Hatton comes a long way from '97 U.S. debut

There weren't many people in Madison Square Garden on that Friday night in 1997, at least not for the second fight on the bill, a four-rounder between Brooklyn's 2-2 Robert Alvarez and 1-0 Manchester, England, native Ricky Hatton.

It was less than a week before Christmas, and Hatton -- part of a promotional stable that included future title challenger Danny Williams and that night's headliner, Prince Naseem Hamed -- made the trip to New York City to get in some work while doing so in an arena that doubles as a shrine to pugilists young and old.

And although Hatton had an impressive amateur record and the hopes of any fighter to someday make it big in the sport, that night he was just another faceless 19-year-old prelim kid fighting a heavier opponent in a cavernous arena, with only his corner, the referee, a bell, and some early arrivals to keep him company.

"I know it was one of the first fights that night, there wasn't really that big of a crowd there and I gave away a lot of weight that night," Hatton told MaxBoxing when asked about his recollections of his first bout in the United States. "I boxed a guy named Robert Alvarez and he was probably six pounds heavier than me at the weigh-in. [Laughs.] He was very tough and he stayed in there but I'd like to think I impressed people a bit. It's fantastic to put on the CV that you boxed at Madison Square Garden."

It's even more impressive to say that you won at Madison Square Garden, which Hatton did via a four-round unanimous decision. And in the eight years since that night, most of the participants on the card have either gone on to varied levels of success and faded away (Hamed), survived on the fringes of contenderdom (Williams, Kevin Kelley, David Telesco, Charles Shufford), retired (Kennedy McKinney, Junior Jones), or didn't make it at all in the fight game.

Former junior featherweight champ Joan Guzman, who knocked out Henry Bowden in two rounds in his second fight that night, is still relevant, most recently scoring a win on the Oscar De La Hoya-Ricardo Mayorga pay-per-view card last weekend, but of that group, only one fighter can truly say that he is still standing as one of boxing's best.

And ironically, as he once fought on a card headlined by the last British fighter to truly become a crossover star in the United States (Hamed), it's now Hatton who has the potential to break through in the U.S. market as a legitimate box-office star with the skill, style, and personality to revive a sport in dire need of a superstar.

That's a long way from fighting in an empty arena on a cold December night. But despite the circumstances, Hatton looks back with a fond remembrance of his first U.S. fight.

"It was one of the greatest achievements of my boxing career," he said. "When you think of all the great champions and great fighters that have never boxed there, for me to be there as a 19-year-old in my second fight, it was an absolute dream come true. I think if I didn't win another fight from that day on, that would be a day that would stay with me for the rest of my life. Who would have thought that eight, nine years on I'd be at the level where I'm at now? Now, I'm in a position where I can be topping the bill there in the near future myself, so it's absolutely fantastic."

Did he dare to dream of future success that night though?

"I always knew I had ability and that I could always do well in the sport," he said, "and while I always had confidence in myself, I never thought I'd ever get to this stage, where I'm topping the bill in the United States and fighting live on HBO. "

This Saturday, Hatton, fresh from a 2005 campaign that saw him stop future Hall of Famer Kostya Tszyu in 11 rounds to win the world junior welterweight championship and follow it up with a one-punch knockout of Carlos Maussa five months later, begins his 2006 season by moving up to the 147-pound division to face Luis Collazo for the WBA title. And Hatton's doing it in the United States, no less, at Boston's TD Banknorth Garden, where the eyes of the boxing world will be upon him.

That's some stretch for the 27-year-old Hatton (40-0, 30 KOs), who survived the slings and arrows of those who said he was overprotected back home in England -- destined to remain in the comfy confines of his hometown M.E.N. Arena fighting over-the-hill U.S. competition and soft Euro opposition.

By beating Tszyu, unifying his crown with a knockout of the tough Maussa, and now coming to the U.S. to try for a welterweight crown and then set up megabouts with any number of high-profile opponents from 140 to 147 pounds, Hatton now has the stamp of approval on both sides of the pond.

