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By Cliff Rold

Since the mid-1880s, when Middleweight Jack Dempsey and Heavyweight John L. Sullivan ushered in the modern era of boxing as its first true World champions, just shy of 500 fighters across thousands of fights have laid claim to true, lineal World Championships. This Saturday night two of those men, reigning champions from different divisions, face off, neither having ever suffered the proverbial ‘agony of defeat.’ In all of the 130+ years that have come before this, it’s a moment almost unlike any other before it; a moment gone nearly unnoticed leaving far too many fans uninformed of some of the great things underlying this big event.

I’ll get back to that.

For now, focus on a set of facts about three paragraphs from now that I can almost guarantee you haven’t read about.

World Junior Welterweight (140 lb.) champion Ricky Hatton (43-0, 31 KO) of Manchester, England is in a position he’s known only once before in his career. This Saturday night, under the bright lights and heavy pressure of a Las Vegas megafight, Hatton attempts to unseat reigning Welterweight (147 lb.) champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. (38-0, 24 KO) of Grand Rapids, Michigan and Hatton does so as an underdog.

A big underdog.

The last time he entered a ring expected by so many to lose, he left future Hall of Famer Kostya Tszyu sitting on his stool after eleven rounds, unwilling to finish a close and intense battle. He left as a champion. As good as Tszyu was, Mayweather figures to be that much better, consequently requiring Hatton to be that much more violent, that much more resolved.

Win and the rewards are easily evident. Ownership of one of the sports most storied titles is one reward. A chance at significantly enhanced beer tabs another.

There is another reward; an opportunity to write the name Ricky Hatton next to the names Barney Ross, Wilfred Benitez and Oscar De La Hoya. Two of those men have a bust in Canastota; the other needs only to retire to get there. What is the common thread linking those three?

They are the only reigning lineal World Jr. Welterweight champions to have crossed the seven pound bridge to the Welterweight championship of the world. They are also three of the four men that so much as tried prior to Hatton’s coming attempt. That low figure is a little bit surprising.

If Jr. Welterweight were, say, Cruiserweight; if it were a division short on history and existence, then four might make more sense. It isn’t that sort of class though. Since Pinky Mitchell and Mushy Callahan birthed the championship of this class in 1922, Jr. Welterweight has been a fairly steady fixture on the boxing landscape with only two notable gaps, 1935-1946 and 1947-1959, eliminating its claim to utter permanence.

In those years, its champions have included great fighters like Tony Canzoneri, Duilio Loi, Carlos Ortiz, Nicolino Locche, Antonio Cervantes and the aforementioned Tszyu. None ever moved up to capture the richer prize of their big-brother class.

None even tried.

There are lots of reasons to point to for a reason why. The primary one might be that the traditional depth and strength of the Welterweights has been an incentive for naturally smaller men to stay put and protect their wallets. There is also the fact that, while it has had its share of great ones, the noted class above and the one directly below, Lightweight, have almost always been the home of bigger money. Thus the stars align there, leaving 140 lbs. to men long on talent but shorter at the box office. Roberto Duran and Shane Mosley are two notable examples of dominant lightweights who chased the biggest dollar possible by skipping from 135 to 147 lbs. directly.

Whether he wins or loses, Hatton succeeds even in trying and in even getting the chance that so few have. If his fate is to become the second Junior Welter king to fail in this endeavor, he still keeps good company. After all, the one failed attempt belongs to the great Julio Cesar Chavez who was thumped en route to a ‘draw’ against then-Welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker in 1993.

Oh but to join the winners circle…

Ross was first, and it was only one part of an even greater story. With two World titles in tow, having defeated Canzoneri for both the Lightweight and Jr. Welter crowns in June 1933, Ross stepped up to face champion Jimmy McLarnin at 147 lbs. in May 1934. Ross left the ring as the first of only two men (including Henry Armstrong) who have ever held three World titles concurrently.

Like Ross, Benitez’s move up was only one piece of a perhaps more interesting tapestry. Benitez’s reign as Jr. Welterweight king began with a 1976 masterpiece against Cervantes at only seventeen years old. That’s right. At an age when most guys are trying to round third, Wilfred found himself a king. Three years later, he ended the Welterweight run of the underrated Carlos Palomino.

Then of course there was Oscar. His 1996 bludgeoning of Chavez for the title at 140 led almost directly to his contentious decision win over Pernell Whitaker at 147 in April 1997. Whitaker, even slightly past his peak, was still considered one of the world’s elite and Oscar’s narrow win ushered him past the near to clear superstar mark. Oscar’s career has had its peaks and valleys over the years, but his accomplishments in terms of legitimate titles captures are remarkable stuff and this is certainly among those accomplishments.

Hatton’s challenge is steep this weekend, but so too were the challenges faced by the men before him. History adds another pressure as well for both he and Mayweather.

As was noted here at Boxing Scene on Tuesday by the “Jake of All Trades,” Mayweather-Hatton is a rare battle between two reigning, undefeated, true World champions from two different weight classes. It’s not the first time it has happened but if my geeky research habits are on point, Jake was close.

It’s the second time.

Think about that for a moment. In all of the storied attempts by smaller men for bigger glory, from Mickey Walker-Harry Greb to Bob Foster-Joe Frazier to Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler, all carried losses into the ring with them. Those fighters all faced the sort of consistent opposition that makes this arguably a superfluous exercise, but Mayweather and Hatton have faced their fair share of more than fair foes on the road to a combined 81-0. It’s an accomplishment worth noting.

