There comes a time in the career of most champions, regardless of the sport, where they must rise above the odds to conquer an opponent most feel is greater than them. It often features a young lion coming up against a cagey veteran and either the test is passed or a hard lesson learned. It happens this Saturday in Manchester, England, as Ricky “The Hitman” Hatton comes upon what may be a career defining bout against light welterweight guru Kostya Tszyu.
The 26-year-old Hatton has been appointed the “chosen one” among British fight fans as being the best boxer in the nation as of this moment. With a professional record of 38-0 (28 KOs), Hatton has done his part up until this point to justify those claims. He earned the lightly regarded and lesser known WBU light welterweight title in 2001 with a TKO over Tony Pep and has successfully defended the title fifteen times. Slowly but surely his level of competition has gotten better and better but he now takes a quantum leap into the ring in meeting the veteran Tszyu.
Kostya Tszyu has always been a fantastic boxer, as he demonstrated with an excellent amateur career, but was mostly thought of as a pure puncher due to his incredible power. That devastating power somewhat overshadowed the fact that from a technical point of view, the 35-year-old is one of the most talented boxers among the lower weight classes. A general in the ring, the Russian born Australian resident is as tactful as they come and always seems in control of the fight.
In order to graduate this weekend Ricky Hatton must bring controlled aggression and outwork the champion for as long as the fight lasts. Talk from the Hatton camp has suggested that the fight plan will be based on taking the fight to Tszyu in a similar manner as to that of Vince Phillips, who handed the IBF 140-pound king his lone defeat back in 1997 in what The Ring called its “Upset of the Year.” Tszyu has seldom been forced to fight going backwards, as it only takes a dose or two of his heavy hands to deter opponents. The plan for Hatton is to do just that – take the fight to Tszyu and force him to fight going backwards. Others have failed trying to implement a similar plan. Will Hatton be any different?
The problem with taking the fight to Tszyu 31-1-0 (25 KOs) is that you will pay a price coming in, even with a tight defense. Tszyu will either time an opponent who comes in or and will jab and follow with a precision accurate right hand if you sit back and let him come forward. In recent interviews Hatton has eluded to the Ben Tackie-Tszyu bout of 2002 as example of Tszyu having problems fighting when forced to go back. From what I recall, Tszyu maintained a tight defense and picked Tackie apart with jabs as the taller Tackie pressed forward. Tszyu went on to win a lopsided 120-108, 120-108, 119-108 twelve-round decision. Unless Hatton merely plans to survive, Tackie hardly laid down a blueprint for success.
The fact that a fight of this caliber is being made is a credit to both fighters. Hatton has been handled rather meticulously by promoter Frank Warren who has chosen mostly “name brand” opposition whose expiry date had passed. Victories over recognizable fighters such as Ray Oliveira, Michael Stewart, Carlo Wilfredo Vilches, Dennis Pedersen, Ben Tackie, Aldo Rios and Vince Phillips demonstrate a pattern of fighting known fighters whose best years were behind them. The most recent fight with Oliveira magnifies this point; the 59-fight veteran dropped from 147 to 140 in order to make the bout – not an easy task, even more difficult at 36-years of age. Stewart has now lost 3 of 5 fights, Pedersen was a late replacement, Tackie was handed his third consecutive defeat, and Phillips was 40 when he met Hatton. “The Hitman” has done nearly all his work in England, and most of that in his hometown of Manchester.
Invading enemy territory is nothing new for Tszyu. There just aren’t many big money opportunities fighting in Australia and Tszyu has never fought in Russia. So playing the role of evil invader is nothing new, and in a way it is a relief. All the pressure this weekend will surely be square on the shoulders of Ricky Hatton. Fighting in front of your hometown in the biggest fight of your life will do that. Tszyu will likely sit back and wait for Hatton to bring the fight and try to take the title from him, being in the enviable position of having what Hatton wants.
The June 4th bout is already a major success in England, with the event being sold out in just 2 hours and 30 minutes and 22,000 tickets being gobbled up in that span. Quite an achievement – despite the fact that the main event will likely start around 2:00 AM local time. The event will be broadcast in the U.S. by Showtime.
Boxing’s junior welterweight division is likely the most talented in the sport and two of the best 140-pound fighters in the world collide on Saturday. Whether we see a changing of the guard or a maintaining of the status quo will be determined in the ring. Outside of it, the bout has already been deemed a huge success.