MANCHESTER, England -- The end is in sight now for Ricky Hatton. The question is whether he will leave the ring on his own terms.
Juan Lazcano, "The Hispanic Causing Panic," caused world junior welterweight champion Hatton more problems than the scorecards rendered by three ringside judges suggested.
The winning margins were convincing enough: 120-110, 118-110 and 120-108. But the 29-year-old Hitman from Manchester experienced several perilous moments, in particular during the eighth and 10th rounds, and his general disdain for defense made the 12-round bout much tougher than it ought to have been.
He received a raucous welcome from a 57,000-strong crowd at the City of Manchester Stadium, a post-World War II record for a boxing match in Britain, and the fat man suit that he wore in the first part of his ring walk was a clear demonstration of his determination to prove his doubters wrong.
Ronnie Shields, Lazcano's trainer, had summed up these doubts well on the eve of the fight.
"He lives a bad lifestyle for a fighter," Shields said, referring to Hatton's habit of drinking between fights and his wild weight swings. "I had Hatton ahead after six rounds [against Floyd Mayweather] but then he started getting hit more and more and that was down to the simple reason of his lifestyle."
This was Hatton's first appearance since the devastating knockout defeat he suffered at Mayweather's brilliant hands five months ago, and his performance was not convincing.
Certainly, he did well when he boxed and controlled the range, utilizing his jab and dominating a lot of the early exchanges. But as the fight wore on and stamina became an issue, his boxing became ragged and the frequency with which he walked onto well-timed counterpunches by the 33-year-old California-based Mexican was alarming.
In the eighth round -- after he had slipped in the center of the ring, albeit having walked into a left hand to the jaw -- Hatton tried to finish the fight. Instead, he absorbed a left hook to the chin and lost control of his legs completely, taking on the appearance of a drunk trying to negotiate his way home along a narrow sidewalk.
Admirably, he came through his sudden disorientation and he also negotiated his way through another minefield in Round 10, when Lazcano's punches had him in trouble again.
"I knew where I was but he was able to catch me when I should have been listening to my trainer, Billy Graham, who told me just to box because I was way ahead on points," Hatton said. "But that's my style. I take risks, I'm a fighter and this is why the stadium was filled by so many people here tonight. They all knew that they would see a fight. The frustrating thing for me was that I felt I hurt Lazcano in every round. But I just couldn't put him away."
Despite the fact that he won clearly, serious questions were being asked afterward about whether or not the defeat by Mayweather, Hatton's only setback in 45 fights, has precipitated a terminal decline.
The nicks and bruising which appeared to cover Hatton's face at the postfight news conference were a clear indication of all the punishment he sustained.
"Ricky Hatton showed the kind of fighter he is and also the kind of man he is," said Oscar De La Hoya, whose Golden Boy Promotions will reintroduce Hatton to America against Paulie Malignaggi in the fall. "He has serious drawing power because he's a man of the people who fights with his heart on his sleeve and boxing fans respect him for this. In America, too, he is still a very marketable commodity."
The bout against Malignaggi, who retained the IBF junior welterweight title against Lovemore N'dou by a controversial split decision on the undercard, is expected to take place at either Madison Square Garden in New York or at a venue in Las Vegas.
Malignaggi was distinctly unimpressive throughout the 12 rounds. The fact that the brash New Yorker's hair kept getting into his eyes in the early rounds, necessitating a quick cut in the middle of the fight, did not help his cause. His punching was mediocre at best.
His slick movement, however, may cause Hatton problems.
"Neither of us impressed tonight," Malignaggi said. "But we will both be better when we get it on in October or November."
Perhaps, but maybe Hatton left too much of himself in the ring against Mayweather last December or maybe, as Shields suggested, his lifestyle has caught up with him after all.
Brian Doogan covers boxing for The Sunday Times and Ring magazine.