It takes a lot for fighters to make it to a moment like this without a loss, as the first time out proved when, in September 1985, then-World Light Heavyweight king Michael Spinks, at 27-0, came into the ring with 48-0 Heavyweight champ in Larry Holmes and left with the biggest prize of them all.

Some might ask why all of this matters? After all, there’s been plenty out there about the history of both Hatton and Mayweather in the weeks leading up to the fight. The reason these points are, in my mind anyways, important is because, unlike much of the background you might read, this is not inflated. This is not calling Mayweather a ‘6-time World champion in five weight classes.’

No, this is the history that actually has substance and the history more fans should be given the chance to sink their teeth into. Seriously, how many of you sit home and read stuff like ‘6 in 5’ and just giggle? Remember, of those ‘6’, three were titles that insult both the real accomplishments Mayweather has achieved and the strength of what men like Ross pulled off.

As I’ve noted in the past, Mayweather’s reigns at 130, 135 and 147 make him one of only eight men in history (along with Bob Fitzsimons, Canzoneri, Ross, Armstrong, Emile Griffith, Ray Leonard, and De La Hoya) to have laid legitimate claim to the World titles in three classes. Feel free to compare the legitimate crowns he won against Genaro Hernandez, Jose Luis Castillo and Carlos Baldomir to the purely alphabelt title wins at 140 (over Arturo Gatti for a WBC belt only weeks after Hatton beat Tszyu for the real crown), at 147 (over Zab Judah for an IBF belt while Judah’s conqueror in Judah’s previous fight, Carlos Baldomir, reigned) and at 154 (over an Oscar that almost no one regarded as the best at that weight when they faced off last May).

No real comparison is there? Asked another way, what purpose does it serve to dilute admirable feats by equating paper titles with the real thing? Oh, and yes, the same thing goes for Hatton’s WBU title at 140 and his WBA belt at 147. Neither bears the pedigree that a single win over Tszyu provided, a win that didn’t need any sanctioning body, magazine or history dork to tell anyone what it meant.

Maybe I’m just being old-fashioned, but I’ll always believe that credit for potentially joining the real ranks of Ross and Benitez or the likes of Holmes-Spinks should come way, way before conveying undue importance on the hollow accomplishments found in fights like Ray Leonard-Donny LaLonde (two alphablet titles, one fight, whoopee!) and Mayweather-Gatti.

I suspect that, given the chance to consider all options, most of you reading this believe the same thing.

The Fight: All history aside, the reason this fight has me finding so much to say is because I think it’s going to be a hell of a battle. Since his win over Tszyu, there is no fighter I’ve been more interested in seeing in the ring against Mayweather than Hatton. While there is a lot of current buzz for contender Miguel Cotto, I feel that Hatton’s rough style and unconventional attacks may be an even more daunting task for the Welterweight champ.

In fact, I’d pick Mayweather easy over Cotto. There’s nothing easy in picking Hatton-Mayweather

There are counter arguments to my anticipation and I grant that this fight could get real, real ugly. Hatton doesn’t have a career penchant for it, but he has in recent form been a clutch and maul guy rather than a punch output guy. Against Tszyu he combined both elements but we’ve seen less of that lately (and no revisionists, Tszyu was no where near shot when Hatton faced him; he was coming off the most devastating win of his career and Hatton-Tszyu was much closer than recalled).

Clutch-maul-not enough punch could again be the case against Floyd, but I doubt it. Hatton didn’t seem anywhere near as up for Carlos Maussa, Juan Urango or Luis Collazo as he did in the Tszyu fight and prior. For a pressure fighter, mentality counts and I suspect Hatton will bring a nasty game face.

Conversely, Mayweather against Baldomir and De La Hoya seemed far too content to win without entertaining. Again, I expect a reversal of course here. Hatton isn’t bigger than Mayweather and pure pressure guys like Castillo and Jesus Chavez have always made Floyd fun to watch. Hell, DeMarcus Corley had him hurt badly and that brought a beast out in Mayweather that anyone could be happy to buy a ticket to see. Hatton is going to make Mayweather fight; put another way, he’s going to make him have to do more than potshot.

So, yes, I’m going with the good-to-great fight prediction over the ‘uugh’ reaction.

Hatton brings two things to the table that give him a good chance: deceptively fast feet and the ability to use his short arms to throw compact shots. Mayweather isn’t going to have to look to land on Hatton, but Hatton has shown a solid chin in the past and looks to be in fantastic shape. Combine that with his tenacity and work rate and he’s likely to land more against Floyd than any of his previous foes.

Can Hatton land enough to win is the big question, caveated by the question of whether Mayweather would lose a decision at all given his current economic strength and relative home field advantage. I suspect not, though I give Hatton a great chance. If not for the epic foolishness I felt in watching my pick of Carlos Baldomir over Floyd Mayweather evaporate like a raindrop on the sun, I might be prone to pick the upset. Instead, I’m staying safe and going with Mayweather by narrow, perhaps even controversial majority decision in a fight that has the world screaming rematch. Don’t be surprised by a violently argued draw either.

Either way, this fight is, in this observer’s eyes, everything that can be good about Boxing.
 
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