Ten years have passed since Ricky Hatton, after three-and-a-half years of abusing his body, returned to the ring against Vyacheslav Senchenko. Ahead of his exhibition with Marco Antonio Barrera next month, he speaks to Declan Warrington about the night his career ended once and for all
THE MOST devastating punch the great Manny Pacquiao would ever throw was also the punch that inflicted on Ricky Hatton such a sense of despair that he toyed with taking his own life.
When the proud Hatton was left prone on the canvas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in May 2009 it seemed unthinkable he would ever again find himself in so chilling a place, and yet what ultimately transpired proved considerably more damaging.
No longer driven by furthering one of British boxing’s greatest careers, the bereft Hatton struggled with alcoholism and depression, and even turned to cocaine. Estranged from his parents after an argument over his father Ray’s handling of his business affairs, his mental health continued to deteriorate, and to the extent his then-partner Jennifer found him in a darkened room, sobbing and holding a knife to his wrist.
“I don’t want people telling my kids that I blew it,” Hatton said in September 2012 when he announced he would fight once again on November 24 at the Manchester Arena, the scene of his greatest triumph. Previously overweight and under-motivated, after visiting The Priory and then Sporting Chance, Britain’s most popular ever fighter was determined to “redeem” himself the only way he knew.
“I thought I’d hurt my reputation,” Hatton, speaking 10 years on, told Boxing News. “I know everyone had sympathy for me and could see I wasn’t in a good place, but some of the things appearing of me drunk, and taking drugs – I felt I’d let me family, me fans and everyone down.
“It doesn’t matter how many people say, ‘Ricky, we’ve all had problems, you’re no different’, I needed to make a comeback to redeem meself and prove meself. The minute I started losing weight and feeling better about meself, and then thinking about all the bad things that I did, I wanted to wipe the slate clear.”
For all of his concern, affection for Hatton remained such that tickets for the 18,000-capacity arena sold out within 48 hours of going on sale, considerably before an opponent had even been named.
Yet where he had once been the poster boy for Sky Sports’ Box Office platform, the commitment recently made to Matchroom over those that previously existed with Frank Warren, Frank Maloney and Hatton Promotions, and the broadcaster’s reluctance to consider pay-per-view fights, meant that talks regarding a return there didn’t even start.
“The Hitman” also for the first time recruited Bob Shannon as his trainer, off the back of his admiration for Shannon’s success with his brother Matthew; two weeks after announcing his return he then revealed that Ukraine’s Vyacheslav Senchenko would be the other fighter in the ring.
“I needed a fight or a name I could get meself up for,” he explained. “In hindsight, I don’t think anyone would have blamed me if I just got someone to knock over, shake the cobwebs off, get the confidence back and then fight Senchenko. He was 32-1 and had only recently lost his world title [to Paulie Malignaggi].
“If I could turn the clock back I’d probably pick someone a little bit easier and then gone for Senchenko. But I’ve always wanted to fight the best. ‘A few years ago this wouldn’t have been an issue, so if I can’t beat him now I’ve got the answer I’m searching for – whether I’ve still got it.’ He was solid, and hit a lot harder [than Malignaggi].”
That plans existed for a future fight with either Paulie Malignaggi or Amir Khan in the expectation of victory over Senchenko – at 35 a year Hatton’s senior – was a further demonstration of his enduring commercial appeal. BoxNation and Primetime vied for the rights eventually won by Primetime to broadcast Hatton-Senchenko as a pay-per-view in the UK, and Showtime invested to televise it in the States.
Suggestions regardless persisted that Hatton’s motivation to return owed to his desire to secure a long-term television deal for the fine stable that then included, among others, Martin Murray, Rendall Munroe and Scott Quigg, but he said: “I felt very let down from a television perspective. [But] the comeback was solely for me. [And] it was for reasons other than boxing.”
The day before he officially announced his plans there was also an altercation with his father in the car park of his gym Hatton Health and Fitness in which Hatton Snr threw a punch that led to his arrest. “I was very disappointed,” said Hatton Jnr. “There was things going on, personally, with me dad, and I thought it very strange that the day before me press conference he’d choose to come and have an argument with me.
“‘He’s picked his moment here’ [laughs]. It was the first fight me dad wasn’t involved with, because we’d fell out, and I don’t know whether he’d just had a bad morning, but when he looks back I’ve no doubt he regrets it. You’d think he’d be happy, me making a comeback, getting in the right place, in shape again – to get me pride back, re-establish meself and apologise to the fans. But me dad for some reason had enough of the idea. It’s a day I care not to remember.”
“Whatever happened that day in the car park did affect him,” Shannon told BN. “I’ve got photos of the [pre-fight] dressing room. He was quite solemn. His head’s down quite a lot – he was like that most of the time in the dressing room. I think he was having deep thoughts [about his parents], and he said afterwards: ‘I looked and me mum and dad weren’t there, and it just weren’t the same.’ He’s a creature of habit, and his mum and dad were always by that same part of the ring. Things like that make all the difference. The closer he got to the fight, he went within himself.”
In the Primetime documentary The Road to Redemption, Hatton cut a significantly more melancholic and regretful figure than the zealous one seen in his previous appearances on 24/7, but Shannon regardless remained unconcerned about his desire. “I could see a twinkle in his eyes,” he said. “I went to bed at night thinking this was the next step up. I had to be disciplined – I looked up to Ricky and where he’d been and what he’d achieved – I’ve got to tell him to do the hard, gruelling sessions.
