34-year-old Ricky Hatton makes his return to the boxing ring this Saturday, when he faces Vyacheslav Senchenko in Manchester, and he can't afford any slip-ups. The hunger has to be as real as Ricky says it is if his comeback is going to stick.
When you comb through boxing's modern history, there's no comeback story quite like the one Ricky Hatton is about to write on Saturday.
George Foreman had the remarkable second career in boxing, of course, but Foreman had been gone a full ten years when he returned to the ring in 1987. Oscar De La Hoya took a little less than two years off between his loss to middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins and dominant win over Ricardo Mayorga. Floyd Mayweather had about the same time lapse between beating Hatton and beating Juan Manuel Marquez.
There have been comebacks and career rejuvenations -- Duran, Barkley, Holyfield, etc. -- but they're not like Hatton. Even Mike Tyson's return from prison isn't really the same as what Ricky Hatton's going to be doing.
That's because none of them had the combination of a terrible loss and this amount of time out of the ring. Back in May 2009, Ricky Hatton was completely obliterated by Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas. A fight that many felt was going to be great action, with plenty of folks picking Ricky to overpower Pacquiao at 140 pounds, turned into a demolition job by the Filipino, as Pacquiao floored Hatton twice in the opening round before finishing him off in scary fashion at the end of the second.
"There it is," said Emanuel Steward, as plain as he could. At that point, as jolting as it was, it seemed inevitable. It was going to happen then, or in the third or fourth round, or in the sixth, or whatever -- but Ricky Hatton was not going to grind through his encounter with Manny Pacquiao. That was clear in the first round.
Hatton had lost only once before, a mostly one-sided defeat at the hands of Floyd Mayweather, his time's other pound-for-pound great. Mayweather had advantages over Hatton, including being a better welterweight than Ricky, which don't even go into the fact that Floyd is simply much better than Hatton.
At the time, Pacquiao was riding high, of course, but Hatton was getting Manny on his terms, at 140 pounds, where Ricky had never lost a fight, on pretty much neutral ground in Vegas (Hatton's traveling fans made anywhere neutral ground at worst), and he figured to be able to give Pacquiao some physical looks that Manny wasn't used to seeing or feeling.
But it was never close. Following that defeat, Hatton followed up on his engagement to host a pool party at a Vegas hotel the next day, where in photos from the event he looked more or less OK. The truth was, he really wasn't in good shape mentally, and that would be the story of his public life for the next two years.
Eventually, Hatton found himself involved in a cocaine scandal in the UK, after which he checked into rehab. The fighter battled severe depression following the collapse of his boxing career, but in the end, he came through the other side of the tunnel, and focused himself on his work as a promoter, and more recently, as a trainer.
Hatton recently remembered the low points when speaking with the LA Times:
"It was humiliation. I tried to come back [after Pacquiao] to redeem myself, but it was easier to press snooze when the alarm clock rang, or start the diet next week. The desire, the will wasn’t there. ... It went from bad to worse, I was ashamed of myself, I started having blackouts to the point I don’t even remember the drugs," Hatton said. "I was in a dark place."
In July 2011, Ricky Hatton announced his retirement from boxing, more than two years after he'd been brutally knocked out by Pacquiao. At the time, I applauded the move, as I think most did:
The retirement announcement comes as no surprise, and frankly I think is a decision that his fans will welcome. It's been too long that he's been out of the ring for a comeback to have likely gone well, and there was really nothing more that he was going to accomplish. ... It was time to go, and it's good to see Hatton in a position where he's happy enough to go.
As it turns out, Hatton's retirement wasn't really forced on him, but it certainly wasn't the decision he wanted to make. In other words, he was not happy enough to go. Promoting, training, those things may work for Ricky Hatton, but this year, word went around that the "Hitman" was getting the competitive itch again.
So when he announced his comeback on September 14, for a fight on November 24, it came as no surprise. The rumors had gotten hot and heavy over the preceding weeks, and once again, we were dealing with an inevitability: Like it or not, Ricky Hatton was going to take one more shot at boxing.
