All Ricky Hatton wanted for Christmas was his two front teeth, which he got. Although not without a fight.
While most people were opening presents and downing figgy pudding, the British "Hitman'' was sparring at his familiar old gym outside Manchester, England on Christmas morning, sacrificing a normal life the way prize fighters so often must if they intend to be successful.
Success is a relative thing of course, both in the ring and in life, and Hatton has already had more than most fighters could hope for but he has no intention of letting something as important to him as Christmas stand in the way of a future he believes is headed in only one direction - toward a bloody showdown with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. sometime before their careers pass their peaks. Yet while that is his ultimate goal in boxing, to face down Mayweather, Hatton knows he has other hills to climb before that day arrives and to scale them and reach Mayweather he must first do things others would choose to avoid - like get in a fight on Christmas.
Already a world champion in two weight classes and newly named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the Queen herself on New Year's Day, the undefeated Hatton (41-0, 30 KO) returns to the ring after an unwanted eight month layoff Jan. 20th to make another of his dreams come true when he boxes the main event in Las Vegas for the first time. There he will challenge IBF light welterweight champion Juan Urango in front of a crowd that will include several thousand British fight fans who are planning to make the trip to support him as he seeks to reclaim a title he vacated only last May to move up seven pounds and win the WBA welterweight championship from Luis Collazo in his first appearance at 147.
That night was his American debut on HBO and the fulfillment of two more of his boxing dreams but to avoid seeing his latest one transformed into a nightmare of unmeasurable proportions by Urango, Hatton slogged through a full sparring session on Christmas and another to ring in the New Year. It is a price he is paying willingly, although not always happily, to live out boyish dreams all boxers start with but few ever make a reality.
"Sparring on Christmas morning was a first I didn't particularly enjoy but those sacrifices you make are what make the victories all the sweeter later,'' Hatton said after a recent afternoon workout in Manchester. "It's not exactly the way I'd like to pass me Christmas...getting punched in the face...but I can't complain. Look at all that's happened to me because of boxing.
"Normally at Christmas the pudding comes out and you have the turkey and gravy on your food. There's usually a few parties to go to so obviously a few things have changed. Not just for me but for my brother (Matt, who will box on the undercard of Hatton-Urango) and my whole team. We've been doing roadwork seven days a week and training Monday through Friday right through the holidays. Christmas got put on the backburner this year. Nobody loves a bit of a party more than me but nothing replaces the love of boxing. That's me job.
"I was delighted to sign a three-fight deal with HBO last year. That is a dream come true for any boxer in the U.S. so you can imagine what it means to a fighter in the UK. As a kid, I dreamed of topping the bill in Las Vegas, too. All the big stars in boxing have been there. Now that's where I'm headed so it's a very, very small sacrifice to make.''
Hatton also seems headed toward claiming the title of the new Arturo Gatti, a pleasingly pugnacious fighter of relatively modest skills but immeasureable heart who became, and remains, a cult hero among fighters and the fans who pay to watch them work. Gatti won several world titles and defended them in dramatic and often concussive fashion. He was never a slick boxer in the style of Mayweather but rather a little warrior who came to the arena to make you bleed fully willing to shed his own plasma to get that done.
Hatton has many of the same traits so it is no surprise that Gatti is one of his favorites. He seems to understand not only who he is as a boxer but also why fans have begun to gravitate toward him. Like Gatti, he will often talk of having more boxing skills than many believe but then concedes with a shrug that often times he is the one who makes the choice to sacrifice them for victory. And to hear the roar of the crowd.
"Floyd Mayweather is the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet,'' Hatton gladly concedes. "He's impressive to watch with his speed and his movement but to be honest it sets me to sleep a little bit. There's a lot to admire in his talent, skill and speed but for entertainment value you can take him or leave him as far as I'm concerned.
"People tune in no matter who I fight because they know there'll be knockdowns and cuts. You're not in your seat snoring when Ricky Hatton fights. Pugilists can appreciate guys like Floyd Mayweather but most guys who tune in do it looking for value for their money. If you want to have your heart bouncing you don't want to watch Floyd Maywether. They want to watch Gatti against Micky Ward. Or they want to watch Ricky Hatton.
