Ricky was a man possessed, he wouldn't be denied - Crolla recalls Hatton's Tszyu triumph

Omnisport

Britain looks set to be the focus of the boxing world in 2021 after confirmation that a deal has been agreed in principle for Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury to finally meet for the undisputed heavyweight title.

For all the tawdry chicanery that still lurks at the top level of the sport, when the best fight the best the ripples run far and wide as legacies and legends are shaped.

Joshua is the ticket-seller extraordinaire, a star with mass appeal that transcends his sport. Fury is the undefeated fighter who has won battles both in and out of the ring.

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All of those elements were present in one corner when the sport's centre of gravity shifted from Las Vegas to Manchester on a balmy June night in 2005.

"Even talking about it now, I get goosebumps," former WBA lightweight champion Anthony Crolla told Stats Perform News, reflecting on Ricky Hatton's stunning daredevil assault on Kostya Tszyu – one that earned him the IBF light-welterweight title and victory to rank alongside any in a UK ring, as the great Australian failed to answer the bell for the final round.

HOMETOWN HERO

Hatton was already a Manchester institution and inspiration by the time he faced his career-defining fight, although his was a sporting celebrity built at a different pace to the likes of Joshua.

Audley Harrison and Amir Khan's Olympic breakthroughs in 2000 and 2004 set Britain on the path to the elite amateur set up that spawned the class of 2012, with ready made bill-toppers emerging from the London Games.

A medal in one pocket and a lucrative television deal in the other means the fast-tracking towards major titles can quickly commence.

By contrast, Hatton was a long-time headliner at the Manchester Arena with a record of 38-0 heading into the Tszyu fight.

He held the WBU belt at 140 pounds, the sort of lightly regarded strap generally tossed away en route to bigger and better things. Hatton defended it 15 times after beating the veteran Tony Pep in 2001. Eleven of those came as the headliner at his home arena.

The road to Tszyu felt needlessly long at times, with a sense Hatton's undefeated record was being protected as a bankable asset by promoter Frank Warren. But the extended parade of dress rehearsals means the all-action body puncher became as much a part of his city's cultural landscape as Manchester United, his beloved Manchester City and Oasis.

"Every British boxer aspired to be like Ricky Hatton but certainly every young Mancunian boxer wanted those nights," said Crolla, whose enthusiasm was not dampened by his own footballing loyalties lying firmly at Old Trafford.

"Whether he was a Manchester City fan or not, you wanted those nights. To watch him progress… I remember telling people, other young boxers, about him before he burst onto the scene the way he did."

Crolla was an aspiring amateur at the time and a regular at Hatton fights, although a prior engagement meant he tuned into the Tszyu showdown on television, with the bout taking place at 02:00 local time for the benefit of US broadcaster Showtime.

"The first Ricky Hatton fight I was at was the first title he won as a professional – against a lad called Tommy Peacock at Oldham Leisure Centre," he said.

"Ricky would be at a lot of amateur shows too, giving trophies out. I'd always ask him about body shots and how he'd throw them. I probably drove him mad.

"I couldn't go that night [against Tszyu] because I was boxing as an amateur in Germany four days later. I was thinking about it being a late night and I was making weight, in hard training. It wasn't the best place to be!"

FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE

A capacity crowd of around 22,000 reached fever pitch when Hatton emerged to the strains of Blue Moon, although it was an atmosphere fuelled as much by nervous energy as alcohol consumption, because the hometown hero was tackling mission improbable.

Tszyu's decision to walk away from the sport after losing his title has dulled perceptions of what a formidable operator he was.

An esteemed amateur boasting supreme technique and power, he had 25 knockouts from his 31 wins. The shot that placed Zab Judah's legs and brain on different wavelengths in 2001 remains a staple of knockout showreels, while he returned from a long injury lay-off to blast Sharmba Mitchell to the canvas four times before signing to face Hatton.

"The right hand!" Crolla marvelled. "He (Tszyu) doing that for years. People also forget he was one of the finest amateurs you'll ever see.

"There were a lot of boxing people who didn't give Ricky much of a chance because Kostya Tszyu was that good. He was an amazing, amazing fighter. For Ricky to walk him down the way he did…"

The tactical plan cooked up by Hatton's trainer and mentor Billy Graham still sounds audacious 15 years on.

Instead of staying away from the right hand that had liquidised so many in the division, Hatton jabbed intelligently and swarmed ravenously to operate within the line of fire at all times.

Staying somewhere close to Tszyu's chest, the older man was denied the leverage he needed for his honey punch and made to box at a pace that eventually proved beyond him.

"I remember at the start of nearly every round, Ricky would cop for a big right hand," Crolla said, considering footage that draws a wince to this day.

"You were watching through your hands but he was a man possessed. That night he might have beaten anyone. He wouldn't be denied."

THE HATTON EFFECT

Tszyu's trainer Johnny Lewis had seen enough when his man slumped down exhausted at the end of round 11. A similarly fatigued Hatton collapsed to the floor in tears, embracing Graham as bedlam ensued around him.

The wider impact was instant and enduring.

"That created a massive buzz around Manchester boxing," Crolla said. "After what Ricky did, our gym was packed on the Monday. Everyone wanted to be a boxer. He had loads of big nights at the arena and he made so many young fighters from Manchester dream of having that themselves."

Despite struggling to sleep after the adrenaline rush of Hatton's stunning upset, Crolla claimed the gold medal at his multi-nations tournament in Germany the following week. And, a decade later, his dreams of magical fights as the toast of Manchester Arena were realised.

Both Crolla's fairy tale title win over Darleys Perez and emphatic first defence against the feared Ismael Barroso arrived via body shot stoppages in the image of the man he idolised. That teenage pestering had paid off.

Manchester's footballing divide was again brought together to howl their favourite fighter's name, with Crolla's left to the liver to take out Perez fittingly Hatton-esque.

"Yeah, it was one I'm sure Ricky would be proud of," he recalled fondly. "He was there that night and that was somebody I idolised, at ringside watching me in my big fight. I boxed under his promotions for a bit as well and he's a mate now. It's mad.

"After Ricky, a lot of people told me I was the first to come along and have those big nights again – what Manchester had missed for so many years. That makes me immensely proud because I was just one of those kids at the arena.

"Mine were never as big as Ricky's nights, because those were some of the biggest in British boxing history. Mine were only a fraction of it, but I'm very proud that people would even consider me like that.

"There'll never be nights like Ricky Hatton again for a Manchester boxer."

Fury, whose good friend Hatton was in his corner for the first Deontay Wilder fight, might beg to differ if he embellishes his remarkable resurgence by beating Joshua, potentially twice as a rematch clause is seemingly part of the deal.

Should it come to pass, it will be a contest to resonate just as Hatton's deeds did with Crolla and many thousands of others – an occasion like that intoxicating Tszyu encounter, where a boxer wins not only the fight, the belts and the fortune, but sporting immortality.  

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