Boxing is one conspicuous aspect of life where reality and illusion, in unequal parts personal and enigmatic, vie to establish essential meanings for the final agonies in man.

To look Ricky Hatton in the eyes he really does look like a tough guy, “cold and merciless” as his trainer Billy Graham has long described him. That’s the guy with his gloves taped on, the kid from Manchester, who burns up the training gym thinking that any paid boxing match just might be the fight of his life, the one spelling out danger. But then Hatton smiles, as he’s want to do, ready to banter and defend himself with words and good humor and convivial respect and the cordiality of someone who generally likes people. He seems to like most of his opponents. Hatred is not the fuel of his furies; his respect quotient typically brims.

The kid from the Hyde area of Manchester certainly has retained one critical element upon which the entire fortification of athletic professionalism must be founded, and that’s discipline. Day by day, this kid lays it all out. Yes, he’s had weight issues but that’s the demon of genetic inheritance counteracted by sheer hard work. When Ricky Hatton steps into a gym to train he’s a man on a mission; the energy expenditures burst forth with absolute committed intention. Discipline makes possible the maintenance of his physicality, the ability of his body to apply optimal force, that pressurizing pace wilting the most accomplished of opponents. Hatton and Graham know that for the smallish Hatton to compete for divisional domination Hatton must bring the fight to his opponents on terms of his own orchestrating. When fighters are pressurized and hurried, harried and hammered, their ability to maintain mental calm and flowing punches patterns is firstly compromised then improbable. Like all great pressure fighters, dominance begins as applied force becoming escalating attrition rates, until all countermeasures are neutralized.

Hatton wants his opponents backing up, making defensive decisions based on reactive haste, until the dread of inevitability over comes them; the fight is lost, they then merely punch out to enact forms of strained contingency and finally fleeting survival. Ricky Hatton, at his best, makes finding options impossible. The drummed pain of certainty becomes the black light of perception, and you are beaten. Yet many things have to go his way. Hatton has to avoid being cut for damage to his tender skin, while it shocks the senses into energized desperation, must also be deemed a hazard; Hatton can be hit and cut and cuts can end fights, fights like championship fights against up and coming Columbians with title belts as calling cards.

And Hatton typically has to move forward, be willing to wage gritty battles of attrition, taking to give his best. When you put yourself into the middle zone – the prime hitting zone – pushing, rushing past jabs and timed right hands, deep into the nexus of martial exchanging, you bring into play the area of bodily contact, brandished elbows and swiveling heads. Of course, that’s Hatton’s office, the place where he’s conducted his most notable transactions against tough guys like Kostya Tszyu. Deep into the layers of punishing exchanges Hatton loves to apply hooks to the opponent’s body. Kill the body and you lose the crown, indeed.

What is often difficult to observe, even as the acts take place before the observer is that essential ebb and flow of punishing fights, the battle of absorbing punishment while inflicting damage. That too is Ricky Hatton’s fight, the yin and yang of the dynamical struggle he willingly partakes of because he’s a fighter, a man committed to the struggle against incapacity, defeat. And that’s why all of training he does seems to charge the air and all of his fights are rigorous and base. Whatever his technical abilities, he’s a man in the ring who takes to his task with voracious repetition. Hatton is the hedgehog; he knows one big thing. Boxing – after the flourishing of technical virtuosity burns off – comes down to a contest of will, those willing, those willful.

He seems born to a noble spirit, the common man not made by these clichés confirmed by a writer’s whim. When he tells us that he really did get emotional speaking on the telephone in Las Vegas to his son back in England because daddy had to work and couldn’t be home for a six-year-old’s birthday, we are listening to confirm our deepening understanding of the man. “Seeing your name up in lights in Vegas, to be honest, ya… it makes ya a bit emotional.” After all the big fights before adoring crowds in Manchester, Hatton can still look around himself with awe. Hatton can see just what he’s made of himself, the neon blaze of his name, the marquee man, has come a long way in the nine and a half years of his apprenticeship realized. He’s been a champion, endured injury and managerial angst and even conquered the legend of Kostya Tszyu, and along the way made more money than he could have ever imagined as a brash kid wild to make his living with his fists. And it’s in the wonderment still trapped within that makes Hatton a kind of eternal youth, a tough kid with the blissful heart, committed to a hard calling, a life of inflicting consequential pain. Ironies, of course do, give character the diamond like refractions that keep us dedicated, that enamor of gaze. No wonder Ricky Hatton has been enlisted to take the place of Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward in the HBO scheming of things. If anyone could be said to be the embodying amalgam of the two it would surely be “The Hitman” Ricky Hatton, all pasty white, simplicity itself, just an honest man ready to fight to the bitter end for the spectacle he’s passionate to co-create. What else would HBO want? What more could they ask for in the greater, politically corrected, scheme of things to come?

He certainly looks like the kind of guy that Larry Merchant and Max Kellerman will love. Not that being an HBO star is a guarantee, but… it’s close enough. The red carpet has been rolled out for Hatton. You see he’s the guy who’s been identified to be the monster in the other corner for Miguel Cotto. HBO and Top Rank have spent the better part of four years trying to make Cotto into a world beater, a legitimate star. Life happens and the Cotto phenomena never realized itself, not since the phenom from Puerto Rico turned out to be merely very good, distinctly NOT the next Felix Trinidad. And yet Cotto too has shown his pedigree, the persistence of talented youth and a desire perhaps commensurate with greatness. So, now Hatton has been imported to the great stage that is American’s sporting dreamscape. Can it all be just more territorial illusion for the pragmatic Hatton to traverse? Perhaps, with a contest between Hatton and Cotto something singular might arise, a star being born? That’s the hope embedded in HBO’s unwritten script.

For now Hatton must go on reintroducing himself to the sporting public of North America and hope to be one of those few, much prized, foreign adoptions by the mainstream media. If that can be realized, HBO and Team Hatton will have achieved the critical mass necessary for making mega fights. With the era of De La Hoya about to go nova and the heavyweight division a welter of mere hot flashes, boxing needs more incandescent figures. Manny Pacquiao can’t keep alight the entire universe of boxing’s celestial aura, real or imagined. Thus, Hatton fights in Las Vegas, fighting for a title, against a credible, dangerous foe, Mr. Juan Urango, undefeated, an IBF titlist. While other stages are being set, each fight must be won, momentum and excitement generated. Ricky Hatton has to be Ricky Hatton. Just as Arturo Gatti was always his own indefatigable self: “Thunder” Gatti, to the very end.

So, we all understand just what Ricky Hatton seeks to steps into, onto, through when he fights Urango, another man on a dire mission of self-justification. Juan Urango being from rural Columbia, a fact we point out to remind everyone of another fighter from Columbia, Carlos Maussa. Do you remember him? The guy who went down before Hatton and a textbook left hook in the ninth? He was also the guy who teed off on Hatton in the early rounds, tough as teak, ripping cuts over both of Hatton’s eyes. And Maussa was only 20-2 with 18 knockouts. He didn’t have the steeling of an undefeated record and what amounts to a neutral ring to try for the upset.

Then again that’s why Ricky Hatton takes his career so seriously because he knows when you are about to step into the shoes of Arturo Gatti you had better be ready to fight for your life. That’s just the way it is. And Ricky Hatton is all about being real and true to himself.

Patrick Kehoe may be reached at pkehoe@telus.net