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Ricky Hatton: silencing the demons

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Ricky Hatton: silencing the demons
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It’s like there’s this fella that sits on my shoulder every day,” Ricky Hatton tells Sport, tapping his left shoulder as he speaks.

“He says to me: ’You fucking let people down, you let your kids down. What a disgrace. You were Ricky Hatton. Everyone loved you – man of the people and all that. Now look what you’ve done.’ That’s what I have to deal with every day.”

Ricky Hatton sits back in his sofa, letting the words sink in. The point he’s at pains to make is that his return to prizefighting later this month isn’t motivated by money or gaining TV dates for his promotional company, but by a desire to silence the voice in his head which goads him that he needs to get back in the ring to reclaim his battered pride. A similar passion in the former champion’s words were evident when he announced his comeback in September.

“In how many years gone by have you seen Ricky Hatton, 12 weeks before [a fight] sat here at the top table, looking like Barney Rubble?” he asked the assembled press, emphasising his reignited love for boxing.

Fred Flintstone’s neighbour isn’t the man we’d pick out as a notable adonis, but it was obvious how trim and fit Hatton looked. He cuts a similar figure when Sport meets him at the health and fitness club he owns in Cheshire, several weeks into his training camp. But before we can peer into his future, we must understand Hatton’s past, beginning with a fight that’s haunted him for more than three years.

“I knew I was beat a week before the fight,” he says of his last professional contest: a brutal two-round knockout loss against Manny Pacquiao in 2009. “When I got out to Vegas, six weeks before, I was absolutely flying. I was knocking lumps out of my sparring partners. Then two weeks before the fight, they were knocking lumps out me. I was running up Mount Charleston every day, doing pads every day, then sparring.

"I was going to the well each day. Then – I think it was in my third-to-last sparring session – a little super-featherweight hit me on the chin. Although he didn’t wobble me, it was more of a balance thing, he still knocked me down – and I’m getting in there against Manny Pacquiao! I thought: ’Fuck me, Rick.’”

Rumours swirled in the build-up that Hatton’s training had gone badly wrong. Did he not consider pulling out?

“Friends and family in my camp were telling me: ’Pull out – [your trainer] Floyd Mayweather Senior has trained you into the ground.’ But I thought, no, no, no: there’s 20,000 fans coming over, this is my chance. As I was walking to the ring, I was thinking I’d blown it – but also, in the back of my mind, I thought: ’If I can just hit him that one shot in the ribs on that one left hook, it’ll all be over, Rick, and everything will be okay.’ Obviously it wasn’t.”

It was this loss that Hatton says played a key part in a spiral of depression, booze and a retirement decision that he was never fully comfortable with. It hit rock bottom publicly when video footage of him snorting cocaine appeared as a story on the News of the World website. Hatton, as part of a public apology, admitted to “dabbling” in drugs, but said that depression and alcohol excess related to that were his two real problems. He checked himself in for rehab at the Priory clinic in September 2010. Away from the hidden cameras, however, he’d been even darker places – later admitting he’d felt suicidal.

“I was waking up in the morning with a knife in my bed. My fiancée, Jennifer, would come downstairs and I’d be on the sofa with a knife on the floor,” he told the press later. “I never had the courage to go through with it, but there was always the feeling that one time I might.”

A loss hits most top sportsmen – particularly boxers, with the primal nature of what they do – hard. Yet defeats seemed to crush Hatton more than most. This, despite the fact that world titles in two weight divisions and a record of 45 wins weighed against just two losses (against all-time greats Floyd Mayweather Junior and Manny Pacquiao) justifies acclaim rather than despair.

“Some people fight the likes of Pacquiao and Mayweather and they’re just happy to get their big payday,” Hatton explains. “I wasn’t there to make up the numbers. I believed I was gonna win, so it was very hard for me to deal with [defeat]. I’m a determined young man.

“I think that’s when depression first kicked in, after the Mayweather fight. Then I made my comeback and my performance wasn’t the best. I ended up having to leave [trainer] Billy Graham and sadly that resulted in a court case. So I think the Mayweather defeat, not performing well against Juan Lazcano, splitting with my trainer who was my long-term friend... that’s when it all started.

“The Paulie Malignaggi fight [Hatton’s last win] picked me up a bit, but I was down again after the Pacquiao fight. Then I retired and basically it ran away after that. I had a real death wish, a me-against-the-world attitude. I was on a runaway train, so the fact that I’m sat here now, talking about a comeback and being so happy and positive – it’s a win already, before I’ve even laced the gloves up.”

His present, happier state of mind began with Hatton immersing himself back into boxing. First, in looking after a promising promotional stable. But, more pertinently, when he began training fighters himself.

“I was in the gym every day, keeping fit, losing weight, passing on my knowledge,” he says. “ I had to get tapes of an opponent out, study him, get a gameplan – which is something I hadn’t done since I was fighting myself. Bit by bit, I got me hunger back and that’s where I am. It’s a burning desire now.”

His fire may be rekindled, but did Hatton feel nervous about putting the gloves on and engaging in hard sparring again for the first time in so many years?

“Very much so,” he admits. “It was weird, I put me headguard and protector on and thought: ’Jesus! I never thought I’d be doing this again.’ I was dead excited and a bit apprehensive, but when the bell went, all those nerves drifted away. I surprised myself with how sharp I was. It was like I’d never been away.”

Despite torturing his body into top condition under his new trainer – noted disciplinarian Bob Shannon – Hatton says his preparation has never come easier.

