Getting knocked out, even when one is an elite, beloved, undefeated fighter who merely ran into the best fighter alive, is no fun. We know this all the more intimately today thanks to the post-KO emotional trauma of Ricky Hatton, who is colorful, charming and confessional in addition to his having been a consensus top-10 pound-for-pound boxer before December. That’s when his face met the mitts of the #1 pound-for-pound boxer Floyd Mayweather, Jr., whereupon, shortly thereafter, Hatton’s face got acquainted with the ring mat. Since then, Hatton’s mouth has (reportedly) met alcohol to a shocking degree, as he drowned his sorrows over four days in Spain on a New Year’s vacation to the tune of “57 pints, 17 vodka and Red Bulls, four vodkas, three whisky chasers, and a bottle of Moet champagne.” His mouth has also acquainted us with the deep misery he endured after his cloak of invincibility was resoundingly removed by Mayweather; as he said not long after the loss: ÄúI feel like a woman at the minute, I canÄôt stop crying. All thatÄôs missing is a pair of tits. ItÄôs going to take a while for me to get my head round [losing].”
How Hatton rebounds from seeing his enormous self-belief crushed by the pure superiority of another man is the most intriguing storyline of this Saturday’s junior welterweight (140 lbs.) double-header between Hatton and Juan Lazcano, and the rematch between Paulie Malignaggi and Lovemore Ndou. There are other storylines, some related, some not. Unrelated: The double-header, while a tune-up for Hatton and a bit of ugly boxing politics for Malignaggi, is ultimately intended to set up a bout between Hatton and Malignaggi, probably the division’s second best fighter behind Hatton, and that’s an intriguing bout in its own right. Related: If Hatton sweeps Lazcano and Malignaggi, his next likely bout is a quixotic rematch with Mayweather. Also related: Lazcano’s no pushover, although the sharp version of Hatton — the one who was the Ring magazine Fighter of the Year in 2005, maybe even the one who destroyed a shopworn Jose Luis Castillo in 2007 — beats him easy… but a mentally damaged Hatton, and/or a physically damaged Hatton — either from the knockout or the drinking rout or the sickness that limited his training for a time — could spell “upset potential,” and that’s a pretty intriguing storyline, too.
Those storylines come to fruition Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. and throughout the day courtesy Versus network. That’s a good thing. It means legitimately high-level boxers in Hatton and Malignaggi are plying their wares somewhere other than HBO or Showtime, as something of a test case to see whether regular cable can support such a thing, because for all their occasionally nice cards, Versus and ESPN to this point have been as good as it gets for cable boxing, and that ain’t good.
Let’s get acquainted with the contestants:
MALIGNAGGI – NDOU
I’m a defender of Malignaggi even though some people jumped off the bandwagon after his near-disaster against Herman Ngoudjo to start 2008. I started distinctly off the bandwagon, because I thought he was an annoying pretty boy, down to the cheesy ultra-gelled Jersey dude poofy hair (he’s actually from Brooklyn), all talk and no pop. Sure, he had boxing skill and speed, but prior to 2006, he’d fought no one of consequence and had an abysmal knockout record. I’m all for the sweet science; still, even I like to see a little bit of power-punching every now and then. So, you know — not fun to watch, brash beyond what he deserved, etc.
What happened next offered a model for Hatton’s rebound, at least up to a point. Malignaggi finally fought somebody. That somebody was Miguel Cotto, a wrecking ball of a puncher who, because he was the more established fighter, got to pick himself a nice small ring to keep Malignaggi from skipping away from him. Cotto went to his ruthless work with abandon, literally breaking Malignaggi’s face — specifically, his orbital bone — and you know what? Malignaggi never backed down for a second. Even won some rounds. He was humble in loss, humanized. He apparently was depressed in suffering his first defeat, like Hatton. But before long, he got himself back in position for another big fight. He landed a shot at the title belt of Lovemore Ndou and delivered the performance of his life, winning rave reviews for a display of pure boxing that was just gorgeous. Malignaggi, for all his lack of punching power, is still an offensive fighter, primarily, and he accumulated so much offense he even managed to knock Ndou down. With this comeback tale, Malignaggi become a mildly heroic figure, and his mouthiness, fully restored, suddenly became a source of entertainment for me more than disdain. And yeah, his gelled hair is still annoying, but he’s commonly shaped it since in the form of a mohawk or dyed it blue or both, which is infinitely more tolerable.
But like I said: Up to a point, does Malignaggi offer a model for Hatton. In Malignaggi’s next fight, he did not look on his game at all. Some of that had to do with his clever opponent and his clever opponent’s clever trainer, Herman Ngoudjo and Howard Grant. They mixed up a lot of different looks at Malignaggi, who, for all his skill, is still learning in the ring. It wasn’t a good title defense for Paulie. Many thought he lost that fight, although the judges didn’t. (Nor did I, but it was awfully close.) Ndou somehow finagled his way back into a rematch, combining with the Ngoudjo incident to put a crimp in Malignaggi’s ambition to fight and beat the best. Fortunately for him, he’s already beaten Ndou soundly once. Fortunately for him, Hatton needed to rebuild his rep a little and wasn’t going to fight Malignaggi next anyhow. So this card gives both Hatton and Malignaggi a chance to prove they deserve one another, and that they deserve our attention once they get each other.