"I have so much in common with Arturo Gatti. So many people think we're just tough boys with no skill but we can box too. Not like Floyd but we can box. But when the red mist sets in that all goes out the window. Gatti and I have that in common. We both like a tear up.''
So, too, do most fight fans, which is why Hatton is one of the biggest attractions on the British boxing scene and why HBO has invested heavily in his future in the States. His debut against Collazo was less than he hoped for despite a fast start in which he drove Collazo to the floor in the opening round because as Hatton tired the fight turned into a pitched battle that went the distance and won Hatton the 147-pound title at a time when neither he nor his trainer, Billy Graham (not THAT Billy Graham) felt the need for him to move up to that weight.
He did it, Hatton now says, only because a scheduled match with Juan Lazcano fell through and he didn't want to lose the exposure on HBO. So he agreed to fight as a full blown welterweight even though Graham firmly believes he is not one yet and he did it with only nine weeks notice and despite being distracted by a legal wrangle with his former promoter Frank Warren. Predictably, Hatton did not perform as he had hoped, tiring in the second half of the fight and ending up with his face badly bruised as he held on for a surpirisngly close points victory. But still he was a hit in Boston among fight fans there and he left with a new title belt around his waist and renewed hope that his style, both inside and outside the ring, would take him where he most wants to go.
The trade of pain for victory is one he has always been willing to make. It is one he'd made before and will very likely make again, although he hopes not on Jan. 20 when he faces the undefeated southpaw Urango (17-0-1, 13 KO), who is a fighter with the kind of style that, Hatton admits, tends to make the red mist swirl.
"He's very similar to me but I have more ability,'' Hatton said. "He's not called "The Iron Twin'' for no reason. He's been compared to a little Tyson because he squares up and comes forward. All hooks, no jab.
The kind of fight I can make easy for me self or hard for me self. I hope the red mist won't set in but, to be honest, I see no way it can't against Urango. He's very good if you stay right in front of him but I think I'm a bit smarter than that but with me you never know.''
On the same card former lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo will fight undefeated Herman Ngoudjo (15-0, 9 KO) in what is supposed to be a tuneup for an already planned but not yet finalized match with Hatton for the 140-pound title he has yet to win back in June with a possible fight against Miguel Cotto or Diego Corrales looming up in the fall if all goes well. Those are all major fights and big names, men with dangerous punching power but also the kind of style off of which Hatton believes he can become an American superstar if he performs up to his own high expectations.
He knows he did not do that against Collazo and that fueled the fires of his critics, who claim he has made his bones at the expense of blown up lightweights and from a stirring victory over future Hall of Famer Kostya Tszyu at a time when the 35-year-old Tszyu may have been permanently residing on the shady side of his sport.
Hatton doesn't waste a lot of time on such critics, believing that for all who strive and work on Christmas Day there are skeptics on the sidelines ready to tell them what they cannot do. He, like Gatti, has lived with that much of his life and chosen to ignore it in the same way he ignores pain, inconvenience and the long odds all boxers must overcome.
That is not to say he doesn't hear what's said but only that he transforms it into a tool rather than an obstacle.
"A lot of people have said I'd have trouble getting back down to 140,'' Hatton conceded. "It's never easy. People know I tend to go up (some say to as high as to 175 pounds between fights) but I never had a problem making light welterweight. We never really wanted to fight at welterweight in the first place. Other guys move up because they can't make the weight.
"When I hear people say, 'He's never changed,' I'm proud of that. I'm not a religious person at all but if I believed in reincarnation I know if Floyd had his way he'd come back as himself.''
I've always done junor welterweight comfortably. But when Juan Lazcano pulled out I accepted Luis Collazo.
