By Matthew Blackwell: Virtually every champion tastes defeat at some stage of his career. Some lose on the way up, often in their first challenge for a major title. On occasion, a loss at this point in a fighter’s career improves his reputation; proving that he has heart, determination, and more skill than was originally thought. Such was the case when Paulie Malignaggi was defeated by Miguel Cotto in his first title challenge.
Other fighters fail after they reach the top because of complacency or because they simply face a better fighter and come up short. But sometimes, the first loss signals the start of a decline. It can be a warning that the fighter’s powers are diminishing and that his stay at boxing’s top table is nearing the port and cigars stage of the evening.
On December 8, Ricky “The Hitman” Hatton fought a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful battle against Floyd Mayweather Jr; a man who can lay claim to being one of the best technical boxers of all time and the best pound for pound fighter in the world today. Mayweather is the most talented boxer of his generation. Even boxing fans who dislike his brash boastful persona cannot deny his talent.
Hatton could have easily continued to fight in packed arenas in front of an army of adoring fans. He could have fought to a fifty-fight unbeaten career record without straying outside of his native Manchester and retired a very wealthy man. Instead he put his unbeaten record on the line against the most dangerous opponent available; in that opponent’s own backyard.
Over 10 absorbing rounds; Hatton chased and pressured the five-weight world champion until being stopped by a perfectly-delivered left hook. Simply put, Mayweather had too much speed and reach and picked his game plan perfectly. Hatton could not impose his authority on “Pretty Boy” at welterweight as he had on other opponents at junior-welterweight. Once he began to tire having failed to inflict any serious damage on Mayweather, there could only be one winner. There is no disgrace in losing to the best boxer on the planet. Hatton let no-one down, even though he felt the need to apologise to his fans after the fight.
Often, more is learned about a fighter after a loss than in a dozen easy victories against lesser opponents. When a fighter loses for the first time, he immediately seems more human. Under the hot ring lights, the air of invincibility that has surrounded him is burnt away like an early morning mist. In the aftermath of defeat, the fighter must face interviews and press conferences at a time when he’s at his most vulnerable and least confident. How he reacts to this is a good indication of the sort of person he is.
In the weeks and months following a defeat, some fighters try to repair their shattered self-confidence by laying the blame elsewhere. The reason they lost, they say, was because of poor preparation or poor strategy. Managers and trainers are fired, new teams drafted in, and excuses made. At this point in time, Hatton shows no sign of going down that road. After losing to Mayweather, he was amusing and self-deprecating. He refused to lay the blame at any door other than his own.
Hatton, as many before him, now finds himself at a crossroads in his career. The situation that he is in is similar to that “Prince” Naseem Hamed found himself in after his loss to Marco Antonio Barrera in April of 2001.
Like Hatton, Hamed’s first defeat was handed to him relatively late in his career. Hamed was 27 when he lost his first fight, Hatton was 29. Hamed lost in his 35th bout; December’s defeat was in Hatton’s 44th fight.
There are other similarities. Both fights were held in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand. Both fights were refereed by Joe Cortez. Both were against fighters who were either arguably (Barrera) or undeniably (Mayweather) the best pound for pound fighter on the planet at that time. Other than seeing the final bell, Hamed’s defeat was as comprehensive as Hatton’s. Hamed was handed a boxing lesson. After failing to land any of his trademark power shots, the Sheffield man totally ran out of ideas. The lack of a plan ‘B’ was clear for all to see. As the fight drew on, he was completely bossed by the steely-faced Barrera; even suffering the indignity of having his head rammed into a cornerpost by the “baby-faced assassin” in the 11th round.
After the dust settled on Hamed’s first defeat, it became clear that he no longer possessed the thirst for battle that he once had. In his only fight after the defeat to Barrera, he won a dreary contest against Manual Calvo. The fans made it clear that they were less than impressed. For crowds that were used to seeing the “Prince” dismantle opponents in explosive fashion, Hamed’s laboured points victory was disappointing. There were boos and many fans left before the fight was over.
The loss of interest appeared mutual. Despite rumours of a comeback fight, Hamed never invoked his rematch clause with Barrera and drifted into retirement.
Hatton stated immediately after the Mayweather bout that his first defeat would not be his last fight. Considering Hatton is a fighter famous for his honesty, it would be a major surprise if the pride of Manchester did not enter the ring again.
He is unlikely to be short of potential opponents. In the junior-welterweight division, nemesis Junior Witter and Brooklyn’s Paulie Malignaggi (both beltholders) have been calling out the Hitman for a fight. Both Malignaggi and Witter are keen to take up the opportunity of what would be a very lucrative night’s work. Other options at 140 pounds include a match up with WBA titlist, Welshman Gavin Rees.
There is, of course, the option of fighting again at welterweight with a mega-money clash against the ferocious Miguel Cotto. However, this would mean Hatton would have to give away his natural advantages of size and strength at 140. It is hard to see him winning against a welterweight as physically big and strong as Cotto.
The other options at welterweight include Shane Mosley and Paul Williams, But considering how Hatton struggled with the reach of Mayweather, it is unlikely that he would fare any better against fighters even taller than Floyd. Equally unlikely is a rematch with Mayweather himself. Whilst the prospect of a rematch would probably have promoters and venue owners rubbing their hands together like a gambler who has hit the “repeat” feature on a faulty slot machine; it is hard to see any other result than that which occurred in Las Vegas.
And most significantly, Hatton’s trainer, the ever honest Billy Graham, has said that he thinks Hatton should return to 140 pounds.
Whichever option Hatton takes, he must be sure that the fire still burns. And at this point in his career, he should only fight meaningful opponents. There is no point in fighting contests that interest his accountant more than they do him. The risk to his legacy and health in doing so would surely outweigh the financial reward for a man who is not likely to be looking for work anytime soon. Clearly there must be an aim, a reason to continue, rather than just fighting for money and fighting’s sake.
For this reason it must be hoped that Hatton will fight Malignaggi at Madison Square Garden and then settle his differences with Junior Witter in Manchester or London. Then you would hope that Hatton would be brave enough to take the biggest challenge of his career and retire from the ring. Both fights would be high profile and Hatton would not be guaranteed to win either. A loss against either opponent would undoubtedly cause damage to Hatton’s legacy. However victories in both contests would see him reclaim the summit of the junior welterweight division and heighten his Hall of Fame credentials. Then he could look forward to a comfortable retirement of Guinness and darts in his local pub as one of the UK’s most favourably remembered champions. Whilst he may not have been quite good enough to topple the very best the planet had to offer, he won’t have done too badly.
January 9, 2008