By Mark Staniforth
It had just gone midnight in a subterranean press conference room at the MEN Arena in Manchester on Sunday morning when Ricky Hatton forced himself to accept that he had finally been beaten by the ticking of the clock.
By rights it was a clock that should have juddered to a halt for the last time three and a half years ago after a painful defeat to Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas which sent the ever-popular 'Hit Man' into a cycle of self-abuse and personal despair.
But sitting in that press conference room and peering deep into Hatton's terribly swollen eyes, it was difficult for even the staunchest critics of his boxing comeback to deny that he had earned the right to summon his one last shot.
The ravages of time and the wild, see-saw lifestyle of binge-drinking and crazy weight loss from which he somehow chiselled his extraordinarily successful career had finally contrived to leave him down and out in front of his home town fans.
But those of us who shook our heads in fear for his future as he was led tearfully from that ring for the final time as a fighter were reassured by an astonishingly honest speech from Hatton which suggested his comeback had not been entirely in vain.
As you would expect from a fighter whose style became a byword for ferocity during his journey from the leisure centre in Widnes where it all started in 1997 to the giant billboards of the Las Vegas Strip, Hatton pulled no punches.
He spoke eloquently and with searing honesty about his need to make a comeback, to repel the demons that had threatened to hijack his head, to have one more fight to bring the kind of closure which could put his combative mind at rest.
In the privacy of his dressing room, in the hour or so it took between being cheered from the ring by his ever-loyal army of fans and coming to meet the media, Hatton mercifully reached the right conclusion.
Worryingly in a certain respect, it was one which Hatton conceded he reached on his own, some in his team urging him to bide his time before making up his mind, ever-willing with the list of excuses which could tempt him to fight again.
Paulie Malignaggi sat at ringside, their world title fight in New York early next year apparently already inked. Despite Hatton's defeat on Saturday night, it was a fight that could quite easily still have been made.
Richard Schaefer, the chief of Golden Boy Promotions in the US who has never laced on the gloves in his life, inexcusably waded into the argument by insisting overnight it was a fight that could and should still happen.
Amid the nonsensical utterings of hangers-on too concerned for the health of their own future pay packets, Hatton, to his credit, ignored the rubbish and told it, his voice occasionally cracking with emotion, just like it is.
Britain may see better fighters than Hatton. Joe Calzaghe was among the stars sat at ringside as a gleaming antidote to the idea that all fine fighters will go to the well once too often.
But it is almost inconceivable that the nation will ever again embrace a fighter who is quite so popular, who could drag tens of thousands halfway across the world to take over the most famous fight city in the world.
In years to come Hatton will not be remembered for falling onto all fours against Vyacheslav Senchenko or even for his brutal second-round defeat to Manny Pacquiao.
It is those nights against Kostya Tszyu, Juan Urango, Jose Luis Castillo and spectacularly, despite defeat, Floyd Mayweather, that will remain etched in the memory of all those fortunate to piggy-back the 'Hit Man' across the pond.
The clock will keep ticking, but time will only serve to embellish the extent of Hatton's achievements. With the adulation comes the profound hope that the next chapter for the 'Hit Man' need not be as bleak as we all once feared.
Mark Staniforth covers boxing for PA Sport. Tags: Ricky Hatton