At his press conference, Hatton made it very clear. This is about redemption and pride:
"I think the one line I can sum it up is, I lived to box, I box to live now. That's what I wanna do. And I want everyone in this room, whether it be press, sports fans, boxing fans, whether it be friends, family, and my kids, I want them to look at me and be proud again. Ricky Hatton's redeeming himself. It's not about money. It's not about winning a world title. It's more than that to me. And I hope you can understand in listening to my words now, you'll know exactly where I'm coming from, and why I'm sat at this table now."
Choosing Vyacheslav Senchenko, a credible welterweight and former world titleholder, made the move serious. Hatton had sold out the Manchester Arena before even naming an opponent; his return to the ring is that big. He remains the biggest star in British boxing, and there aren't really serious contenders to that throne just yet, even given the popularity (or notoriety) of fighters like David Haye, Amir Khan, Scotland's Ricky Burns, and others. None of them have what Hatton had with the fans, that deep relationship, that love and admiration and loyalty.
Ricky Hatton didn't need to fight someone as useful as Senchenko, but he will. And that is just scratching the surface of the worries that some hold about Hatton's return to the ring.
Ignoring even that Senchenko (32-1, 21 KO) might have been tough at welterweight for Hatton years ago, there is the worry that Ricky is simply not going to be anywhere near himself. Being fit and competitive in the gym is just not the same as being ready to go on fight night, with nearly 20,000 screaming fans adding to the pressures of an emotional environment. There may not be a single attendee on Saturday night who thinks Ricky Hatton will lose the fight, or at least has buried that idea so far down that it doesn't really matter.
The fans in Manchester will be giddy with anticipation, waiting for "Blue Moon" to kick off, and for their boxing hero to make that long walk to the ring once more. It's been a long time, and Ricky Hatton's presence has been missed.
But at 34, what kind of fighter will Ricky Hatton be on Saturday? He was never a speed merchant, but will he have lost the speed he did have? Will he be overzealous? Will his power -- which was never big at 147 to begin with -- have been sapped? Can he handle getting hit by a bigger, stronger man?
Yes, Paulie Malignaggi tore through Senchenko earlier this year like a little kid ripping into a present on Christmas morning, but Malignaggi has been fighting for the last three years. And it was Paulie's back against the wall in that fight, counted out by many, going on the road. He took the fight as a personal challenge, and he had his best performance in years, one of the best of his career.
Ricky Hatton has all the pressure on his own shoulders against Senchenko. Fighting at home for the first time since May 2008 and just the second time since 2005, Hatton has a lot to live up to on Saturday. The echoes of his own thrilling performances, the fights that made him a megastar in the United Kingdom, will be there. And so will the memories of what happened to him the last time he fought, when Manny Pacquiao turned out the lights.
It is impossible for me to truly imagine what will go through Ricky Hatton's heart, mind, and soul on Saturday, or even what's going through it now on Tuesday. He's facing a daunting task to say the least. He has to win on Saturday for this comeback to not go down as an awful mistake, and what's more, he has to win with style. He can't just eke out a win over Senchenko. He could still move on to get a world title rematch with Malignaggi, the last fight he defeated in 2008, with that sort of win, but it wouldn't be what it could have been.
Boxing is not a forgiving sport. Time doesn't just take a toll in this game, it can erase what made you who you were. The aggressive, relentless, hungry Ricky Hatton of old seemed to fade even in his wins later in his career. He says the hunger is back, the drive has returned, and he's itching to prove that he is still a world-class fighter.
That's all going to be gut-checked on Saturday. I believe that Ricky Hatton believes everything he's saying. What's not so clear is whether or not it's actually true, and whether or not he's truly ready to make a dent in the relevant boxing world once more.
For better or worse, we're four days from finding out. Ricky Hatton's on the doorstep of a unique return to the boxing ring. It's hard to root against him, but it's impossible to not see the potential for a letdown, equal to how glorious the comeback could be if successful.