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Watson’s favorite fight: Kostya Tszyu vs Ricky Hatton

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June 4, 2005, became a special night in British boxing and an even more special moment in a 15-year-old boy’s life.

Ricky Hatton v Kostya Tszyu Photo by John Gichigi/Getty Images

During this desolate period in the boxing schedule, nostalgia feels an appealing antidote to the boredom of self-isolation.

As we pry open the archives to fights and fighters of yesteryear, specific entries will mean more to some than others. To coin a boxing cliché, it’s “what you like”, as fans juggle their emotional ties to particular eras, fighting styles, upsets and personal relationships with a memorable event.

The criteria are endless; arguments over subjective and objective choices cause wasted breath as the entire boxing community falls on different engaging answers.

Ward-Gatti, fine.

Castillo-Corrales, well of course.

Hagler-Hearns, sure.

Cleverly-Bellew II, stay home, you’re drunk.

Mine? Kostya Tszyu vs Ricky Hatton, June 4, 2005 – a fight to determine who reigned supreme among the junior welterweights.

Not the purest of contests, by all means. Messy exchanges and prolonged clinches made this fight hard to watch, and score, at times, but as a city exploded to fuel the “Hitman’s” relentless pace set throughout the 33 minutes of combat, it was hard to deny the history that Hatton was making in front of my 15-year-old eyes.

Tszyu-Hatton was the first fight to inject me with the boxing bug. It would also mark the last fight I watched with my father, who passed away a mere 36 hours later.

So, let me indulge myself, as we roll back the clock fifteen years to a time of flip-phones, mini-discs, Livestrong bracelets and the creepy stare from MySpace Tom, as he rallied for a spot in your pound-for-pound friendship rankings.

Marketed as “The Big One”, Kostya Tszyu vs Ricky Hatton at the MEN Arena, Manchester signalled boxing’s return to the back pages across the UK. Not since Lennox Lewis has Britain enjoyed “one of their own” attracting such inflated attention inside the ring, with the “Hitman’s” working-class routes facilitating an endearing love across the nation.

Hatton was 38-0 approaching the biggest test of his career, holding the WBU junior-welterweight title since 2001. Kostya Tszyu stood in the opposing corner as the lineal champion at 140 pounds, widely regarded as the No. 2 pound-for-pound star in the sport, just shy of Bernard Hopkins at the summit.

This was a huge test for the 26-year-old Ricky Hatton, as promoter Frank Warren rolled the dice to see whether the proud Mancunian would sink or swim at world level.

“It’s a fight the public and the media have been wanting,” said Warren in the early months of 2005. “And it is certainly one of the biggest, if not the biggest, fight that I have been involved in staging. The demand for tickets is incredible.”

There were limited complications in making this fight a reality, but it took dotting of the Is and crossing of the Ts to get it over the line in January 2005, as Tszyu agreed to put his legacy on the line on foreign soil.

“I have been quietly negotiating with Frank Warren,” Vlad Warton, Tszyu’s promoter, told the Guardian early that year. “We did agree some time ago in principle, verbally, to take care of the deal. However, I could never commit on behalf of Kostya, because that is up to Kostya. Now we have done.”

Ricky Hatton v Kostya Tszyu Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The fight would take place on June 4, or most specifically the small hours of June 5, to accommodate the live screening requirements of Showtime in the United States. It was a fight the whole world would take notice of, with over 80 countries receiving a Tszyu-Hatton stream.

Close to 22,000 tickets for this event were reportedly shifted inside two hours of going on sale, more than four months before the first bell was due to ring. Barry McGuigan – working as a pundit on the evening of the fight – confirmed that the interest for this fight was unprecedented in recent years; “this fight could have sold out three times over,” the “Clones Cyclone” stated.

Finances weren’t disclosed, although it was understood both men were due to receive the biggest purses of their careers. Tszyu, arriving as the away fighter, was set to make $5 million.

“There were other good champions at my weight like Vivian Harris and Sharmba Mitchell, but I wanted Tszyu because he was the best,” Hatton told the Ring Magazine on the tenth anniversary of the contest. “I think Frank (Warren) tried to talk me out of it because I was No. 1 contender for Harris, but I was adamant that I wanted this fight.”

Hatton’s admiration for the Russian-born Australian didn’t cloud his judgement in wanting to test himself against the very best.

