Boxing: Binge too far for happy Manc who didn't know when to stop
Ricky Hatton is paying the ultimate price for trying to be all things to all men, writes Kevin Mitchell
Shortly before leaving for Las Vegas towards the end of 2007 to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr, Ricky Hatton sat down over a cup of tea in his gym on the outskirts of Manchester and told me why he would never abuse the trust and support of his fans.
"There's no airs and graces about me," he said in that flat Mancunian accent. "They know that. Although things are very different for me, I haven't changed a great deal. My feet are still on the floor. I don't doubt they love my fighting style, but they probably look at me as a mate. That's priceless. That's worth more than any money or belt you could win."
It was easy to believe him. Everything Hatton said and did was dedicated to those fans. They were of the same blood and bone, the same culture of drinking, and fighting, who sang and laughed together through thick and thin. They were Manc lads, even in winter short-sleeved lemon shirts hanging out over bellies softened by junk food and booze. Hatton so embraced the rituals of his culture that he drank in the New Inn in tough Hattersley, which his father once ran, and gorged on the Mega Fry-Up at the Butty Box in nearby Hyde. He would invite his mate Wayne Rooney, and girlfriend Coleen, to join him and his girlfriend Jennifer back at the house he called Heartbreak Hotel after his favourite singer, Elvis Presley, and they would wolf down takeaway pizzas.
Although he piled on 40lbs between fights, it seemed an unaffected life, one he regarded as normal and grounded. But Hatton did not leave it there. His celebrity friends and childhood mates marvelled at his energy, and he loved it. He binged. On everything: drink, food, training -- and, ultimately, drugs. Three years later, there is not much left of Hatton's career, either as a fighter or hero. As for the trust and support of his travelling army, it relies now on their ability to forgive him for not being Superman. He wanted to be both one of them and their warrior. He discovered the hard way he could not do it.
The Sun on Thursday showed Hatton partying with "violent drug dealer" Damien Ramsey at a Hatton show in Bristol two months before he was knocked out in his last fight, by Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas, in May 2009. The paper quoted a "pal" of the dealer as saying Ramsey (jailed for five years that August) had known the fighter for "four or five years".
The same day, Greater Manchester Police said they wanted to talk to Hatton about claims in the News of the World last Sunday that he snorted cocaine in a Manchester hotel room. They will wait until he comes out of rehab for depression and addiction before questioning him.
He was, according to the Mirror, sent flying by a bodybuilder twice his size in the Railway Inn in Hyde after butting into a queue to get at a fruit machine. The British Boxing Board of Control's chairman, Giles Smith, said the board wanted to see Hatton "at the earliest opportunity". Frank Warren, his former promoter and now a business rival, said the board should take Hatton's licence away.
This was not the working-class northern fairytale that sustained Hatton's rise to winning world titles at two weights, the British fighter who virtually owned Las Vegas; this was a rolling nightmare with no predictable ending. Hatton did value his fans at least as much as the glory, the big house and the box at Eastlands. No British sports star identified more with his roots than the happy Manc with the battered mug and the flying fists. But, in the end, Hatton became a prisoner of their adulation.
The Irish amateur woman boxer who passed images of him snorting cocaine in her hotel room to the News of the World maintained she did it to save Ricky from himself. Maybe. But she was right when she said he was slowly killing himself.
Hatton's core weakness was not his chin or waning skills, but his overwhelming urge to please his mates. He did not know when to stop. He would discover -- as Frank Bruno did before him -- that he would be reduced to headline fodder when exposed as a vulnerable human being, not a god. All of a sudden, he was a washed-up bum with a drug habit.
Ricky always thought the party would never end. He did not win that fight against Mayweather in 2007. He was knocked out in the 10th round yet, within seconds, the British fans who had crammed into the Grand Arena of the MGM launched into their mindless, harmless, tuneless anthem, 'Walking In A Hatton Wonderland'. The fight was soon forgotten; what mattered was they were on the bevy in Vegas with their hero, a fighter whose feet, like theirs, were no longer on the floor. The following morning, Hatton talked to the British media, still drunk from an all-nighter with his mates. He could not stop talking. He kept going on about the referee not letting him fight, and he made light of being put on his backside by a great opponent. He was doing it as much to assure his fans as kid himself that he had not lost it.
A year later, we were back in Las Vegas to see Hatton fight Paulie Malignaggi. It was a fight he had to win to stay in the big picture, to keep the party going, and he looked okay stopping the New Yorker in the 11th round. But the signs of deterioration were growing, imperceptibly, for all but the blind and blind drunk to see.
Within a couple of hours of the fight, Hatton was celebrating his victory in an Irish bar across the road from the fight venue, the same MGM Grand. He belted down Guinness with astonishing enthusiasm. Draped in the arms of his friends, he disappeared into the night for more alcohol and self-delusion.
