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Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Updated: December 6, 10:43 AM ET
Hatton happy cutting weight between fights

By Tim Struby
Special to

MANCHESTER, England -- I'd read about the eating habits of junior welterweight champion Ricky "The Hitman" Hatton: the Double Whoppers and Indian curries, the french fries and pepperoni pizzas, the Peking duck and KFC. I've heard the nicknames: the Unfitman, Ricky Fatton. But it's hard to believe that Hatton, undefeated in 43 professional bouts, The Ring magazine's 2005 Fighter of the Year, is really, well, a lardo.

So I'm in a stuffy gym in Denton, a suburb of Manchester, England, to see for myself if the tabloid headlines about Hatton's excesses are true.

I'm not alone on this late-October day. More than two dozen fans (including, of all people, the Undertaker, of WWE fame) are gathered ringside as Hatton and trainer Billy "The Preacher" Graham strap up for pad work. They're prepping for the biggest fight of Hatton's life, a Dec. 8 pay-per-view bout with reigning pound-for-pound king Floyd Mayweather.

They go to work. Hatton stalks and pounces. Thwack! He springs forward and uncorks his trademark left-hook, straight-right combo. Thwackthwack!

"Think Floyd Mayweather can move this fast?" Graham yells to no one in particular.

I don't see a fat man. Sure, a beer belly might lurk beneath the heavy rubber sweat suit. But the fighter I'm watching deftly cuts off the ring, attacks quickly, then zips back before the counter can come. No way he could be the 5-foot-6 fighter who balloons from 140 or 147 to a postfight weight of 185.

The bell sounds. A breather. "Atta boy, Ric-ky!" screams a pimply-faced teenager with a cutting Manchester accent. "You can do it!"

Ricky Hatton
Ricky Hatton wasn't exactly looking in top-flight shape when his fight with Floyd Mayweather was first announced on Sept. 19.
Most fight camps are notoriously private, but Hatton prefers an open house. Friends, family, strangers -- everyone is welcome. Hatton stops pacing long enough for Graham to pour water into his mouth from a bottle. But instead of swallowing it, the fighter winks at a redheaded kid standing ringside, then leans over the ropes and spits a stream of water at the back of a bystander -- a British boxing commissioner. The crowd howls.

Later, when Hatton finishes sparring, I wander off to look at the photos taped to the gym's back wall. Hatton fighting as an amateur. Hatton dressed as a Spice Girl. But one picture stands out. The man's face is pasty and bloated, like a sculptor's half-finished marble bust. On his head sits a gold, cardboard crown. Below, his wide-open mouth devours a Whopper. A message is scrawled across the top in black marker: "I am bigger, fatter and more round than ever, and it's all thanks to Burger King."

I recognize the face. It's the junior welterweight champion of the world, Ricky Fatton.

The Brooklands Hotel in Barnsley, once a booming coal-mining town an hour northeast of Manchester, has about as much charm as the Bates Motel. Which is why it's perfect for this Friday night event called an Evening With Ricky Hatton.

The fighter, dressed in black pants and shirt, shares the VIP table in the banquet room with former super middleweight champs Steve Collins and Richie Woodhall. Surrounding them are more than 300 friends and fans who have paid 65 pounds (about $135) for a meal (but no drinks), a charity auction and the chance to have photos taken with three fight stars in England.

For the past hour, Hatton has been watching everyone around him eat. He'd love a taste of the soup (cream of vegetable) or a bite of the chicken Diane (seared chicken breast with a mustard, brandy and mushroom cream sauce) or a nibble of the dessert (jam sponge with custard). But the champ is six weeks into his prefight training regimen, so he sticks with coffee and chewing gum.

Hatton might be the only one here watching his figure, but he's certainly not the only athlete for whom counting calories is a way of life. To varying degrees, wrestlers, gymnasts, runners, figure skaters and many other jocks monitor their weight as if their careers depended on it, which they often do. Not all cut 40 pounds before every competition, but most have spent nights watching others eat.

