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Hatton: Down-to-earth cult hero

27
Apr

Ricky Hatton, here signing autographs in England, says he's “just Ricky” when he's among the people in his hometown. Photo / Chris Farina-Top Rank

The billboards up and down The Strip have billed it as “The Battle of East and West,” a clash of cultures and continents to be fought out with fists, gloves and willpower.

The publicity folks know their business and it didn’t take them long to come up with a clever catchphrase upon which to hang Manny Pacquiao vs. Ricky Hatton. East vs. West was simply another tool in the sales pitch for a fight that sells itself.

Yet geographical definition doesn’t really do justice to this contest between two men who have become the embodiment of social hope in their respective corners of the world.

There is no bad guy here. No heel, no good vs. evil.

Pacquiao’s God-like status among his people is based upon straight-forward lines. He is by far the most successful sportsman the Philippines has ever known and the most recognizable figure in a nation of 90 million people.

But what about Ricky Hatton?

The Manchester native is a simple man from a country where the Royal Family heads the spectrum of society and soccer players are the sports scene’s version of nobility.

Even so, Hatton has transcended into the realms of cult hero over recent years and his immense popularity did not dim even after his 2007 defeat to Floyd Mayweather Jr.

While America has become accustomed to Hatton having a vast legion of support, which will manifest itself in the form of beer-swilling, boisterous, singing, yet generally good-natured invaders from across the Atlantic, just why he is such a beacon for the masses has remained something of a mystery.

An easy answer would be to suggest that his tale of working-class-boy-made-good has struck a chord with a British public tired of the prima donna antics of its millionaire soccer brats.

Hatton’s bond with the people runs deeper than sports, though. His resolute refusal to accept the sort of celebrity lifestyle that would have been laid in front of him had he desired it has led to the perception that he genuinely has remained true to his roots.

Evidence exists, such as his decision to move into a new house close to where he grew up instead of a swanky mansion in a leafy suburb, or his still-regular visits to his local pub for a pint when he is not in training, that the down-to-earth image is a real one, not marketing shtick.

***

The city of Manchester was the world’s first industrialized metropolis and flourished on the back of the textiles and cotton boom of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

By the time Ricky Hatton was born in 1978, though, Manchester had been decimated economically, with more than 150,000 jobs lost in the preceding 20 years.

Modern times have brought a rejuvenation of the central areas of the city. Culture, music and fashion have all played a part in lifting the grimy image of what was an underdog community. However, the suburban areas of Hattersley and Hyde have been somewhat forgotten amidst the injection of modernity.

Both are working class areas filled with working class men and women – and arguably the most popular fighter on the planet.

Hatton threw many of his early punches in the dank cellar of the New Inn pub in Hattersley, which his father Ray had converted into a makeshift gym.

Ray was the landlord and pulled ale for the wizened old locals propping up the bar, while Ricky pounded away at the heavy bag just a few feet below them.

The New Inn still stands, just as it has for the past four centuries, and many of the same faces still drop by as part of their daily routine. On the surface this region appears to be a throwback to a more innocent era, one where neighborly spirit and old-fashioned values still ring true.

Yet Hatton knows as well as anyone that the past comes with malevolent memories in these parts, tainted by a hideous shame rarely mentioned but never forgotten and which has turned an anonymous enclave into one synonymous with death.

A vacant patch of land now sits just yards from the New Inn, on a site that used to be occupied by a small terraced house.

Within the confines of 16 Wardle Brook Avenue, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, Britain’s most notorious pair of serial killers, dreamed up their sickening deeds. A few miles down the road is Saddleworth Moors, where the bodies of five children were dumped by Hindley and Brady over the course of a killing spree between 1963 and 1965.

Hattersley and Hyde have never been allowed to forget these atrocities of decades past, and still the occasional morbid tourist passes by for a parasitic glance at the scene of horror.

The specter of the Moors Murders, and more recently Harold Shipman – a local GP who murdered at least 218 of his own patients – has long held back the hopes and dreams of the streets on which Hatton grew up.

Hatton has broken clear of that stereotype, spectacularly so. He was never supposed to reach these heights of headlining in Las Vegas and dominating at 140 pounds, a weight at which he feels he is unbeatable.

His breakthrough night came in 2005, when the legendary Kostya Tszyu quit on his stool after 11 brutal rounds and Hatton was catapulted into stardom.

With every punch, every flurry, the good folk back home have roared him on, never more so than when 55,000 turned up at the City of Manchester Stadium for his homecoming fight against Juan Lazcano last year.

“He is a little battler and people warm to that,” said Keith Gunston, a long-time resident of Hattersley. “When he goes and fights he is representing us and the best part about it is that he comes back here and lets us share in his success.”

These days the signs of improvement in Hattersley are few and far between, but there are some. An unsightly old tower block that Hatton used to run past on his way home from school was pulled down and replaced by a development of upscale flats.

Hatton himself pressed the detonator and the new creation is named Hatton Court.

He still goes to the New Inn to drink, play darts and talk trash with the locals and the new house in which he lives with fianc├®e Jennifer Dooley is just down the road.