“Kostya Tszyu was someone that I looked up to because he was a class act from start to finish. He had well over 200 amateur fights (259 wins, 11 losses) and the guy was just a complete punching machine. He had flattened top opponents like Zab Judah and Sharmba Mitchell with ease, so he was the man to beat.”

Tszyu was feared amongst the 140-pounders, with Hatton a firm underdog coming into the world title fight. The champion was priced at 8/15 to retain his crown, whereas the British challenger could be found around 11/8 to cause the upset. Despite an electric and positive atmosphere swirling around the MEN Arena, the “head vs heart” narrative being churned out by fighters and pundits ringside was impossible to dismiss.

Johnny Nelson was the WBO cruiserweight champion at the time, and sat alongside Frank Bruno, the Sheffield fighter dissected the fight with an attention to detail prematurely suited to his future career path in the media. “He’s got to control the beast of nerves,” Nelson said, confirming he thought Tszyu would get the victory but was backing Hatton all the way. Russel Crowe was also in close proximity, claiming that Angelo Dundee touted his compatriot, Tszyu, as the “best pound-for-pound fighter he’s ever coached”.

The late Diego Corrales, Winky Wright and Jeff Lacy had three of the best seats in the house and were indulging in answering questions regarding their past and present. The latter would fight inside the same arena nine months later in a unanimous decision loss to Joe Calzaghe.

“IT’S GONNA KOST-YA TSZYU,” read a sign from one of Hatton’s loyal supporters as the Sky cameras began scrapping around for content during the build-up to the main event. Hatton was fast-becoming the latest box office star in the UK. Everyone wanted a slice of the “Hitman” as Adam Smith – now head of Sky Boxing – followed his every move on the morning of the fight, interviewing Hatton as he indulged in a traditional, yet unusual, fry-up in his local Butty Box cafe.

“From a mental point of view, it makes me feel a lot better with a bit of grease in me,” the 26-year-old disclosed his mouth half-full with sausage, with a wry smile pronouncing his gaunt cheeks in jest. “I’m extremely nervous, but a good nervous as I’m brimming with confidence.”

Ricky Hatton v Kostya Tszyu Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The consensus surrounding the fight was that Hatton would have to survive the opening three or four rounds on the assumption that he could drown Tszyu with work-rate in the latter rounds. At 35, the champion was open and honest about the stage of his career that he was entering, but the fact that he had boxed just three rounds in two-and-a-half years (a third-round KO of Sharmba Mitchell in November 2004) didn’t seem to affect his confidence or mindset.

“I don’t take shortcuts,” Tszyu swaggered with a mean glint in his eyes. “I’ll walk into my tunnel. There’ll be 100,000 people around me. I won’t see it. I won’t feel it. I’ll be so focused nothing will bother me.”

It’s unclear whether anyone truly believed the atmosphere in Manchester was going to affect the veteran. His career-defining victory over Zab Judah just four years prior – via a second-round TKO – saw Tszyu topple odds of 1/3 in favour of Judah without a care in the world for the surrounding MGM Grand Garden Arena. Tszyu had gained a reputation as a cold, hard killer – a “ticket-seller” from Manchester wasn’t going to derail his cruise into the sunset.

When asked for a prediction, Tszyu would simply respond with “A great fight,” with a mischievous smile plastered across his battle-scarred face. Did the “Thunder from Down Under” know something we didn’t?

Jimmy Lennon Jr was given the nod that evening and would announce both men to the ring. Hatton, first, bounded towards the ring with steely intent. “Blue Moon” echoed around the arena as over 20,000 pie-eyed Mancunians raised a toast to their hero. It was the early hours of the morning, but nothing would deter the “Hitman’s” following from playing their pivotal role in proceedings.

Tszyu followed in a black robe as dark emotionless as his poverty-stricken upbringing in Russia. His no-frills demeanour underlined his work ethic for the evening, undeterred and unmoved by the chorus of boos that lashed down on him, as vicious and unrelenting as the Manchester rain.

National anthems were greeted with predictable partisan tribalism; pockets of travelling supporters could be heard chanting “Tszyu, Tszyu, Tszyu, Tszyu,” before being drowned out by “The Great Escape” or “God Save the Queen” by the rowdy majority.

