Ricky Hatton calls it quits

They were there en masse, filling the lobby of the MGM Grand with their bodies and their noise. They were there to wait for the fighters: the local man, the defending champion, the best fighter in the world; and the cheeky challenger, undefeated but impudent, who had dared to travel 5,000 miles to lay his claim to the crown.

Almost to a man, they were cheering for the visitor.

Estimates vary as to exactly how many British fans descended on the desert that December week in 2007 to watch Manchester's Ricky Hatton take on Floyd Mayweather, of Las Vegas by way of Grand Rapids, Mich. The press release that officially announced Hatton's retirement from boxing Thursday cited a figure of 35,000, and that seems about right. The 16,000-capacity MGM Grand Garden Arena was full to the brim on fight night, and nary an American accent could be heard outside the press section and Mayweather's corner. The thousands of closed-circuit seats in town were sold out, as well, and there were thousands more who knew they would not see the fight either in person or on a massive screen but had come anyway, just to be part of the occasion.

There were many reasons why such a Mancunian mass of humanity made that trip. The U.S. economy had started to falter, but Britain's had not yet followed suit, making the voyage almost too cheap not to undertake. Mayweather was not only the best fighter in the world, he was the sport's newly crowned box office king, too, after his "fight to save boxing" against Oscar De La Hoya five months previously obliterated existing pay-per-view records.

But mostly they came because they loved Ricky. They weren't merely fans in the way other boxers, other athletes, have fans. They truly loved him, for reasons including, but not limited to, his in-ring performances.

They could identify with him, for a start. He was one of them. When he wasn't training, he liked to have a few drinks -- quite a few, in fact, blowing up in weight so rapidly after fights it was as if someone opened a valve and allowed air to rush into his body. It was an attitude to life that likely shortened his career, but he accepted it as part of who he was, mocking himself as "Ricky Fatton" and on occasion wearing fat suits to the ring.

That was another reason fans flocked to him -- and, candidly, why reporters enjoyed covering him. Ricky Hatton was -- is -- funny, possessed of that calm, self-deprecating wit at which the English excel. His home reportedly featured fewer photographs of other boxers than it did of Bernard Manning -- a legendarily politically incorrect Manchester comedian.

"I'm in the best shape of me life," he began at one pre-fight news conference. "Training camp went great." And then he paused. "Just once, wouldn't it be great if someone stood up here and said, 'My camp was [terrible]? I'm going to get the [feathers] knocked out of me?'" And then he, and everyone -- opponent included -- cracked up.

After his Las Vegas debut, against Juan Urango, and before his sophomore appearance against Jose Luis Castillo, he was regaling a small group of reporters with stories over breakfast. Several of them involved his upcoming opponent.

"He thinks I'm crazy, obviously, Castillo," he began. "I went and met him and Bob Arum and had a nice meal and a few drinks together. I was on a night out at the time, and my friend Paul called me and said, 'Jose's in Manchester, we're taking him for a meal,' so I said, 'I'll come and show me face, see Bob, have a couple of hours with them.' I turned up with a couple of pals. Thick parcels, couple of big meat mongers. And I said, 'Jose, do you want to come out for a drink with me?' and he took one look at me and me mates and said, 'Er, no thank you.'"

It summed up Hatton to a T: While his next opponent was in his hometown, he was tying one on, and his first instinct was to invite that same next opponent to join him on a night out.

As he explained: "I can't be dealing with fighters who slag each other off and snarl at each other. Out of respect, you have a meal with him, a few drinks with him and that. I've always said, there's no point being the best fighter the world's ever seen if everyone thinks you're a tosser. Floyd Mayweather's probably the best fighter in the world pound-for-pound, but everyone thinks he's a [jerk]. I don't want people saying, 'That Ricky Hatton, he can fight, but what a knob.'"

Friendship outside the ring did not, of course, extend to courtesy inside it.

"It's not a tickling contest, is it?" he would frequently observe of boxing, and with Hatton, it certainly wasn't. And therein lay another reason his fans adored him: Whether he won or lost, he was going to give them their money's worth. He was not, it is fair to say, the most talented man ever to lace up a pair of boxing gloves, but he was always, as the Brits put it, good for a real tear-up. Against the very best -- Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao -- at their peaks, it wasn't enough. But against everyone else, his relentless aggression proved an irresistible force, and he fought -- yes, truly fought -- his way to 45 wins in 47 contests. The night in which he overwhelmed Kostya Tszyu in front of his hometown crowd in 2005 still stands as one of the greatest occasions in British boxing history.

He struggled, as so many do, in his first couple of years out of the ring; but his reservoir of public goodwill was so deep that his fans stood by him through tabloid exposes of post-boxing waywardness. They will be there for him, too, in the future, even now that he has confirmed he will not fight again, as they cheered and sang for him when he won and even, on that magical Las Vegas night, when he lost for the first time.

Fighters come and go, champions win and lose.

But there is -- and always shall be -- only one Ricky Hatton.