Part of his decision to remain close to his roots is bred by a desire to be near to his son, Campbell, conceived with an ex-girlfriend eight years ago. Part of it is that anywhere else just wouldn’t be home.

“I don't think I could ever move out of this area,” said Hatton in a recent interview. “It wouldn't bear thinking about. What I love most about the place is that the people don't treat me like a world champion. I get treated like everybody else.

“It's nice, I can be myself, not flannelled up and famous. In Hattersley, I'm just Ricky.”

***

In soccer terms, Manchester is a place of the haves and have-nots.

Manchester United is the biggest club in the world, with a massive global fan base and a long run of success in both English and European competitions.

Manchester City, meanwhile, has long been forced to operate in the shadow of its more glamorous neighbor. While many United fans come from all over the United Kingdom, City’s following is more local, more working class and understandably more desperate.

The hatred between the clubs is fierce, and total. The derby matches in which United and City face each other are among the most eagerly-anticipated and frenetic of any season.

Ray Hatton played for City in the late 1960s and his sons Ricky and Matthew have followed the club passionately from infancy onwards.

Hatton still goes to matches when time permits, sitting in the cheap seats with the fans rather than an executive box. He has felt the trials and tribulations that have befallen his beloved City as acutely as any diehard supporter.

Every year, United fans have had the chance to follow their heroes on a variety of trips to exotic European destinations like Milan and Barcelona, while City have been stuck at home battling against relegation to the lower divisions.

“Going to see Ricky Hatton fight is like a soccer trip for the City fans,” said Ian Whittell, a senior Manchester-based sports writer and partner of the John Wardle Agency. “Wearing the team shirt is like wearing a Hatton jersey – everyone associates the two.

“Until recently, City people haven’t had anywhere to go to watch the team apart from within England. But going to Vegas to watch a fighter who has effectively become an extension of the club is almost as good.”

Manchester City was recently bought by a consortium of Middle Eastern oil billionaires, who have pumped in huge sums of money to invest on new players. But still United reigns and could win the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League this season.

The historical animosity between Manchester’s two clubs has reached remarkable levels.

Members of the Brit pop band Oasis, all fanatical City supporters, regularly used to take the name of United players off the guest lists for their concerts.

But the truly surprising thing about Hatton is that he has somehow pulled all of Manchester behind him.

“A lot of United fans would not buy Oasis records,” said Whittell. “But they will go to see Ricky Hatton. The bulk of his fan base will always be City, but he has crossed the Blue/Red divide like no other figure before him.”

***

The cynics will say Hatton has used his popularity and down-to-earth image as ammunition with which to line his own pockets. Yet while he has unquestionably profited greatly from the spoils of his career, he retains the simple life, the pub, the classy but simple home and no-frills vacations in Spain with his family.

What is clear is that Hatton’s capacity to sell tickets and pay-per-views has enhanced his opportunities and it’s unlikely that he would have gotten a shot at Pacquiao, the sport’s current prince, otherwise.

However, there can be no argument with his achievements at 140 pounds, with his only career loss, to Mayweather, coming at 147 pounds.

Moreover, his all-action style, currently being polished by Floyd Mayweather Sr. in preparation for the Pacquiao bout, has also won over the boxing public.

Hatton doesn’t like to take a backward step, which bodes for a potentially thrilling contest on Saturday night. The stomach for a fight, which he had when he first stepped into the gym as a 9-year-old and was immediately christened ‘the Hitman’, remains as resolute as ever.

“Ricky is so popular for several reasons,” said Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, which represents Hatton. “He is a national hero in England because he is a good person and one of the most exciting fighters in the world.

“There is a lot more to him than just his fans and his popularity. He has great ability and he is still improving. The determination to be the very best in the world is within him.”

***

While the backing of thousands of screaming fanatics is something Hatton would never trade, it comes with a burden of its own.

The invasion for the fight with Mayweather was extraordinary to behold. Thousand upon thousand crossed the Atlantic with beer can in hand, piling into The Strip’s casinos en masse.

Vegas residents were bemused by the sight of pot-bellied visitors wearing City’s sky-blue kit, mingling with the influx from Vegas’ other big event that week, the National Rodeo Finals. In one extraordinary scene at the MGM Grand, a 5-foot balding Hatton follower got into a fist fight with a 6-foot-6 Texas cowboy.

The Hatton Army did its damnedest to drink Sin City dry and the chant of “There’s only one Ricky Hatton,” belted out to the tune of the Christmas song ‘Winter Wonderland’, was ceaseless.

Even when Hatton hit the canvas for the final time and referee Joe Cortez proclaimed Mayweather the winner, the guttural pro-Hatton symphony continued.

It would happen again if Pacquiao emerges victorious on Saturday. Hatton’s place in the hearts of those who follow him is already preserved for eternity.

But this time, it just isn’t enough.

“I love having the support I get,” said Hatton. “But I feel a responsibility to go out there and reward the people who have put their faith in me. I know they will always be behind me, no matter what the result is.

“This time, though, they deserve to have their trip to Vegas end in the right way, with Ricky Hatton coming out on top. I’ve got the chance to become the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and to give my fans the trip of a lifetime.

“What better motivation could there be than that?”

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