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Thu Nov 29, 2012, 07:43 PM

Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton

On November 24, Ricky Hatton returned to the ring for the first time in thirty months. The popular British boxer opted not to have a “tune-up” bout, and instead faced former champion Vyacheslav Senchenko (32-1). When Hatton was counted out in the 9th round, it may have seemed merely another example of an old pug fighting too long after he was through. But I find Ricky “The Hitman” Hatton to be worth taking a closer look at.

Hatton earned a 73-7 record as an amateur boxer, winning seven British titles. In 1996, he competed in the World Junior Boxing Championship tournament; his loss there highlights the problems with amateur boxing that have resulted in the loss of interest in amateur boxing among American sports fans. In a semi-final bout, 4 of 5 judges scored the fight for Hatton. The lone judge voting for his light-punching opponent by a ridiculous 16-point margin, which trumped the combined scores of the others.

Hatton made his professional debut in September, 1997. He stood out, in part because his style in the ring was not that of the much more common, classic European boxer: he was aggressive, bobbing-and-weaving under his opponent’s punches, in order to land his own. Hatton always entered the ring in extraordinarily good shape in his early years, allowing him to set a pace that few could maintain. As a result, his celebrity grew rapidly in England, and he was fighting before large, sold-out stadiums well before he reached the top-ten level in the professional ranks.

The young fighter’s popularity was enhanced by his engaging personality. This included his frequently hanging out in the pubs between fights, playing darts and drinking to excess. As he rose in the boxing ranks, there were rumors -- which Hatton jokingly confirmed to journalists -- that Ricky would put on a lot of weight, quickly, between bouts. And it wasn’t muscle.

Hatton became recognized as a top prospect by the boxing community, when he decisioned Eamonn Magee (23-2) in 12 rounds in May, 2002. He soon beat the tough journeyman Vince Phillips (44-7-1), and top contender Ben Tackie (24-4), both by 12 round decision.

In June, 2005, Hatton challenged Kostya Tszyo (31-1) for his IBF Jr. Welterweight title. Tszyo, who had won the title in 1995, had only had to go the distance in two of his impressive 17 title defenses. He was an outstanding counter-puncher, and Hatton’s style suggested that he would be vulnerable to the champion’s extreme power. However, Hatton would keep Tszyo’s back up against the ropes, and administered a severe beating -- much of it in a manner that, at very least, appeared to “bend” the rules. Ricky broke Kostya’s jaw, forcing the champion to quit on his stool at the end of the 11th round.

The young new champion’s popularity increased, of course, especially in the British pubs he inhabited on too many nights. Despite his ballooning weight, he could still get into good shape for the defenses that followed. In a WBA welterweight “title” bout against Luis Collazo, he looked sluggish; I think he was very “lucky” to get that decision. Still, he was just too strong for most challengers.

In December, 2007, Hatton would again try the welterweight division, this time challenging the real chsampion, Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Although he put up a good fight, Hatton was knocked out in the 10th round. Three fights later, he was flattened by Manny Pacquiao in the 2nd round, and retired. He had won 45 bouts, 32 of them by knockout. And his only loses came against the two most elite champions of the era. It would seem that the former world champion, who was set for life financially, would have a happy life in his retirement.

Traditionally in boxing, old former champions would come out of retirement when they ran out of money. The most famous example of this is the great Joe Louis. As corrupt promoters and managers are boxing’s dark side, such returns to the ring are the sport’s pathetic side. However, these were not the dynamics that would bring Hatton out of retirement after three and a half years.

Athletes of even moderate ability experience what is known as a “runner’s high.” This is related to the brain’s production of endorphins. Also, the brain and body produce serotonin, also associated with good feelings. For many retired boxers, that high that comes from competing successfully at a high level, in front of a huge crowd, is missed just as much as the hefty pay-days. Examples include Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, among others. Recently, even Oscar de la Hoya briefly considered returning for “just one more fight.” Oscar has plenty of money, and stays busy promoting fights. But when I see him in the ring before a big fight he is promoting, I know that he misses being the center of attention, and having the crowd focusing on him.

In the past, there were old pugs who were said to be “punch drunk.” Usually, that was in part because alcohol went hand-in-hand with their post-retirement activities that attempt to keep the excitement and fun going. More, substance abuse and addiction have a co morbidity with the types of organic brain damage associated with boxing. Hence, the decline of brain functions in the retired boxer tended to become evident much faster than in the average person.

In current times, like others, retired boxers have more options in terms of drugs available to use and abuse, in an on-going attempt to recreate that excitement and high they enjoyed at the peak of their athletic career. Many boxers, including the late Hector Camacho, found that cocaine came the closest -- at least initially -- to recreating that former sense of glory. Sustained use, however, results in the brain not making the natural levels of the very chemicals that cause “good feelings.” Hence, the person begins using, in order to reach and attempt to maintain their previous “normal.”

Head injuries, as well as other bodily injuries that cause chronic pain, also tend to cause the brain to lose the ability to produce the “feel good” natural chemical states. Thus, in his 30-month retirement, Ricky Hatton dealt with issues including serious substance abuse and severe depression, and would tell of struggling with thoughts of suicide. In his struggle to get his life back on track, he decided to try to again do the one thing that he believed he had done best in life: box.

Hatton is 34 years old. That is young, at least outside of the ring. And there are a few examples, such as Bernard Hopkins, of boxers who are able to compete into their late 40s. But they are men who had defensive skills -- and those were not limited to natural gifts like speed and timing, which fade -- that have allowed them to avoid sustaining the physical damage that comes with Hatton’s aggressive style.

So the Ricky Hatton that entered the ring last weekend was still good enough to have won a “tune-up” fight. But, even if he did have a couple of easy wins, he could never get back to the level necessary to win big fights again -- much less be at the level he once was, where he could win lots of big fights. He was clearly ahead after five rounds on Saturday, but it was evident that it was he who could not hang at Ricky Hatton’s pace.

In every round that followed, Hatton began to throw and miss wider and wider punches; in the post-fight interview, he joked that he came closer to hitting the fans in the back row, than his opponent. Those missed punches resulted in his going off-balance, squaring up, and becoming easier to hit with crisp counter-punches. His face was showing the bloody and bruised results. And eventually, a left to the liver ended the bout.

Perhaps the saddest part came in that post-fight interview. Hatton’s emotions got the better of him, and he said, “I’m not a loser. I’m not a loser.” But at that moment, like in the past thirty months, he did not seem to be able to convince himself. And that was a damned shame.

At his best, in the context of boxing, Ricky Hatton was a world champion who beat some outstanding competition in exciting fights. His two loses came against two all-time great champions. And, as a rule, he treated everyone but himself with respect. If he could see himself like the rest of the boxing community does, he would be mighty proud of himself. I wish him the best in his retirement, and hope that he finds himself in training and promoting the next generation of fighters ….and away from the sport. He is a good and decent man, who has a lot to offer.

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