The following morning, we spoke to him in his hotel suite. Again, he was hungover, but this time there was a frost between Hatton and Jennifer. It soon became apparent why: Ricky was not going home straight away -- he was off to Mexico with Liam and Noel Gallagher. She was going back to Manchester.
And then, in May last year, Hatton headed for Las Vegas one last time, for the same ring in which he had been beaten by Mayweather and given false hope by Malignaggi. From the start, it did not go well. Hatton's trainer, Mayweather's father, Floyd Sr, rowed with the hired help, mainly his British understudy, Lee Beard. The camp was awful. They let the unbeaten Cuban light-middleweight Erislandy Lara -- bigger, younger and stronger than Hatton -- spar with their light-welterweight. Lara gave Hatton a hiding and was sacked -- yet a few days later, Hatton went through the motions of telling us his preparation was brilliant. "Tell my fans to put the house on me," he said.
In the moments before the fight, the mood in the dressing room was sombre. Hatton asked about Pacquiao. Did anyone know what he was doing in his dressing room? Did he look confident? Pacquiao was laughing and raring to go. Someone in the Hatton camp said later: "It just didn't feel good. It was as if we all knew something bad was going to happen."
That night Hatton suffered the most crushing loss of his career, shockingly knocked out by the little Filipino. Down twice in the first round, he walked on to a peach of a hook in the second and floated to the canvas, landing in a twitching heap as the current from Pacquiao's fist continued to run though him. Before the referee could even move towards him, Jennifer emitted a piercing scream that weirdly filled the void. Hatton was taken to hospital and many of us wondered if he would be coming back. Surely, at least, he has had enough of the business now.
Without fail in all his previous big fights in America, win or lose, Hatton had come to talk to the boxing writers the following day. Not this time.
He had been released from hospital overnight but did not feel up to talking about his embarrassing and emphatic loss. Most, but not all, of us understood: his health was more important than a few quotes, was the general view. Later that day, however, Hatton appeared on Sky, sipping a lager beside the pool of the MGM Grand. He could not spare half an hour for the newspaper guys he had known and liked for more than a decade, but his new TV paymasters had access all areas. It was the first sign he was changing.
Hatton looked to be handling it. Yet his pride, sustained for so long by his loyal followers, and self-belief that sprang from his undoubted excellence as a fighter, were deeply bruised. He knew he could not fight again, but he could not say so. For a year, he needed to keep up the pretence for his public, hinting at regular intervals that he was just waiting to "scratch the itch". The party was not over until the fat man stopped singing.
Hatton escaped to Marbella for a drinking holiday with his mates, letting slip he had had enough with boxing -- only to recant later. Some close friends thought he was milking it, keeping his name in the papers to help his new business as a promoter. His weight ballooned to 14 stone. He rowed with Jennifer at their home in Hyde, the police calling one night to still the shouting match in the street. Too many times to remember, she had found him passed out, drunk, on their driveway, left there by his pals after another bender.
Someone who had witnessed Hatton at full tilt on the booze recounts the experience: "I've seen him drink 20 pints, at least, usually Guinness, then wash it down with Bailey's Irish Cream or any other short that was handy, pass out, wake up, and do it all again, day after day."
Ricky and Jennifer went on holiday to Australia to patch things up and Ricky turned up at the tennis in Melbourne to cheer on Andy Murray. All seemed well. Murray, whose favourite sport is boxing, was clearly thrilled to see Hatton. It was mid-morning but Ricky had obviously been sampling the local beer. He told Murray he would be back for the final. He did not show, putting it out that Jennifer was ill and they had to return to Sydney.
When he came home, he went back to the gym briefly, even if it was mainly to get into shape for a charity football match. But the fire had gone, and Hatton knew it would never glow again. As one party drew to a close, another uglier one started, in hotel rooms and on the road, with rolled up £20 notes and little hills of white powder.
From Manchester to the bright lights, for 13 years of unbelievable thrills, Hatton had served his calling with an energy that left opponents and friends breathless, in the ring or in the bar. Yet, long before the applause began to fade, he refused to acknowledge what those around him could see and were reluctant to say: his unwillingness to curb his unhealthy eating between fights, his thirst for the drink and, latterly, his temptation into another phase of addiction were tearing a decent and sensitive man apart.
It was not just being caught out that hurt him; it was the dread that his family, friends and fans would see him no longer as a jolly representative of their clan but reduced to a fat, helpless shell, a slave to drugs. It turned out to be a chimera, but Hatton's regular vices were those perceived to be harmless in his culture: wild nights, boozing, pigging out. He could not make jokes about cocaine, though. Cocaine was not only illegal; it was the geezer's drug of choice, the currency of the underworld, showbiz and the media, and it wrecked something Ricky Hatton valued highly: his image.
Coke was an opponent every bit as slick and cunning as Mayweather or Pacquiao. It dressed him up, knocked him out. And he could not even hear the whirr of the video camera.