It’s put up or shut up time for Ricky Hatton.

Check that, Hatton’s a loveable lad, a salt of the earth type, a solid representative for the sport. He doesn’t deserve to be targeted with such stark, impolite language.

Let’s switch the terminology, shall we, and instead say that it is high time Ricky Hatton supply his considerable legion of fans with a superlative performance when the Manchester Mauler steps in with Jose Luis Castillo at the Thomas and Mack Center on June 23rd in Las Vegas.

On that night, Hatton must deliver the sort of performance he promised us we’d get in his last fight (a snoozy decision win over Juan Urango in January), the sort of performance we took for granted would be the norm when he shoved then pound-for-pounder Kostya Tszyu into retirement two years ago.

Otherwise, we’re going to have strip Hatton (42-0, 30 KOs) of his nickname, Hitman, and probably, place him into the What Might’ve Been category.

Before you hit that “send” button, Hatton acolytes, before you blow out our bandwidth with a spamload of expletive laden protests, hear me out.

I concede that Hatton is undefeated. He’s 42-0, fer cripes sake, so how can I argue with even minimal credibility that Hatton hasn’t panned out? Well, Hitman himself touched on that theme in a Thursday conference call to hype his showdown with Castillo (55-7-1, 44 KOs), the second-most dangerous foe he’s faced since turning pro in 1997.

“My achievements have been better than my performances in my last two fights,” he told reporters.

Those last two fights, a middling show against Luis Collazzo (UD12) in May 2005, and another UD12 against Juan Urango, featured far less of the always-getting-angles, no-reverse-gear Hatton that threatened to become a PPV attraction in 2005. The Hitman explained the reasons for the sub-scintillating showings.

“They were both southpaws, and against Collazzo I went up in weight (to 147 from 140), and Urango didn’t give much opportunity to hit. This fight against Castillo is more my type of fight, I think it’s similar to the Tszyu fight. Castillo holds his ground more. It’s the type of fight I shine in.”

Hatton, who came in to Vegas earlier on this occasion than he did in his first Vegas trip, said that he watched the Cotto/Judah scrap on the tube.

Will he and Castillo be as entertaining?

“I’d say it’ll be a better fight,” he said. “I do best against people that don’t take a backward step. Castillo and Diego Corrales had the fight of the century, and any fight that can beat that in styles, it’s me and Castillo. I want to be in a Castillo/Corrales type fight, that people will be watching years down the line.”

This line of thinking from Hatton bodes well for fans who have felt gypped by Hatton’s arc since he shocked Tszyu and the boxing world with his dedicated viciousness against the Aussie. He is thinking about his legacy, understanding full well that his days in the sport are numbered. Hatton turns 29 in October and in his weight range, with his style of fighting, he’s winding down.

To insure a versus-Tszyu level performance, Hatton spent more time in the sauna-level heat in Vegas this time, as opposed to when he met Urango, and holed up in hotels, basking in the AC. (“I’ve been roasting here, absolutely roasting,” he told an English reporter on the call). Hatton came into town five days earlier than last time, and, he reports, his brother Matt and his sparring crew tell him he’s looked sharper than ever while prepping. Hatton is also hopeful, he said, that he won’t contract a cold, as he did the week before meeting the 17-0 Colombian in January. That weakened him in the last third of his fight, he said.

Hatton expects Castillo, the Mexican who at 33 ½ is also winding it down, to be in the best shape possible mental and physical shape.

“I expect him to be training harder than ever before, because a win against me he’s headed to so many big money matchups and a loss, it may be his last chance. I’d be shellshocked if he didn’t make weight.”

Hatton doesn’t think there’s much of a chance that Castillo won’t hit the 140 pound mark, and will be defeated by the scale (as he was for the second Corrales fight, which took place even though Castillo didn’t come close to the 135 pound mark). And, he said, he doesn’t regard Castillo as the fighter who looked ordinary against 15-0 Herman Ngoudjo in January: “In the back of his mind, he might’ve thought all he had to do was show up.”

Hatton said reports that Castillo didn’t think much of his resume didn’t piss him off, and reminded callers that he handled his P4P test (Tszyu), while Castillo couldn’t ace his exams against the P4P stalwart (PBF): “Saturday, Castillo’s gonna realize I’m the real deal.”

Hatton did default to a defensive mode when asked about his lessening movement, and his lacking resume in comparison to Castillo. He thought he was Lord of the Dance-like against Urango through six rounds, he stated, and labeled a question about deteriorating movement as “strange.” But he is definitely aware that he needs not only to beat Castillo, but do it in definitive, and engaging fashion.

“The smart money’s on a twelve round war,” Hatton said, virtually promising a back-and-forth tussle, perhaps even a Fight of the Year candidate.

At this point, we can still label Hatton’s reasons for not looking stellar recently as “explanations.”

He is after all, undefeated, and likeable.

He deserves that measure of grace.

But if he loses to Castillo, or looks sluggish in a win, those “explanations” will be dismissed as “excuses.”