As the plates are cleared, a voice booms over the microphone: "Ladies and gentlemen, Ric-ky Hat-ton!" The rough-and-tumble crowd jumps to its feet and cheers. Hatton walks to the podium, grabs the mike and waves. A group at a table in the back breaks out into a version of "Winter Wonderland": "Walk-ing in a Hat-ton Wonderland!"

"Nice to be entertaining an audience without someone trying to smash me teeth in," Hatton says jovially. "I like spending time here at the top table with Stevie and Richie. A pleasure listening to 'em eat for the last hour."

Ricky Hatton, comedian? Believe it. What follows is a 45-minute stand-up act that's not only well-timed and funny, but completely unexpected from a fighter whose ring name is the Hitman. He riffs on his weight, Manchester United (he supports rival Manchester City) and women. But the central theme is a humorous, heartfelt summary of his life.

On his upbringing in the Hattersley council estate, a government-subsidized housing project east of Manchester: "A fine place to grow up. Home to two of England's most famous serial killers!"

On his father, Ray, a former fullback for Manchester City: "I don't know how my father ever produced a world-class athlete. He's about 4-foot-7. He looks like he just hopped off a key ring."

On his mother, Carol, who helped Ray run the family's pub in Hattersley: "I love her more than anyone on this earth. But she's a monster. When she walks in the kitchen in the morning, the Rice Krispies don't say, 'Snap, crackle, pop.' They say, 'Shut the [hell] up! She's coming!'"

On his weight: "My trainer once told me to use the rowing machine to get in shape. I got on it, and it sank."

The routine ends with standing ovation. I turn to Collins and say, "He could work in Vegas."

Long-term harm in ballooning up, then flash-cutting weight

Four potential problems
Organ damage -- starving the body of water and nutrients can lead to liver, pancreas, kidney and gallbladder damage, as well as heart failure.
Bone degeneration -- with severe and repeated dehydration, bones become brittle and arthritic, leading to fractures and joint deterioration.
Weight gain -- when a person consumes a lot of calories and then diets, the body learns to horde food as stored fat. This can cause irreversible metabolic change and may lead to extreme weight gain later.
Brain damage -- dehydration decreases oxygen and blood flow to the brain. This can lead to brain damage, strokes, aneurysms and death.
Collins replies, "He does work in Vegas."

So he does. It was in Nevada, in June, that Hatton beat Mexican tough man Jose Luis Castillo at 140 pounds and put himself first in line to face Mayweather at 147. Hatton earned $2.5 million for that fight (he'll draw up to $10 million against Mayweather), but his performance was more impressive than the money. Hatton assaulted Castillo with relentless pressure, aggressive infighting and a brutal body attack. The fight ended in the fourth, when a left hook to the liver knocked out Castillo.

While the Castillo bout was Hatton's biggest payday, his June 2005 upset of Kostya Tszyu was his most significant win. For nearly a decade, the heavy-fisted Tszyu totally dominated the light welterweight division. Few gave Hatton a chance. So when Tszyu refused to answer the bell for the 12th round, the Hitman instantly replaced Tszyu as the 140-pound king. Still, despite the titles, the perfect record and the tough man reputation, the Hitman remained overshadowed by the Fat Man.

Fame has been a blessing and a curse for Hatton. Early in his pro career, while fighting as many as eight times a year, he was too busy boxing and training to pack on pounds. But in 2000, Hatton's life -- and waistline -- changed dramatically. After he beat Jon Thaxton for the British junior welterweight title, Hatton became a legitimate star. That meant bigger -- and fewer -- fights, leaving plenty of time to indulge his inner glutton. "Takeaways [takeout in the U.S.] are his middle name," says Kerry Kayes, who has been Hatton's nutritionist and strength trainer for seven years. "If you drive down Market Street with Ricky, it's like going on one of those Hollywood tours. But instead of actors' homes, he tells you about all the takeaway places -- 'That's a good one,' 'That one's open all night.'"