Funny how perceptions can be altered in 12 months, but while Hatton admits that there has been a change in the weather in some respects, in others he's still the same guy at the bar throwing a few back with his buddies while his beloved Manchester City football team hits the pitch.

"I don't think I've changed too much as a person, but obviously when you beat someone of the caliber of Kostya Tszyu, and it's gone down in Britain as one of the best wins in British boxing rings of all-time, you can imagine how its gotten," said Hatton. "I've done more and more interviews, more people recognize me, and my popularity has just grown. I don't think I could be more popular in England. But now the next move is to become one of the few British fighters to become a success and popular in the States."

After selling out arenas regularly back home, the trick is to now pull it off here in the States. That's not an easy task for homegrown fighters, who play before half-filled houses even when defending titles or engaging in intriguing matchups. Boxing has just been removed from popular culture in a lot of ways, and if you're not Arturo Gatti in Jersey, Jeff Lacy in Tampa, Cory Spinks in St. Louis, or Joe Mesi in Buffalo, you're not packing an arena. And you would guess that a British fighter would have an even tougher time putting people in the seats, but Hamed did it back in the late 90's with a mix of debilitating punching power, flash, and a personality that people loved to hate. Hatton, with his aggressive style, everyman personality, and willingness to brawl is probably the anti-Hamed, but it still may work. Think Arturo Gatti with better defense and 10 years' less mileage, and you've got Ricky Hatton.

"I think it's down to my style of fighting," he said when asked why American fans have taken to him so far. "I always attack and throw plenty of punches, I'm a body puncher, and I don't think I fight like the traditional British fighter -- if anything, I fight more like a Mexican or American fighter. It's not really what you expect from a British fighter. And I think my personality, I'm no different than the man in the crowd or the man in the street, and with everything I've achieved, nothing has changed at all. I think people like that I'm down to earth and just the way I am and they can see that I'm just a decent lad."

And "decent lads" do good boxing business in the States. While the mainstream media harps on the "bad boys" of the sport and screams "woe is me" when referring to the alleged fact that negativity sells to the masses, the bottom line may not reflect those "facts." All the aforementioned fighters -- Gatti, Lacy, Spinks, Mesi -- are seen as good guys who you want to root for. Then-world champion Zab Judah, "bad boy" image and all, couldn't sell out MSG's 5,000 seat Theater (which is in his hometown) when he lost to Carlos Baldomir in January. Two months later, New York-based Irishman John Duddy, a pleasant kid and a middleweight prospect who fought a journeyman no one had ever heard of, sold it out.

Do the math.

Of course, nothing will come of Hatton on these shores if he doesn't win on Saturday, and even though Collazo is an underrated talent who has the southpaw stance and slick boxing acumen to give "The Hitman" trouble, his warrior instincts will most likely get the best of him (see Collazo's brawls with Jose Antonio Rivera and Felix Flores) and play right into the strengths of Manchester's finest, leading to both a victory and an entertaining championship level debut here in the US for Hatton.

And then the fun begins, as Hatton has perhaps the most attractive menu of big fights waiting for him if he gets past Collazo, names like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Miguel Cotto, Jose Luis Castillo, Diego Corrales, "Sugar" Shane Mosley, Arturo Gatti, or even "The Golden Boy" himself, Oscar De La Hoya.

"Obviously, those are the fights you work extremely hard for and these are the fights you've always dreamed of," Hatton admitted. "Kostya Tszyu was one of those fights. He was one of the best light welterweights of all time and I think he was No. 2 in the world pound-for-pound at the time. The likes of Mayweather, De La Hoya, and Cotto, they're all in the pound for pound rankings themselves, or if they're not, they're certainly not far off, and I've always said that I wanted to fight the best and try to become the best, and now I'm getting my dream.

"I beat Kostya Tszyu to get the IBF belt, I unified the titles immediately in my next fight and in my next fight after that, I'm going for another world title at a different weight. I can't remember the last time there was a British fighter that had three consecutive fights in a 12 month period that had three fights for three different versions of a world title, two at different weights, and I'm topping the bill in America for the first time. I think it shows what I'm all about really."

From the bottom of the bill to the top. Sort of like an American dream by way of Manchester.