“My heart will explode before I leave him alone for one second,” Ricky Hatton had promised prior to his showdown with Floyd Mayweather Jr. As it turned out, far less was required of Floyd to inflict a first defeat on the determined challenger, though no one can accuse the Englishman of not giving all he had on that memorable night in Las Vegas. Hatton did his best to apply constant pressure and give Mayweather his first defeat, but a combination of Floyd’s skills and some curious officiating were too much to overcome.
Billed as “Undefeated,” Mayweather vs Hatton pitted the flashy, cocky and sublimely talented American champion against the down-to-earth, crowd-pleasing British brawler. They entered the contest with a combined record of 81-0 as Hatton, the lineal light-welterweight champion, stepped up to challenge for Mayweather’s WBC welterweight crown.
In a mega-media pre-fight publicity tour that visited Los Angeles, New York, London and Manchester, Mayweather had done his best to rile the Englishman, mocking and clowning him on stage and spouting incessant trash-talk into his ear each time they faced off. Hatton responded mostly by laughing off the insults, even wearing a pair of industrial-strength ear protectors at one point before, finally, taunting the American with a foul-mouthed tirade on live TV at the Manchester press-stop, to the amusement of his local supporters.
HBO played up the contrast between Hatton as the fresh-faced regular bloke and Mayweather as the obnoxious, arrogant, pseudo-gangster. And while the roles felt overly scripted at times, there was no doubt that Hatton connected with his British fan base like few athletes before or since, and in a way that Mayweather could only dream of.
Proof of this was an estimated thirty thousand British fight fans journeying to Las Vegas to support the Mancunian, and at the weigh-in eight thousand raucous Brits crammed into the MGM Grand, booing the champion loudly on his home turf. The fighters went nose-to-nose for several seconds and then pushed their faces against each other, almost sparking a melee before they were separated and a fired-up Hatton took to the mic, roaring out, “Let’s fucking have him!” to his baying fans.
Team Hatton were confident, though they were under no illusions as to the scale of the task before them. Floyd Mayweather was, after all, a five-weight world champion, had competed at world title level for eight years longer than Hatton, and was universally acclaimed as the pound-for-pound king, and had eight more years of elite level experience than “The Manchester Mexican.”
That being said, one could make a sound argument that Hatton’s intensity, swarming style and relentless body attack just might be the recipe to knock Mayweather off his pound-for-pound perch. An emphatic fourth-round stoppage of Jose Luis Castillo six months earlier, the same Mexican who many still swore had beaten “Pretty Boy” Floyd handily in their first encounter, did not do the challenger’s case any harm. Ricky’s signature win over Kostya Tszyu also gave him a more impressive name on his record that anything in Floyd’s long career, with the exception of his recent win over Oscar De La Hoya. In other words, while the champion was rightly the bookies’ pick to win, there was serious potential for the match to be Floyd’s toughest ever.
A roll call of Hollywood A-listers sat ringside, from Sly Stallone and “Brangelina” to David Beckham, with Tom Jones singing God Save the Queen to the delight of the thousands of rambunctious Brits in attendance. By the time the fighters were introduced the Hatton faithful had reached fever pitch, and the American was, once again, loudly jeered in his own backyard.
As battle commenced Hatton immediately went on the offensive and within seconds they clinched for the first time. The action resumed and again they clinched, with this time referee Joe Cortez warning them to “watch the holding guys.” A grand total of 14 seconds had elapsed in the fight.
Cortez called “break” a further 11 times in that first round alone, with Jim Watt, commentating for the UK broadcast, noting as early as the first minute that already, for him, Cortez was “a little bit too busy.”
“He was jumping in there before he knew if they were gonna throw punches,” observed Watt. “Hope he’s not gonna be too busy and ruin Ricky Hatton’s chances here.”
Halfway through the first stanza Hatton surprised Mayweather with a well-timed left that sent the champion reeling backwards on his heels and the crowd went crazy, though he was more off-balance than hurt. The challenger’s foot speed and the intensity of his assaults were troubling Floyd, though the champion showed poise under pressure, countering Hatton’s rushes with some crisp lead rights and left hooks. By the end of the round, a pattern had been established with the challenger relentlessly driving forward, Mayweather throwing stinging counters, and Joe Cortez imposing himself far more than necessary.