"Most guys take three fights to get adjusted to a new weight division. I fought the world champion straightaway. I'd be lying if I didn't admit I wasn't vintage Ricky Hatton that night but I don't think I got the credit I deserved for what I did do. Now I'm back at the real weight for Ricky Hatton. I haven't turned my back on the welterweight division but this is my natural weight. America will see a different Ricky Hatton this time.''
Hatton will have trained 13 weeks for Urango by the time he lands in Las Vegas. He worked on conditioning and diet first, getting his weight down to a manageable level before he began sparring. He's injury free and claims he entered this camp lighter than normal in an effort to do what he has done so many times in the past: please the fans by displeasing a hard banger from Columbia who has only one gear - forward.
"I made a conscious decision to prove people wrong who said I'd struggle to make 140,'' Hatton said. "The only people who aren't worried about me weight are me and my trainer and my nutritionist. Maybe some of the fans think all I am is a strong boy, a body puncher, but I'm more than that. Urango is not quite as quick as me. His footwork isn't as good as mine. Fans will see a different side of me because of that.
"You fight to the style of your opponent. No one is going to outbox Floyd Mayweather. You have to stay close to him and fight. That's the mistake Gatti made. He committed boxing suicide against Floyd. You have to stay on top of him. Urango will be different. You'll see a different part of me, but you'll never see me backpedaling.''
That, of course, is why fans have flocked to him in Great Britain. It is why even the Queen has recognized him, why the little man from Manchester will meet her sometime this spring at Buckingham Palace to be welcomed into the Order of the British Empire. There is no such order in the United States but there are fight fans, many of whom who have favored Gatti's style over slicker boxers like Mayweather for years. In Gatti's case it made him a legend among warriors, arguably the greatest ticket seller in the history of Atlantic City boxing and one of the biggest draws on cable television for years. Hatton would love to be considered the heir to that legacy but he knows it can be earned only one way.
A man must bleed for it. He must suffer great hardship and endure unspeakable pain and then he must still prevail more often than not, the latter being the most important requirement of the job he is seeking. Call it Gladiator Emeritus.
Ricky Hatton understands the requirements of such a role. He has always favored a fight over a boxing match, always come to the arena intending to walk forward not backwards. That has made him a hero in London and throughout England, a boxer impressive enough to be picked as Fighter of the Year in America as well as England and one HBO was willing to bet millions on. January 20 he comes to America to try and cash in that bet in the city where risk is sometimes rewarded. In Las Vegas.
If he beats Urango, as he intends to do, he knows Castillo is very likely next, a hard man who has knocked out the likes of Corrales and Julio Diaz and twice gone the distance with Mayweather while losing close decisions to him. If Hatton can handle such a man he, too, will fall in line for a shot at Mayweather regardless of what happens when the latter faces Oscar De La Hoya on May 5 in what will surely be the biggest fight of the year.
When his day comes with Floyd Mayweather, if it ever does, Ricky Hatton will willingly spar on Christmas, Easter and 4th of July, although the latter isn't much of a holiday in England, to be ready to fight him and to please his fans and most of all himself. Until that moment he will wait, watch and prepare to face an opponent different in every way, he believes, from himself.
"In his last fight with (Carlos) Baldomir, Floyd came in dressed like a gladiator but he didn't fight like a gladiator,'' Hatton said mockingly. "He came in dressed like Russell Crowe but he fought like Sheryl Crow. People don't respect that. They don't respect a guy who talks like he does and then doesn't fight. There's no point being the best fighter in the world if everyone thinks you're an ass. What's the point of that? It takes nothing to be nice to people and respectful to my opponents. That's what I've been taught.
"People respect me for the way I am. Down to earth. My friends today are the same people who were my friends 20 years ago. No outsiders have jumped on the scene. When I hear people say, 'He's never changed,' I'm proud of that. I'm not a religious person at all but if I believed in reincarnation I know if Floyd had his way he'd come back as himself.''
It is comments like that, plus a fighting style with a clear kinship to Arturo Gatti, that has Ricky Hatton on the rise. That and a willingness to work on Christmas at a very harsh trade for a chance to live out a dream on Jan. 20...and well beyond it.