Ndou’s tough, but that’s about it. He’s physically strong, likes to make matters ugly, can punch a little but he’s no Mike Tyson. He theoretically could give Malignaggi some trouble if all the stars align — maybe Malignaggi is looking too far ahead to Hatton, maybe Ndou learns from the Ngoudjo fight, maybe the third time’s the charm for Malignaggi opponents whose names start with an “N” and are followed immediately by another consonant, I dunno. Suffice it to say this bout is only interesting if it’s an upset — and it would be a shocking upset — and to see if Malignaggi has returned to form enough to be worthy of Hatton.
My prediction: Malignaggi, by near-shutout on all the judge’s scorecards. Malignaggi is simply way too good for Ndou. He’s faster, smarter, more skilled in every way, with only punching power separating the two. I could see a different ref helping Ndou a little, since the previous ref kept Ndou from mauling. A little. So, I expect it to be a tiny bit closer than the previous bout.
Confidence: 90%. I’ve explained what hope Ndou has. I wouldn’t count on it.
My allegiance: Malignaggi, totally. I like Malignaggi, clearly, but Ndou is delusional in claiming his loss to Malignaggi was a “daylight robbery.” Man up like Malignaggi did, buddy. Beat him in the rematch, and you’re still in a hole with me for thinking the judges “stole” that fight from you.
HATTON – LAZCANO
Hatton has been a little delusional, but then, he’s not in a hole with me, because I’ve always liked his personality; he comes across like an old chum from the local pub. Hatton’s delusion is that he could’ve beaten Mayweather if only the ref hadn’t been so hard on him. Hey, I do think that was a factor. Would a different ref have resulted in a different outcome, though? Only in Ricky’s dreams, or in the dreams of his loyal, multitudinous soccer hooligan-style fans, whose devotion to singing “Walking In a Hatton Wonderland” I hope has come to an end. (Even Hatton admitted he was sick of the tune.)
You can make a case that Hatton, swelling up in weight so prolifically like he does between fights and unduly stressing his body, has worsened his own standing among boxing’s elite. Sometimes, like in the times when he is sharp that I mentioned above, he looks like he still belongs among the world’s best. Sure, Castillo was not the same fighter in 2007 that he was before. It’s easy to forget that before Hatton was creamed by Mayweather, earlier in the year he’d looked magnificent steamrolling Castillo. For that fight, he was a junior welterweight, seven pounds below the welterweight limit at which he fought Mayweather and is woefully ill-suited. A determined Hatton, at his proper weight, is a nightmare of an opponent: Constant pressure, underrated skill, tons of rough stuff on the inside, and enough speed and power to hang with most any opponent.
I look at Hatton-Lazcano and think Hatton has every in-ring advantage there is. Lazcano’s a heck of a body puncher, as he proved in his near upset of Vivian Harris last year. Hatton’s better. Lazcano’s not over the hill by any means at 33. Hatton’s younger — 29 — and despite not fighting since December, isn’t coming off a 15-month layoff like Lazcano. Lazcano got pounded by Castillo. Castillo got pounded by Hatton. Really, the only pluses for Lazcano are that he’s taller and has a longer reach — 5’9″ and 72″ to Hatton’s 5’6″ and 65″ — and he has a way better nickname — “The Hispanic Causing Panic” to Hatton’s “Hitman.”
What makes Lazcano a difficult opponent is that he has the kind of toughness that can infuriate an opponent who’s better on paper. He did just that to Harris, when Harris had everything going for him in that fight. Lazcano is expected to lose. What he almost certainly won’t do is get knocked out or quit. That’s where Hatton’s conditioning and mindset come into huge play. Certainly he’s not the erratic talent Harris is. Either way, though, Hatton’s probably going to have to grind it out with Lazcano. That’s when we find out whether Hatton is doomed to the fate that he has said he hopes to avoid, that of fellow Brit Naseem Hamed, who suffered his first loss and never got back to where he was.
My prediction: Hatton, by clear but difficult decision. One way or the other, I think Hatton pulls out the win. I’d rather it be in sensational, 2005-vintage Hatton fashion, all commotion and electricity. My fear is it will be in 2007-vs. Juan Urango fashion, where Hatton finds himself in with a tougher-than-expected foe and resorts to ugly hit-and-hold nonsense, doing the bare minimum he has to do to escape with a victory. I’m also inclined to think that what Hatton is going through is not much different than what any other boxer in his position would go through, it’s just that 1. he’s more open and candid with the press than most and 2. he’s a helluva drinker. Some bounce back, and some don’t. I think he does, at least far enough to beat Lazcano.
Confidence: 60%. Hatton deserves to be the favorite, for sure. What concerns me is that, when I think about this fight, images of Hatton crumbling because he’s mentally and physically diminished fill my head. I’m going with the intellect, not the gut, on this one.
My allegiance: I can’t not like Hatton. Certainly he’s not rewarded me in the ring sometimes, because he can be thrilling one fight and a bore the next. I just like Hatton, the person. Lazcano made a fan of me with the way he stood up to Harris. It’s only that Hatton’s made me more of one.