The challenger’s raw determination and fast, leaping lefts again had Mayweather looking flustered in a good second round for the Brit, but Cortez only became more of a factor in the contest, effectively derailing any momentum Hatton had gained. In rounds two and three he separated the boxers on average every 14 seconds; at one point in the third, he broke them four times in a 16 second period, barely leaving room between each shout of “stop, break it out clean,” before beginning the command over again. Cortez was effectively gifting Floyd the breathing space that Hatton was working so hard to eliminate.
On HBO, Jim Lampley questioned whether Cortez was stifling Hatton’s chances of victory. “It’s Mayweather who’s holding,” said Lampley. “If points were to be deducted you would have to think it would be Floyd who’d be giving them up.” An incredulous Jim Watt yelled in disgust, “I’ve never [seen] such a refereeing piece of nonsense!”
Meanwhile, the champion demonstrated that as well as being one of the most skillful boxers in the world, he could rough it up with the best of them, as he repeatedly shoved his forearm into Hatton’s face to create punching room, despite several warnings from the referee. Taking advantage of the extra leeway, the champion peppered Hatton with some eye-catching right hand leads, opening a cut over the Englishman’s right eye. “Keep doing what you’re doing, that’s all you gotta do,” instructed a satisfied Roger Mayweather between rounds. “That motherfucker can’t out-fight you no way.”
The fifth was probably Hatton’s best of the fight, as he managed to push Floyd to the ropes and finally gain some momentum, though “the Hitman’s” trademark body shots were still few and far between. Twice in the last 20 seconds of the round Mayweather pushed his elbow forcefully into Hatton’s face in full view of the referee; yet again Cortez warned him but took no points.
By contrast, in round six Floyd caught Hatton with another elbow to the face before turning away. Hatton pursued and threw an overhand right that barely made contact with the back of the champion’s head; Cortez stopped the action and deducted a point from the challenger. When action resumed, Hatton turned his back on Mayweather and bent over in the centre of the ring, mocking Cortez’s ruling. He found sympathy with the crowd, but his frustration was taking a toll on his performance while Floyd was effectively countering Hatton’s rushes and looking more comfortable.
Round eight was all Floyd, as the champ went through his full repertoire: stiff jabs to the body, lead right hands to the head, hooks to both sides of the midsection – it was vintage Mayweather in full flow. At one point he sidestepped and landed a beautiful counter “check hook” as Hatton charged at him in a corner, before unleashing a barrage of spiteful, accurate shots to head and body. To his great credit, somehow Hatton found the resolve to come firing back at the end of the round, but he was taking a pounding.
Hatton marched forward again in the ninth, but Mayweather simply took his time and picked him off with stiff, single jabs. Sensing their hero needed a lift, between rounds the terraces broke out into a hearty rendition of their favourite tune and Hatton responded positively, pressuring and looking to work in some body punches early in the tenth. Boxing is a game of extremely fine margins though, and by now Mayweather had established permanent access to the extra inch of space he had sought all night.
Sure enough, when Hatton leapt in with another left hook, Floyd side-stepped it and threw his own perfectly timed counter hook to the jaw, a carbon copy of the move in the round eight, except this time an exhausted Hatton’s momentum took him forward head first into the turnbuckle. He bounced backwards and then collapsed onto his back. Bravely, Hatton beat the count and tried desperately to hold and clear his head, but the damage was done. As Mayweather unloaded a series of grazing shots Hatton stumbled sideways and fell and Cortez signaled the fight was over.
An elated Mayweather ran to the corner and jumped onto the ropes, crying tears of joy as he looked to the heavens. At the time of the stoppage, the judges had him leading by scores of 89-81 (twice) and 88-82, cards which failed to tell the story of just how fiercely contested those early rounds had been. There was also no telling just how much Joe Cortez impacted the final outcome, though it’s unquestionable that his performance benefited Mayweather far more than it did Hatton.
Moving back down to chase the big fights at 140, “Hitman Hatton” successfully reclaimed a version of the world title before being brutally knocked out by another all-time great, Manny Pacquiao that all but ended his career. He will go down as a two-weight world champion who went 1-2 against three of the best pound-for-pound fighters of the modern era, as well as being one of the most popular British athletes in living memory.
As for Mayweather, after a two-year self-imposed absence from the ring he returned to reclaim his position at the top of the sport, going on to become the highest grossing fighter in boxing history. He will almost certainly be remembered as pound-for-pound the greatest boxer of his era, and while there are other more significant victories on his ledger than the Hatton win, there are few where he displayed his ability to box and fight so completely, and none accompanied by the electric atmosphere created when thousands of Britons invaded Las Vegas to cheer on their hero. — Matthew O’Brien