’s mother on past editions of HBO’s “24/7” series? And when can we put together a boxing debate show involving Pacquiao’s mother, Danny Garcia’s father and Roger Mayweather?
7. Boxers Behaving Badly: Former 122-pound prospect Gilberto Corrales has been arrested and accused of shooting and killing his wife in Los Angeles, according to local television station CBS2 (via BoxingScene’s own Francisco Salazar).
Corrales is due in court on Dec. 4, according to Salazar.
The 36-year-old fought as a pro from 1996 through 2002, going 19-1-1 with 16 knockouts. His sole defeat came in his final fight, a split decision loss to Ricardo Medina. Corrales retired later due to “a freak injury to his right hand,” according to Salazar.
8. Things I missed while covering the Nov. 17 fights in Atlantic City, part one: There was a Jim Lampley quote-of-the-year nominee during the fight between Seth Mitchell and Johnathon Banks, in which Lampley sized up the former college football player turned heavyweight prospect, Mitchell.
“He’s got huge quadriceps muscles and a very substantial butt.”
A quick Google search shows that that sentence had apparently never been uttered before, at least until earlier this month.
9. Things I missed while covering the Nov. 17 fights in Atlantic City, part two: There was a press release announcing rapper 50 Cent’s official entry into the world of boxing promotion. It mentioned four of the fighters in his “SMS Promotions” stable — and proceeded to spell three of their names incorrectly.
“SMS Promotions has already acquired four top fighters in the industry including former featherweight title holder Yuriorkis Gambia [sic — should be Gamboa], super middle weight contender Andre Darrell [should be Dirrell, and “middleweight” should be one word], Australian IBF featherweight titlist Billy Dib and featherweight contender Celestine [should be Celestino] Caballero.”
I’m awaiting the next press release, which will hopefully announce the signing of a proofreader.
10. R.I.P. Hector “Macho” Camacho, 1962-2012.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter @fightingwords2 or send questions/comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org