By Cliff Rold
It could have been shown to the world in black and white, so closely did the career of Manchester’s Ricky “The Hitman” Hatton resemble the classic boxing movie that plays in the back of the mind.
It was, if nothing else, a model career, flowing as if scripted from start to finish.
Hatton grew seamlessly from prospect, to contender, to champion, to superstar, to fallen warrior, and now on to the exits. On July 7, 2011, more than two years after his last professional contest, Hatton officially announced his retirement from boxing. He leaves with his wits still about him and a bundle of cash.
There is no doubt that, in the ring and at the box office, Hatton was the central figure in the 140 lb. division for most of the second half of the 2000s. As he is wished a fond and well-earned farewell, and in a month heavy on quality Jr. Welterweight action, it is fair to ask:
How good was Hatton, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Height: 5’7 ½
Hailed From: Manchester, Lancashire, United Kingdom
Turned Professional: September 11, 1997 (TKO1 Colin McAuley)
Record: 45-2, 32 KO
Record in Major Title Fights (Including Lineal Title Fights): 7-2, 4 KO, 2 KOBY
Lineal World Titles: World Jr. Welterweight (2005-09, 5 Defenses)
Other Major Titles: IBF Jr. Welterweight (2005-06, 1 Defense; 2007); WBA Jr. Welterweight (2005-06); WBA Welterweight (2006)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 2 (Kostya Tszyu RTD11, Jose Luis Castillo KO4)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 2
(Floyd Mayweather Jr. TKO by 10; Manny Pacquiao KO by 2)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 6 (Freddie Pendleton KO2; Vince Phillips UD12; Carlos Maussa KO9; Luis Collazo UD12; Juan Urango UD12; Paulie Maignaggi TKO11)
Hatton was a notable amateur in his native country, winning the prestigious Amateur Boxing Association of England National Championship in March, 1997, over Michael Hall. With an unpaid mark of 73-7, the then 18-year old Hatton would trade in the headgear for cash in September of the same year, making his U.S. debut in his second pro fight at Madison Square Garden on the undercard of Naseem Hamed-Kevin Kelly. The body punching, all-energy storm was on his way.
Hatton would progress deliberately in the ensuing years, picking up eight wins in 1998 and then stretching his legs towards regional and minor global sanctioning body belts in six 1999 wins. Through 2000 and 2001, Hatton’s competition grew more difficult and experienced. He bested veteran Tony Pep for the fringe World Boxing Union belt at 140 lbs. while a rival emerged.
A grudge with Belfast native Eammon Magee was nurtured into an event at the M.E.N. Arena in Manchester where Hatton’s affect on the turnstiles had become obvious. It would be his first brush with the sort of Superfight attention to come later in his career. It featured its share of drama. Hatton was dropped for the first time, in the very first round, only to battle back and take a unanimous decision.
Three fights later, with a decision over veteran Vince Phillips in April 2003, the question began to emerge: when would Hatton challenge then-undisputable World Jr. Welterweight Champion Kostya Tszyu? The answer wouldn’t be “now” until a little more than two years, and six wins, later. As Tszyu struggled with injury and inactivity for much of the time, Hatton built momentum, finally bringing the champion to his turf in June 2005.
Tszyu, entering off of a blistering knockout of former titlist Sharmba Mitchell in their 2004 rematch, was favored over Hatton but the odds mattered little after the bell. Using a combination of relentless pressure, holding, mauling, and punching, and with a willingness to absorb as many right hands as Tszyu could land, Hatton built a lead in a competitive fight and forced the older champion to retire on his stool before the start of the 12th round.
Hatton’s reign was begun as the lineal World Champion. Due in part to his inactivity, and the politics of boxing, Tszyu had come into the Hatton bout with only the IBF belt remaining among his honors. Hatton added the WBA strap right away, stopping unlikely titlist Carlos Maussa. His belt collection would ebb and flow with more boxing politics from there.
He would give up both of his sanctioning body belts, while keeping his Ring Magazine strap to signal he maintained his real place at 140, to fight Luis Collazo for a WBA Welterweight belt in a narrow, debated 2006 decision. Giving up that strap, Hatton would move down the following year to regain the IBF belt he never lost in the ring, against Juan Urango over a dominant twelve rounds.
Hatton would give that belt up again right away, picking up various other lightly regarded sanctioning body belts while defending his lineal crown, from Tszyu to a 2008 defense versus Paulie Malignaggi, a total of five times. In the midst of the run, he would move up to challenge Floyd Mayweather for the lineal Welterweight crown in 2007, suffering his first defeat.
Along with the distinction of being one of the top ticket sellers of his time, Hatton collected his share of outside the ring honors, named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year: 2005
• BWAA Fighter of the Year: 2005
• Ring Magazine Knockout of the Year: 2009
Hatton’s career was built in an old-fashioned, single division fashion, made possible by coming of age in a class that had a true World Champion in Tszyu. By the time Hatton was ready to grow beyond a prospect, Tszyu was ascending and then it was a classic game of timing the challenge.
On his way up, if slowly it seemed at the time, he took on his share of former title challengers (Aldo Rios, Ben Tackie), faded titlists (Freddie Pendleton), and even the symbolic signal win (Vince Phillips, at the time the only man to have bested Tszyu). In Tszyu, he defeated a future Hall of Famer coming off a signature win of his own and made Tszyu quit.
After Tszyu, the quality of Hatton’s competition was generally strong but represents only a limited part of his career. He was built towards Hatton. Once that was accomplished, there would be only eight more starts. It was a solid eight. All but two (Juan Lazcano and Manny Pacquiao) of the six challengers he would face as Jr. Welterweight champion were considered top ten at 140 by Ring Magazine and/or ESPN. Ring recognized former Lightweight king Jose Luis Castillo as the #1 contender going into his failed challenge. Malignaggi gave up a belt to fight him and had lost only to Miguel Cotto going in.