Hatton's weight has become such a national joke that Holland's Pies, a large English pastry company, has given Hatton a lifetime supply of its wares. And in August, when Hatton attended a Manchester City home friendly against Valencia, the crowd serenaded him affectionately with "You fat bastard, you fat bastard, you ate all the pies," a famous soccer chant. Hatton laughed, stood and raised his arms in salute to the crowd.

All in good fun, but Hatton doesn't joke around about the other side of his weight issue: losing it. He's been spot-on at the weigh-in for every one of his fights, and he's never needed a frantic last-hour run to hit his number. He's rarely appeared weak or depleted in the ring, has always shown up with knockout power and -- hello -- he's never lost.

Yes, Hatton knows he should regulate his weight between fights, knows it's not healthy to balloon and shrink, knows it will shorten his career. And his training team is not shy with dieting advice. Says Graham: "I talk to him until I'm blue in the face. But it's like pissing in the wind."

In fact, Hatton claims that an unhealthy body equals a happy and healthy mind. He says he needs the release from the pressure of training and fighting, needs his friends, family, food and fun. Maintaining his weight year-round, like Mayweather does, could even cost him his title. "I know that not drinking and laying off fatty foods is better," he says, "but I'd burn out. Besides, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

And no one will ever accuse Ricky Hatton of being dull. Just ask the regulars at the New Inn in Hattersley, his parents' former pub and still one of his favorite places to go "on the drink." This is one of the spots where Hatton hangs when he's not prepping for a fight -- playing darts, singing "Suspicious Minds" on karaoke night, telling jokes or drinking pints of Guinness with the welders, mailmen and carpet fitters who have remained his closest friends.

"He's still just one of the lads," says Wesley Behan, a friend since primary school.

Hatton could hardly be blamed if he traded his blue-collar past for a new life of fame and wealth. He's certainly had opportunities. Following the Tszyu fight, for example, he was the toast of the British Isles. "I was offered fancy hotel suites, exclusive dinners, entertainment," Hatton says. "I said, 'Thank you, but it's not really me.'"

Instead, he continued his postfight tradition of "S--- Shirt Day." Rules? He and his Hattersley mates dig up their tackiest, most embarrassing shirts, meet at the New Inn and start drinking.

Sometime later that night, they vote for the ugliest shirt. The prize? "The owner gets his picture taken and put on the New Inn wall," Behan says.

A silly game, sure, but a perfect example of why Hatton is a folk hero in England. He might be friendly with Man U striker Wayne Rooney, who carried his belt into the ring before the Castillo fight, but that's because Rooney is another famous working-class star. Hatton still lives with girlfriend Jennifer Dooley (they met in primary school), in a modest four-bedroom house in the hamlet of Gee Cross, around the corner from his parents. He enters the ring to "Blue Moon," the Man City team song. His best friend is younger brother Matthew, also a pro fighter. Other English athletes are more famous, but few are as beloved as the Fat Man.

Back at the gym, I'm one of three dozen onlookers watching another Hatton training session. Among the fans: a group of teenage boys, a woman in a clingy shirt taking pictures with her cell phone and a couple with two toddlers. In the ring, Hatton throws combinations, sweat dripping from his forehead and the ankle cuffs of his sauna suit. Ricky Fatton continues to disappear, drop by drop, pound by pound. He's down to 157, right on schedule.

After a few rounds of pads, Hatton steps out of the ring and takes off his top. I stare for a moment, making sure that what I see, and don't see, is true. I don't see love handles or a beer belly. Instead, a six-pack emerges from beneath the translucent skin of his abdomen, and hints of cheekbones peek out from his face. Suddenly, the Hitman breaks into a Chaka Khan song. He does a little dance, then steps to the heavy bag and begins banging away.

The Fat Man has left the building.

Tim Struby writes for ESPN The Magazine.