Admittedly, this was the most engaged I’d felt by a fight during my short lifetime. I’d been aware of and followed the Tyson, Lewis, Holyfield, Bowe era as a child; I had an understanding – and a naive opinion – of the current pound-for-pound standings across the sport; Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn were household names despite retiring seven and nine years prior, but this felt different.

Ricky Hatton v Kostya Tszyu Photo by John Gichigi/Getty Images

As the bell for the first round rang, I’d lean in towards the modestly sized television as my father, and I would commit to our final predictions. Eyes scrunched in an attempt to process every punch in meticulous detail, as well as to stave off the drooping eyelids at such an unsociable hour.

I can’t recall how we saw the fight playing out. My youthful loyalty and blind patriotism probably called an early Hatton knockout; my father’s more measured, logical thought-process most likely saw the champion riding the Manchester storm with professional ease.

Hatton started the brighter of the two, with messy clinches interrupting the challenger’s pressure on the front foot. Both men were finding success with the left hook, but Hatton’s tenacious pace was proving hard for Tszyu to measure. The Briton looked ungainly at times but was able to rough the veteran up with sporadic ascendancy. A double jab with feet springing from the canvas emphasised Hatton’s spirited fire.

Tszyu was able to settle in the fight in the third round, countering Hatton’s advances and pot-shotting the challenger with stiff right hands. As the Briton fell into his shots, he was often caught square by the visitor, allowing Tszyu to score the majority of the eye-catching work in the first half of the fight.

Tszyu would repeatedly start each round by firing off a speculative overhand right which Hatton refused to learn or adapt to. The Australian wanted this fight over as soon as possible; Hatton was there for the long haul. Tszyu’s best round came in the fifth with the “Hitman” struggling to pin down the champion on the ropes.

“The plan was to stick to Kostya like glue, stay on his chest,” Hatton told The Ring. “Judah and Mitchell, in fact pretty much anyone Tszyu fought, tended to pull away from him which left them in range for that murderous right hand. Kostya would paw with his left to set you up for the long right, and his leverage was at the end of that shot.”

Despite working in straight lines and walking on to a lot of shots, Hatton rode the storm under early pressure and was able to chip away at the body of Tszyu slowly. As the rounds ticked by Hatton would grow stronger into the fight as the champion began to sag; his mouth hung wide open from the eighth round as his muscles became starved of oxygen.

The pair would trade low blows with Tszyu taking considerably longer to recover than Hatton; as each second of the rounds ticked by, the champion’s heart began to break and the challenger’s pumped faster and stronger.

Hatton began drowning his foe with constant pressure. There were moments of riposte despite the 35-year-old beginning to look every one of his years. “There’s only one Ricky Hatton” rang around the arena – the wilting champion must have felt for periods that there were at least two or three of him in there with him.

The passing of the junior welterweight torch came at the end of the eleventh round as Tszyu failed to return for the final round. Hatton would fall to the canvas under the weight of his trainer Billy Graham in unbridled joy; the MEN would erupt with euphoria – one of their very own had just achieved what many deemed impossible.

IBF Light-Welterweight Title - Ricky Hatton v Kostya Tszyu - MEN Arena Photo by Nick Potts - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

As the towel came in on Tszyu’s career, my father would throw the towel in on his own life the following day. He had been suffering from depression in the years prior, with that particular Monday morning signalling the end of his fight.

Hatton’s career, as well as boxing, would pale into insignificance in the weeks and months that followed, but the “Hitman’s” willingness to open up about his mental health struggles later in his career acted as a crumb of comfort as the full-circle began to close.

“I still get depressed, and I still have bad days, but my mates don’t get funny with me if I’m quiet. They just know what’s going on,” Hatton told Men’s Health just two years ago. Through seeking help, the “Hitman” has learnt to live with his struggles and find peace with such a crippling illness.

”I have a head doctor – a psychiatrist – and whenever I get down, I go have an hour with him, and the world is beautiful again. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak. It means you’re fucking clever. You can either sulk and die or go do something about it.”

I’ll never forget that night in 2005, nor will I forget the story that Ricky Hatton has since told, clambering to his feet on countless occasions while life has tried pinning him to the canvas.

“I was sat in my corner ready to chuck the towel,” Hatton explained following his crowning night. “But when you hear the roar of that crowd, they dragged me through it, and we did it together that night.”

Over the years, Ricky and I have both found out how hard it can be to beat life’s ten-count, with mixed results.

You can find Lewis Watson @lewroyscribbles