Lazcano, even without a rating, was still a tough go, had been a longtime contender, and proved his mettle it in the ring that night.
In his two trips to Welterweight, Hatton took on a serious if undervalued Welterweight in Collazo and challenged the king of the class. In journeying to a weight class not one’s own, that’s a model for any star fighter.
Competition Not FacedAs always, this section is more concerned about fights not happening, period, then worrying about why.
Hatton was gilded for a longer period of time than some and his pre-championship opposition was carefully selected. Perhaps he could have tested a Sharmba Mitchell or Vivian Harris before Tszyu, but then he might not have been ready and failed to get to the title. The late Arturo Gatti would have made for a crowd-pleasing affair in 2003 or 2004 (though not as much from 2005 forward).
As champion at 140, the biggest miss was probably a then-undefeated Miguel Cotto. They both held titles in the class for more than a year (between 2005 and 2006) and could have been an explosive affair. Having seen both men’s ups and downs, it’s hard to say for sure who would have won. History should have had the answer.
The longest, and probably most overt, miss was a regional rival. Fellow Brit Junior Witter, a longtime WBC beltholder, was seen by many, particularly after Cotto left the class, as the most dangerous threat to Hatton’s Jr. Welterweight crown. Witter was the ultimate high-risk, low reward opponent, an awkward boxer-puncher who was a regular presence among the top two or three contenders to Hatton throughout most of his reign. Hatton didn’t flat out duck many. Witter makes a case he ducked one.
Hatton missed nothing at Welterweight, especially given his having only two significant fights there. However, with the controversy that followed his fight with Collazo, a rematch would have been fair.
Reaction to Adversity
From a fan’s perspective, Hatton reacted well. When he was hurt, or dropped, he charged (or, against Lazcano, was given some very fortunate time to tie up a loose shoe lace, potentially costing Lazcano the championship of the world).
Regardless, backward steps weren’t his thing.
From a boxing perspective, he might have been better off if they were. If not some backward steps, perhaps just a bit more creativity would have been in order. Hatton had more dimensions then he will get credit for. He showed capable of some solid, skilled boxing in the Tackie fight. As he aged, and competition grew tougher, his style changed from a more reckless, hands loose approach to a jab, punch, and maul style (beginning most notably with Tszyu) that was, occasionally, tedious to watch (Urango) later in Hatton's career.
He was good at the tactics he used but, once a game plan was employed, Hatton wasn’t going to change. Against Mayweather, he couldn’t keep up with any of the adjustments Mayweather was making. When referee Joe Cortez made clear he would not allow Hatton to work liberally in close, Hatton was lost. Against Collazo, after a strong start, he found himself locked under the jab and walking face first into it repeatedly. Pacquiao stormed him and Hatton had no answer at all. In every occasion, he elected to simply fight harder.
But not smarter.
What’s Left to Prove
As a retiree, Hatton will have to prove he can stay away. In boxing, that is rarely the case. It feels more, if not completely, certain in this case. Hatton had already been out of the ring for over two years when he made the call to hang them up. That’s more than enough time to contemplate the future, if between pints. One presumes Hatton can make do with the ample stash of cash he piled up.
Will it be enough?
The certainty would be more so if not for one man: Amir Khan. Speaking to Harold Lederman at the weigh-in for Miguel Cotto-Zab Judah a few years back, Hatton-Khan was Lederman’s choice for the future ‘richest fight in boxing.’ While it might not now, might never have, reached that level, it could still be a massive event, a backyard brawl with global attention. As Khan’s star grows, can Hatton refuse the predictable seduction of dolla…err pounds whispered in his direction?
Time will tell.
Measured Against History
There are varying degrees of greatness in boxing because there are varied avenues of achievement the game provides. For non-Heavyweights, the most visible path to Mt. Fistmore is to collect straps across multiple weight classes.
For others, it can be a single stop on the scale where their niche is carved.
Aaron Pryor. Nicolino Locche. Jack Berg. Julio Cesar Chavez. Antonio Cervantes.
One of these names is not like the others. If one can recognize Hatton’s place as an almost purely one-division fighter, than his greatness is weighed against some of the best of all time in that domain. While five defenses of the real World title is admirable, the opposition in those five is not quite on the level of the handful of Jr. Welterweight who can compete for the honor of best ever in class.
The Tszyu win was fantastic, and Tszyu clearly could still go, but the old lion-young lion dynamic can’t be entirely ignored. That it was so clearly Hatton’s best night signified he may have reached and left peak almost simultaneously. In that sense, his career might best be compared to Northern Ireland’s thrilling Barry McGuigan. The Featherweight McGuigan was built perfectly in the 1980s into a title shot against the great Eusebio Pedroza.
He won with the best performance of his career. McGuigan would, like Hatton, add a few more quality appearances before losing his crown. However, it’s fair to say both men’s finest hours were in wresting their crowns from men who will go down in history as their betters. Could there have been more for Hatton had he taken care of himself differently outside the ring, had he not blown up in weight so much between fights?
Maybe. But, considering the quality of foe he struggled with and those who outright defeated him, probably not. Weight wasn’t why he lost to Mayweather and Pacquiao. They were just better than him.
That’s not a sin.
Hatton had a great career and met most of the burdens fans demand of elite stars. Once at the championship level, he faced better fighters than he did not, created fans, packed houses, and went out on his shield like a man. It would be no surprise if one day he ends up housed right next to McGuigan.
At the least, the voters will surely be given the call to make five years from now.
Verdict on Ricky Hatton: No All-Time Great, But There’s Only One…and Boxing Could Use Another
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]