Can Hatton bounce back from loss to Mayweather?

Ricky Hatton's legion of fans proved they'll back him through the good times and the bad. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

They returned home to Manchester, London and all points north and south by the planeload, via Chicago, Dallas, Boston and New York, and their loyalty toward Ricky Hatton was undiminished.

"The amount of people who flew over to support Ricky, that's the kind of following you take to a European Cup [soccer] final," said Darren Roper-Browning, an electrician from Manchester who made the trip to Las Vegas. "They've come from not only Manchester but Coventry, Portsmouth and all over the country; I know that if I wasn't here, somebody else would be. We'll be right behind him again the next time he steps in the ring."

It is estimated, perhaps conservatively, that more than 20,000 fans made the 12,000-mile roundtrip from Britain to witness Hatton challenge for the world welterweight title, a bid which was doomed to fail, as long as the virtuoso Floyd Mayweather was standing across from him.

Within moments of the fight's brutal conclusion, the familiar refrain echoed defiantly around the MGM Grand Garden Arena: "There's only one Ricky Hatton …" Even Hatton acknowledged that he was becoming sick of the song but one more passionate rendition, so quickly after his downfall, symbolized emphatically that, for the Brits in the crowd and in closed-circuit venues all along Las Vegas Boulevard, Hatton remains their man. A fighter's fighter. A man of the people.

Less than 24 hours later, the British public voted him third in the annual British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Sports Personality of the Year award. Fellow boxer Joe Calzaghe took first place. But in securing a third-place finish, Hatton further demonstrated that, despite suffering his first defeat in 44 contests, he retains a special place in the nation's hearts.

When Hatton addressed the gathering at his postfight party in the Hard Rock Café, he acknowledged the remarkable depth of his followers' allegiance. "I've had three fights this year in Las Vegas and over the years I watched my heroes, Naseem Hamed, Frank Bruno and Lennox Lewis, all come across here for big fights, and I've never witnessed the level of support for a British fighter that these people have given me," he declared. "It brings a tear to your eye."

There was the hint of a tear in his eye when he was interviewed by the British press and TV crews several hours later back at the MGM, the scene of his downfall. "I feel a bit of mug because I committed the cardinal sin of losing my rag, but I'll be damned if Ricky Hatton is going to finish after getting knocked out for the first time," he declared emotionally, his bottom lip trembling. "Now could you please switch off the camera before I start crying."

But there was no need for tears, regrets or apologies. In 30-year-old Mayweather, Hatton encountered a fistic phenomenon, a boxer whose sublime skill and iron will has won for him 39 successive bouts against the likes of Oscar De La Hoya, Jose Luis Castillo and Diego Corrales. He has also compiled 25 stoppage victories. Simply and brutally, he was just too good. But this is not the end for Hatton.

The 29-year-old from Manchester proved throughout his two-week stay on the Strip that, currently, he is one of the biggest stars in the sport. If Kelly Pavlik, the world middleweight champion, is lauded for persuading 5,000 fans to make the trip from Youngstown, Ohio, to Atlantic City, N.J., the scene of his triumph over Jermain Taylor, Hatton's drawing power is nothing short of a sensation. The reception, too, for Calzaghe, whose appearance at the weigh-in was acclaimed by the raucous British contingent as fervently as Hatton's, showed that another U.S. versus U.K. encounter -- in the form of pugilism's prince of Wales against the Executioner from Philadelphia, Bernard Hopkins -- would make sense financially. The traveling Brits have become as much a power to be reckoned with as the champions from their shores whom they sing about and cheer to the rafters.

But what now makes sense for Hatton? Clearly, he is no welterweight, for the added seven pounds diminishes his ability to wear down opponents with the kind of suffocating pressure that has been so effective for him at junior welterweight. From early in the fight against Mayweather, he was picked off almost with impunity by the pound-for-pound king's precise and damaging punches, though his dogged nature never allowed the Las Vegas resident the luxury of taking anything for granted.

The painful memory of how Mayweather dismantled him so clinically in the eighth and 10th rounds, however, will be difficult to shake off. Hatton was not so much beaten up badly in these rounds (and, ultimately, stopped), he was ruthlessly confronted by the reality of his own mortality in the ring for the first time. It was a cruel experience. A return to the 140-pound division will provide something of a refuge but will it be enough to insulate him from the doubts inflicted on his mind by Mayweather's mesmerizing fists?

"Ricky Hatton should not be written off because of one defeat," insisted Leonard Ellerbe, Mayweather's trusted adviser. "He brought the best out of Floyd and he did this because he can fight."

But he cannot perform at the required level as a welterweight, so the notion that he remains a viable option for De La Hoya's return to the ring next May must be dispelled forthwith. Of the main contenders in the junior welterweight division, his fellow Briton, Junior Witter, would trouble him most. An awkward switch-hitter with power in his fists, the 33-year-old from Bradford, England, relishes the showdown but remains realistic about its chances of taking place.

"If it happens, great, but I'm not building up my hopes," Witter admitted. "I didn't see Ricky beating Mayweather. I knew [Mayweather] would be too skilled, too fast, and too good for him and I predicted that he'd win on points or by a late rounds stoppage, which is exactly how it turned out."

So where does Hatton go from here? "Give me a chance, I've been up all night and I've not even had time to think about it," he said on the following morning. If there is one certainty, it is that whatever he chooses to do, his loyal fans will still be proud to march beneath his banner.

Brian Doogan covers boxing for The Sunday Times and Ring magazine.