By Mark Staniforth
When Ricky Hatton last left a boxing ring more than three years ago, he was helped out amid the the profound sympathy of all those who could claim to have been touched by his remarkable journey to the top of his sport.
Once the concerns over Hatton's health had been assuaged on that dark Las Vegas night, that sympathy soon turned into the urgent hope that a man who had given so much would now retire to make the most of his riches.
Hatton had achieved everything and more of the aspirations that had been assigned to him at such a young age, rising through a series of domestic blockbusters and proceeding to drag half of Manchester with him on raucous nights around the world.
Yet there always remained a flicker of concern among the fight fraternity of how Hatton, by his own admission a notoriously bad liver outside the training camp, would cope without the rigid discipline of a professional career.
Those concerns now appear well founded, with one of the worst kept secrets in the sport due to be revealed in the coming weeks when Hatton announces a return to the ring at the age of 33.
Hatton is far from the first to seek to defy the passing of time. Boxers throughout history have been well known for failing to keep their fighting spirit at bay long after the right time to hang up their gloves. But Hatton's imminent decision smacks of sadness more than most.
Public problems with alcohol and depression engulfed him subsequent to his last loss, at the granite hands of Manny Pacquiao in May 2009. And the challenges facing his promotional stable may also have tipped the balance.
Shorn of a television deal after Sky's recent decision to throw their entire lot in with Eddie Hearn, it does not take a genius to point out that Hatton relacing on the gloves will not only scratch his own fighting itch, but ensure some associated prominence for his young stable.
Admirable though Hatton's intention may be, concern for others ought never to be a good enough reason for a great champion to launch a comeback, particularly when Hatton's brutal knockout by Pacquiao proved the culmination of a series of shaky performances which began with his stoppage loss to Floyd Mayweather in 2007.
A mooted rematch with New York's trash-talking, light-punching Paulie Malignaggi is clever enough to sell to TV audiences but does not mask the fact that a match with Malignaggi is being pursued because he is the only man who cannot hurt him.
While we should be grateful for that, it is hardly the grounds upon which once-superstar careers should be allowed to founder. Besides, even Malignaggi, who has somewhat resurrected his career since his loss to Hatton in 2008, would start as favourite.
In boxing, even the most apparently routine assignments are fraught with danger. Hatton only just survived a last round surge by the semi-retired Juan Lazcano on his big homecoming night in Manchester in 2008.
That ought to have been Hatton's final flourish: a realisation that he had had a lucky escape, but that he had squeezed through and could bring his extraordinary career to a close by basking in the roars of scores of thousands of his adoring fans.
Instead, Malignaggi called, then the irresistible lure of a fight against Pacquiao, one last, understandable shot at the true superstardom which had just eluded him against Mayweather, and which the Filipino would end once and for all in brutal fashion.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the state of professional boxing these days is that Hatton's return will be courted and coveted. Promoters will fall over themselves to gush out platitudes about an imminent return to the big Las Vegas billboards. Which ever channel he fights on will see a surge of interest or subscriptions.
Increasingly, it is not greatness that sells in the sport these days, but gimmicks, as promoters are forced to find new ways to claim their share of the shrinking TV market: bad blood and brawls is one way, regurgitating headline acts is another.
Such practices ought to come with health warnings. Hatton may have worked himself back into fighting shape but it is one thing hitting bags in the gym and quite another clambering back through the ropes to come face to face with an opponent's fists.
Someone close to Hatton ought to have a word in his ear and tell him enough is enough. He reached the pinnacle and will go down in history as one of the all-time British greats. Such a tortuous, pointless epilogue can lend no more succour to his story.
Mark Staniforth covers boxing for PA Sport
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