“The Sunday run is gruelling. Most people shy away from it – a lot of fighters have. He did everything I asked of him – everything. Monk’s Road; they call it Monk’s Hill. It’s a mile long but it’s so steep it’s incredible. We took a few of the lads with us. I thought, ‘I’ll find out how much Ricky really wants to come back – this will tell a lot about him’.It was a terribly windy, cold day – it was freezing. The wind was blowing in our faces and he was running up, and he had a black tracksuit on, zipped up, but it was getting full of air. But he carried on. ‘He wants it.’ He was in fantastic shape.”
For all that the rangy Senchenko undoubtedly represented a high-risk opponent for a fighter who had to continue to conquer significant mental demons and contend with three-and-a-half years of ring rust, the damage inflicted on his body during his lengthy period of inactivity, and the physical challenge presented by a natural welterweight, it was only once suggested that Hatton’s progress in training – he could be seen with a black eye shortly before fight week – was anything but smooth.
When he and his opponent both weighed in at 10st 6lbs 10oz (Hatton had previously reached 15st) at Manchester Town Hall, however, while Hatton looked in fighting shape from the neck down, as Senchenko towered over him there was suddenly no disguising his ageing face.
“I felt good sparring; everyone said I was strong and fit,” he recalls. “I did the weight comfortably. The pre-fight changing room, I was looking forward to it. The ring walk was great – it’s the one thing you always miss. I started off alright [in the fight] but then I lost my way a little bit in the middle rounds. It doesn’t matter how many rounds sparring you do, sometimes when you get in there with the little gloves on, it just hits you.”
“[While training] he was sharp,” said Shannon. “The difference between Ricky and Senchenko; he was fighting fit and Ricky wasn’t. [Ricky] was dead sharp. [But] you can have all the sparring and training you want, you’ve got to get that atmosphere; that timing in the ring. No trainer can give you that.”
For his first ring walk at the Manchester Arena since his life-changing victory over Kostya Tszyu, Hatton was the focus of an atmosphere to surpass perhaps even that night in 2005 or against Floyd Mayweather two years later. In front of the thousands supporting him – Nigel Benn and Roberto Duran included – he made an encouraging start when his aggression won him the opening four rounds, even at the expense of his face reddening up, the occasions when he wildly swung and missed, and the first time his head so tellingly snapped back.
From the fifth, with his already questionable timing yet to improve, Hatton’s form and balance became more ragged, and to the extent that in the sixth he lost his footing when missing with a left hand. His increased perspective had done little to change the emotional fighter he had long been, contributing to the signs of frustration he was unable to hide, and even a growing sense of anxiety that drained him further.
“Midway through the fight, I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t quite right; you’re not quite getting out the way of them; you’re not quite landing on the target like you used to; if I can just get my head over the finish line…’,” Hatton said. “I knew halfway through the best of me was behind me.”
Said Shannon: “I said to him, ‘Get your eye in; don’t go rushing it; feint a bit; he works behind his jab’, but straight away when the bell went the crowd got behind him and he went straight out to nail him, and he nearly did. But he was trying too hard.
“After three or four rounds you could see his timing was well out, and [Senchenko] was well-schooled – working behind the jab and stepping back, and Ricky was lunging in.”
Hatton was at risk of falling behind on the scorecards and struggling with swelling around his right eye when, towards the conclusion of the ninth and penultimate round, Senchenko landed a hurtful left hand to his body.
“Sometimes you concentrate on the shots that come down the pipe and you forget about the body shots,” Hatton, once one of the finest of body punchers, explained. “He missed with a right hand and he just got in the right position for a body shot. It wasn’t one of them fights where I got beat up or a knockout like the Pacquiao fight; it was a fight I was probably just about winning. If that’s the way you’re going to bow out it was probably a decent way to, minus the result.”
Shannon’s voice cracked with emotion when he said: “I thought for a minute he was going to get up, because he went on one knee. But he was in a lot of pain, and he had to go back down. God, that was hurtful – it hurt me. It still does, to this day. I could see he was going to whip one in – he stepped across. It really sunk in.
“He would have got up, because Ricky was a tough and really proud man. I was mortified. I knew how much it meant to Ricky. How hard he’d worked. I was so concerned about his welfare and how much it meant to him. He’s come back to redeem himself and now he’s been stopped. To come back like he did at his age, and what he’d gone through, and the fall out with his parents, and the fall out with Billy [Graham] that really hurt him, and the Pacquiao thing – all of that was in him. To come back like he did, with everyone behind him, and to fall at the last hurdle… that was cruel.”
“It ended up in defeat,” Hatton reflected, “and everyone thought, ‘Oh my God, he’s not handled defeats great, Ricky’s going to go straight back to where he went’, but I got the answers I needed to. That I haven’t got it anymore.
“I could move on with the rest of me life as a trainer. I’ve never looked back.”
When Hatton dropped to one knee, and then both, an eerie silence and sense of dread instantly filled the Manchester Arena. What felt like the slowest of 10 counts started, before those desperate for him to win – or even for his comeback to end with more dignity – attempted to roar him back to his feet. Hatton returned to one knee, but, a lone figure in the centre of the ring, he ultimately got no further.
The referee Victor Loughlin was the first to console him as he collapsed back to the canvas, before Shannon and his assistant trainer Mike Jackson climbed through the ropes to attempt to help him manage the physical and emotional pain. When he recovered enough to return to his feet, Hatton, slumped over those same ropes, was applauded and then serenaded – his crowd was determined to remind him that nothing had changed.
His third and final defeat – fittingly in his hometown, and delivered by a vicious punch to the body in another bruising fight – had provided the latest reminder that Britain has had at least a handful of greater champions. But braver? There have perhaps been none.