For Ricky Hatton, the fight is over at last. When the excellent former world champion Vyacheslav Senchenko drilled a wicked left deep into Hatton's washboard gut eight seconds from the end of the ninth round here on Saturday night, he left the skeletal shell of a former hero bent double on the canvas for the full count, but the Ukrainian did no more than put a full stop to a sentence that had been drawn out maybe a soundbite too long in recent weeks and months.
Afterwards an emotional Hatton called time on his career. "That's it for Ricky Hatton," he said. "I haven't got it any more. I had a good cry. But I'm a happy man. I don't feel like killing myself, I don't feel like slitting my wrists. I'm not going to put my loved ones through that again. I've put my demons to bed."
Hatton, at 34 a year younger than his opponent, was asking a lot of himself – and the 20,000 supporters who packed the Manchester Arena – to come back after three-and-a-half years away from the ring. He said he wanted to erase the memory of defeat by Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas in 2009, and at least he did not finish the journey unconscious.
He was devastated, a little embarrassed perhaps, but in one piece. He can move on now, surely, to seek normality, maybe even repair a two-year rift with his parents, and certainly give his partner, Jennifer, and children, Campbell and Millie, more of his time. He has survived physical pain in the ring, mental torture outside it. He has won world titles at two weights.
This was his 14th fight in this arena, and his first loss in front of his fanatical supporters. Who was more nervous? Senchenko, who had fought outside his country only three times in 33 contests, back-pedalled at the start, dry-skinned, pawing out exploratory lefts. Hatton bounced in front of him, but the blows took a while to flow and his nose reddened quickly on the end of a jab. It's been a while. The intent was there; the execution proved elusive. He swung a wild left and took a right.
Hatton promised he would work the angles but his lines were predictable. Senchenko kept his shape, shipping an uppercut but steadying Hatton with a crisp right flat on his jaw. The British fighter had for months worked over his trainer Bob Shannon wearing the inflated body bag, but found his work downstairs less profitable here. Senchenko is no Shannon. Hatton, still desperate to land a statement punch, winged hooks around Senchenko's bobbing head, looking for a finisher. Senchenko is hardly a mover of Floyd Mayweather's class, yet he proved tough to find. A straight right of his own brought "oohs" from the crowd.
Hatton had said the "old Ricky" would account well enough for Senchenko. What he needed was less of the "old" and more of the "Ricky". His short-armed flurries lacked coherence, but he started to get through towards the end of the fourth. He clipped Senchenko with a clean right on the ropes but found him harder to hit in the centre of the ring, and showed the characteristic impatience of a fighter nearing the end of a long road, keen either to get it over with or to extend the journey.
Senchenko scored with two regulation rights to the jaw and Hatton slipped to the floor in indisciplined retaliation. When he took a left hook and a succession of jabs, the contest took on a different tone altogether. Midway, this was no longer a celebration, but a rude awakening. There looked to be no energy in Hatton's legs, strength in his punches or conviction in his eyes. As if he had skipped back to his childhood, Hatton was lunging like a novice and a look of desperation masked his battered features.
The crowd, so loud 20 minutes earlier, fell virtually silent. Yet he soldiered on for them, soaking up blows he should have seen coming a fortnight ago, raking Senchenko with the odd hook. And then a red chink of light appeared: a cut under the Ukrainian's left eye. There was still hope. His right cheek was growing blue and tender by the jab, but Hatton barrelled forward, oblivious still to the oncoming traffic. Blood dripped from his swollen lips. He swung, missed, swung, missed. By round eight, the contest had descended into a cruel spectacle.
We had reached the stage where the gathering was thankful Senchenko could not punch like Pacquiao. The unspoken communal wish was that this would end with some semblance of dignity. Perhaps Senchenko – like Larry Holmes against Muhammad Ali – shared the sentiment. But he behaved professionally, hitting hard, boxing cautiously. And then, midway through the ninth, he delivered the blow that ended a dream, a body shot deep into Hatton's midsection that dropped him like a rock. Hatton got up, walked to the ropes, head bent, and if he wasn't crying, he was entitled to. Still they sang: "There's only one Ricky Hatton!" What better fans could a fighter have? They should rise in a chorus now to say, thanks mate, and goodbye.
"I'm really heartbroken," said the fighter. I'm gutted. I'm a champion, I'm a fighter. I'm sick, I worked so hard. He caught me a few times earlier. It was a very good shot." His trainer Bob Shannon said, "He's not 24, he's 34. He looked old at times; you can't beat youth. But whatever he decides to do, the team will stand by him."
There have been better British champions, perhaps. But few braver.
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