“Nothing has been hard, because I’ve been so enthusiastic. Going from my personal problems with depression and feeling suicidal to now feeling as good as I am, as happy in my home life and everything... suddenly, getting up for running is easy, dieting is easy, sparring is easy. When it starts getting hard work, instead of thinking ’I’ve had enough of this again’, I have the eye of the tiger, if you like. I feel like I can walk through walls at the minute.”

“The hunger I had before I fought Kostya Tszyu – you’d have needed about four Kostya Tszyus that night to stop me because I had that real nastiness about me,” says Hatton on the night he wore down an excellent champion to record his greatest win.

“But I reached a stage in my career where you look in your bank account, you look at the world title, you’ve boxed in Vegas and boxed at Manchester City and – without even noticing it – I maybe had lost that bit of hunger. Now I’ve got it back and more, because I’m coming back not just to win a world title.

"I’m coming back to put all the demons to rest, all the wrongs that people have done by me – and the list is a mile long of people that have let me down – how I’ve let meself down, plus the manner of me last defeat. I’m pushing all that frustration into a big ball to fire at me opponent on November 24. Forgive me for saying, it’s made me a real nasty fooker again.”

Nasty or not, Hatton is reticent when asked about the people he feels have let him down. It’s alleged his father Ray was arrested for attacking Ricky in September, so his decision not to discuss names is understandable. However, coupled with Sky TV not renewing a deal with Hatton Promotions this year, it’s easy to speculate as to at least a few of the people Hatton might feel disappointed with.

“I don’t want to point the finger at Sky or family issues or this, that or the other,” he adds when pressed. “But generally I feel everyone’s been on the Ricky Hatton roadshow – and there seems to be a mountain of people that have let me down. Maybe that’s a little bit of my depression still coming out and feeling sorry for myself, but it’s how I feel.”

In person, however, Hatton seems good- humoured as ever. Recounting despair and bitterness doesn’t seem to suit his warm, flat Mancunian tones, and he’s far happier to assess whether – at 34 – he’ll be a different fighter to the all-action tyro he was in his 20s.

“You’ll have the same Ricky Hatton that everyone has always loved,” he says. ”I’ve always been an aggressive fighter, but being a trainer has opened my eyes a bit. Ultimately, I look back at my career and my over-aggressiveness got me knocked out against Mayweather and Pacquiao.

”If I get stopped a third time, I get the match ball, don’t I?” he laughs. “And I don’t want that hat-trick! I’ve got that nastiness every boxer needs, but also a wiser head. Through my training and my experience, I can control that aggression now.”

Whether you think Hatton is deluded in his comeback attempt or not, he isn’t fooling himself about his past mistakes. Losing his composure in the ring was a factor in his losses against those two exalted fighters.

He also claims he’s learned his lesson about his fitness outside the ring, saying that blowing up in weight between fights has to change.

“Losing two and a half or three stone when I was 24 years of age was absolutely diabolical. I can’t do it at 34. It’s about being a lickle bit older – you learn from your mistakes. People will forgive you if you make a mistake – they won’t forgive you if you do it again. That’s what I believe and I want to show that. I want to be a better boyfriend, a better father, I want to be someone kids look up to again. The last thing I want my kids to read is: ’Oh yeah, Ricky was a great champion, but didn’t he flush his life down the toilet?’”

It’s worth pointing out that many people have struggled with alcohol and depression without losing the respect of others; that the tabloid press are less forgiving than loved ones or fans often are. Hatton nods.

“But I need to get rid of this fella first,” he adds, tapping his left shoulder once more. At least, even if his inner voice is still critical, he admits to being moved by the public reaction to his comeback.

“I had to choke back the tears just at my press conference,” he says. “There was every chance I could have been bleedin’ dead – that’s how bad it was for a time.

"Then I announced my comeback and said: ’Don’t worry, in a few weeks we’ll announce the opponent.’ And before we even got a chance to, it was sold out. More than winning any world title, I’ve always said that my proudest achievement was my fans and the support that they give me.”

A packed Manchester MEN, Blue Moon playing, the crowd chanting as Hatton emerges – the atmosphere will feel electric. But Hatton knows better than anyone that there’s work to be done in the ring. His opponent is Vyacheslav Senchenko, a solid, 35-year-old Ukrainian and former WBA welterweight champion who’s lost only one fight in 33 bouts. He’s no Floyd Mayweather, but he’s a seasoned, world-rated fighter.

“My team advised me against it,” Hatton says about his choice of opponent. “But this is the level I want to fight at. I haven’t called out Amir Khan or Kell Brook yet. I do want to fight them, but I think I need to make a believer out of people first. I’ve had three years out. People ask: ’Do you want to fight him or him?’ Well, I’m not in a position to call people out yet. Hopefully I’ll go crash, bang, wallop on November 24, then I can say: ’Now ask me the same question.’

“But it’s worth more than that,” Hatton says of his return to the ring. “It’s about someone who was loved so much to being, I feel, a bit of a joke. So it’s not just whether I come back and win a world title – whether I fight Amir Khan or Kell Brook.

“It’s about the fact that I can return after three years, shift all that weight, come back from the Manny defeat, fight at the MEN, sell it out, and do people proud again. The manner of what happens on November 24 will give people – me and other people – a better indication of where I’m heading.

“It’ll either be: ’Rick, you give it a go, fair play, but hang them up back up again.’ Or it’ll be: ’Fucking hell! You better watch out guys.’”

Alex Reid @otheralexreid

Ricky Hatton v Vyacheslav Senchenko will be shown live on Primetime, Channel 498 on Sky and Virgin-On-Demand, on Saturday November 24 for £14.95. To order, call 0871 200 4444 or go to primetimeboxing.co.uk Follow Ricky Hatton on twitter @HitmanHatton

Ricky Hatton was photographed by James Lincoln