Hatton finds Las Vegas stage is his calling

Ricky Hatton doesn't have to be here.

He doesn't have to be training in the Nevada desert, 5,000 miles from home and his beloved Manchester City Football Club. He doesn't have to be in the United States while his son celebrates his sixth birthday in England. He could easily be fighting in Manchester, close to family and friends, in a city where he is adored and where he could probably attract 20,000 fans to a sparring session.

Instead, he is in Sin City, preparing to wrest the IBF junior welterweight title from Juan Urango at the Paris Las Vegas casino on Saturday (HBO, 9:45 p.m. ET). Hatton said it is something he has to do if he wants to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before him, if he wants to move to the next level, from being a big fish across the pond to a star on the biggest stage of all.

"It's the pinnacle nowadays for a boxer's career," he said of fighting in Las Vegas. "To be perfectly honest, all the superstars, all the big fights are in Vegas, and I'm absolutely delighted to be here. It would break my heart if I finished my career without fighting at Madison Square Garden or on the Strip. I'm sad to leave my hometown; I love the support there, it makes me proud to be British, proud to be a Mancunian, but I'm here flying the flag."

Hatton feels "very, very proud to be able to walk down the streets of Manchester and be recognized. It's a very hard and very rare thing for a boxer." But while he is by no means leaving his city or his country behind, in England, it is "hard to be any more popular than I am already." So the next goal of his career is to replicate his success and popularity in the U.S.

"You'll never be bored out of your skull watching a Ricky Hatton fight."
-- Ricky Hatton

Hatton believes that one factor above all others gives him a good shot at doing just that.

"You'll never be bored out of your skull watching a Ricky Hatton fight," he said.

"I have a very high work rate, I never take a backward step, I take on all comers. This will be -- if I win -- my fourth world title belt in my last four fights, at two different weights. It's like my hero Roberto Duran. I'm not sitting on belts, I'm going out to win new ones."

Hatton's nonstop fighting style, in which he grinds down his opponent behind a constant fusillade of punches, has been compared to that of former WBC bantamweight champion Wayne McCullough, in whose gym Hatton is preparing for his bout against Urango. McCullough knows something about succeeding on both sides of the pond, having won Olympic silver in 1992 for Ireland before spending his entire professional career based out of Las Vegas. And he agrees that the way Hatton fights gives him a better chance than most British boxers to make it big in America.

"It's why people took to me, because I went in there to fight," McCullough said. "There's no fancy dancing around. You go in there and stand toe-to-toe and get the fight over as quick as you can. That's what Ricky does. He gets in there and he's all business. He's exciting. The Americans love that style, and I think that's why they'll take to him."

"There's no fancy dancing around. You go in there and stand toe-to-toe and get the fight over as quick as you can. That's what Ricky does. He gets in there and he's all business. He's exciting. The Americans love that style, and I think that's why they'll take to him."
-- Former bantamweight champion Wayne McCullough, on Ricky Hatton

That style wasn't always in evidence in Hatton's last contest, his first headline appearance on U.S. soil, in May last year. Having thrust himself into the international limelight with a thrilling victory over Kostya Tszyu to lift the IBF junior welterweight title in June 2005, and then added the WBA strap by stopping Carlos Maussa that November, he dropped both belts and stepped up to welterweight, to challenge little-known Luis Collazo for the WBA 147-pound crown in Boston.

Hatton started brightly enough, knocking Collazo down in the first frame, but the awkward southpaw pulled himself back into the fight, frequently frustrating the Englishman and rocking him in the final round. Hatton won the fight, and another title, but the decision, although unanimous, was controversial.

"That wasn't the real Ricky Hatton that night," Hatton confessed. "I was hyped up. It was my first fight for HBO, my first big fight in America."

In fact, he said, he had never really wanted to fight at welterweight in the first place. He had been scheduled to defend his 140-pound crown against Juan Lazcano, but when Lazcano injured his hand less than two months before the bout, Collazo emerged as a possible opponent.

"I only had seven weeks, but I liked the challenge," he said. "I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But it was all a bit rushed. Sometimes it takes two or three fights to grow into a new weight class."

As a result of the difficulties he experienced at that weight, Hatton relinquished the strap he snatched from Collazo to return to the 140-pound division, but he hasn't ruled out eventually revisiting welterweight, for a possible clash with a big name such as Miguel Cotto or Floyd Mayweather Jr.

In the meantime, there is an abundance of available opposition among the junior welters, not the least of them former lightweight champion Jose Luis Castillo, who is making his debut in the division against Herman Ngoudjo in the co-main event on Saturday night. If both Castillo and Hatton win, they are expected to meet later in the year.

For now, however, Hatton is concentrating on Urango, and on reclaiming the IBF belt that the Colombian holds.

"Yes, I do have one eye on Castillo," Hatton admitted. "But make no mistake, on Saturday night, I will have both eyes focused squarely on Mr. Urango. I will be using the prospect of a fight with Castillo as motivation, but I'm not taking Mr. Urango for granted. I've seen quite a lot of him: he's a solidly built fella, a handful to say the least. He's young and hungry. People say they don't know much about him, but they said that about me before I fought Kostya Tszyu, and we all saw how that turned out."

According to McCullough, Hatton is the same person now that he was when the two men first met in 2002, unaffected by the success he has experienced in the five years since. then

"I will be using the prospect of a fight with [Jose Luis] Castillo as motivation, but I'm not taking Mr. Urango for granted."
-- Hatton

"He still hangs out in the same pubs, hangs out with the same friends. He's just Ricky. When he's in the gym, he's joking around. He's just a down-to-earth guy."

Hatton is also, in the opinion of the man from Belfast, already "the best fighter ever, past or present, to come out of Britain. He's won belts in different divisions, he's beaten the best. And now he wants to come to America and prove himself as well. Everybody wants to make it in America, in the boxing world. Back home you can be known pretty quick. It's pretty small over there. Over here, it's a big, big place."

The enormity of it all is certainly not lost on Hatton. At times, he seems scarcely able to believe he has made it to the bright lights of boxing's biggest stage.

"It makes me very, very proud to see my name in lights on the Strip," he said. "It's fantastic. I never really had thought, you know from where I come from, boxing at the working men's clubs or social clubs in and around Manchester around the council estates, to this. It's unbelievable. And also, because I know when my family comes over and my very close friends, my boyhood friends are going to walk down the Strip and see my name up on the big screen and the flashing lights.

"It's really quite emotional, to be honest."

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He covers boxing for ESPN.com, Reuters and TigerBoxing.com.