Ricky Hatton sits back on his heels and postures up inside the guard of UFC lightweight Paul Sass and for just a second we get a glimpse of what might have been had Hatton’s fighting career taken a different route.
He and Sass would have been in different weight classes of course, but the image of him posturing up and getting ready to deliver a ground ‘n’ pound barrage is a tantalizing one. Like all the best-loved fighters, Hatton always went in there looking for the finish and you know that if he had gone into MMA and had gotten into a position like this inside someone’s guard, they would be in for a hell of a time.
But today is only a training session and Hatton, master boxer and former world champion, is a novice when it comes to the world of the mat. Sass is the opposite; a prodigious grappler, he holds the world record for consecutive triangle submissions wins in mixed martial arts and freely confesses that he always wants the fight on the floor. This is a colliding of worlds; The Hitman and The Strangler.
Sass has already demonstrated his trademark technique on a training partner while a bemused Hatton tried to take the step-by-step instructions in. He looked baffled, but willingly dived into Sass’ guard to feel the effects of a deep triangle choke himself. It didn’t take long before his hand was pounding the mat in submission and he was diving upwards for air like a drowning man breaking surface.
“Bloody hell!” he exclaims, surveying the gathered reporters as if expecting to find them too gasping for air. “I tell you what, you can really feel that when he starts pulling down on the back of your head. I felt like my head was going to explode. That could be lethal that. I think I’ll stick to the boxing, you’ve only got to worry about his hands.”
Then its Hatton’s turn; he goes to his back - the first time he has ever willingly done so in a fighting ring - and pulls guard. Sass talks him through the stages of a triangle but to be fair, Hatton is doing well without him and is keeping one step ahead. In particular he manages to remember and execute the crucial detail of changing angle so he makes a T-junction with Sass and is able to ‘look down the ear’, as veteran coaches advise. A bit of maneuvering for tightness and the triangle is locked in deep enough for Sass to give him the tap.
Hatton laughs as he breaks the hold but the few BJJ cognoscenti present - Sass among them - are suitably impressed. One reporter asks if that was literally the first time Hatton has ever tried that and Hatton confirms that it is; Sass deems it a very impressive attempt for a total beginner and (in my own humble opinion) I agree. He threw the stages together pretty well after seeing no more than two or three demonstrations. Again it makes you wonder what might have been.
Instead, earlier in the day, we got a show of what once was. Hatton’s ferocity as a body puncher is legendary and he has passed that on to the fighters he works with, including 20-year-old Ryan Burnett of Belfast, who was the world’s number one flyweight while competing as an amateur with 94 wins out of nearly 100 contests. The pair of them are absolutely flying as the padwork rounds tick on. There are plenty of meaty body hooks mixed in but Hatton makes a point of telling Fighters Only that he deliberately isn’t trying to pass on his actual style to fighters he works with.
“Boxing is the art of hitting without getting hit and I think sometimes I forgot that,” he grins. “I would just keep moving forward and hiting him, trying to hurt him. But with my fighters now I don’t want them to do that, I don’t want them to take damage they don’t need to take. People are surprised when they see me working with them, I have them doing a lot of slipping and moving in the padwork.”
Is he trying to produce some Floyd Mayweathers of his own? Hatton shrugs, as if to say ‘maybe’. Talk of Mayweather brings fulsome praise from the Manchester man, despite the American being the first fighter ever to knock him out. It was the subsequent loss to Pacquiao that prompted Hatton’s initial retirement, but it seems that Mayweather is the one who has made the most impression on him.
“He had some lovely tricks, really good at finding space. Like this,” he says, showing something to Sass. He has the Liverpudlian hit a left hook to the liver. Hatton crouches to his right, arm pressed against his body and elbow blocking Sass’ punch. “Now stay there, freeze there,” he says before sketching a right uppercut. “See all that space there? He would block the body shot like this, crouching into it, and then use all that space there to come back with a right uppercut. Really good shot.”
Its just one of several tricks that Sass has passed on to him. One look at his face makes it clear he is drinking it all in; fighters of every martial arts discipline have a real respect for the precision and power of top-flight boxing and Sass is no exception. His skepticism at the start of the session - when Hatton was trying to tap him on the head with a foam mallet during shadowboxing - has been replaced by wide-eyed enthusiasm.
We are upstairs at Hatton Health and Fitness, a state of the art leisure and fitness centre in Hyde, Manchester, in the private boxing gymnasium used by Team Hatton fighters. There are two rings, with multiple bags and assorted weights lined up along the walls. Reporters from all the UK’s major news outlets are here, including literary - and literal - heavyweight Gareth A. Davies of the Daily Telegraph. Mixed among them are some Team Hatton personnel and one of them, a boxing coach himself, observes that Sass is standing “very square on”.
Hatton immediately picks up on the reason why. “Its because he has to protect against kicks. He has to stand like that because of the kicking, you can’t stand in a regular boxing stance. There’s a lot of difference I suppose in how you have to fight in the UFC. I like combination punching but I suppose if you stand in front of someone too long, it means he has time to get his arms round you and get a takedown or something.”
Having proffered this analysis, Hatton decides that single shots and certain counters are the way to go for the four-ounce glove game. Sass seems particularly taken with a left-hook counter to the single or double jab. He also gets a couple of pointers on power-generation and soon he is banging a right body-hook into the pad with such noise that Hatton begins nodding in approval. One of the other padmen offers an in-depth technical breakdown: “He hits f--king hard with those long arms.”
The boxing personnel - who have produced, fought and watched more world champions than most of us have ever heard of - are unanimous in decreeing that Sass is ‘compact’. This means that he “keeps his arms in and his chin down, he isn’t throwing wide or loose. That’s important in a fighter, it means you’re not leaving yourself wide open. Some of these MMA guys just get in there and start swinging wild.”
That may be true - you don’t have to look far on the forums to find MMA fans decrying their own sport’s shortcomings - but Hatton has an opinion that puts him at risk of being branded a traitor by the boxing community. “You can’t just get in there with these,” he says, raising his hands. “There’s too much going on, you need to know everything. We’ve seen boxers try it and they’ve not succeeded, it goes to show there is much more involved.”
In fact, Hatton is a big fan of the UFC and freely declares it. This is in stark contrast to the views of boxing’s old guard, who perceive the UFC and mixed martial arts as a threat to be either combated or ignored in the hope that it will go away. Hatton also sees it as a potential threat to boxing, but thinks that the correct response is not hostility but rather an open mind.
“There’s a lot that boxing can learn from the UFC. A lot. You go to the shows and its pure entertainment from start to finish. Before the fights they’ve got these videos up, big screens, they play interviews with the fighters and show their records and all these statistics. Its really good; a lot of the time in boxing you will get two guys coming to the ring and you don’t know who they are or where they are from, the crowd aren’t interested. The UFC don’t do that, they give you the story,” he says.
Hatton is in the promoter’s game himself now; does he see himself installing big screens and having fighters introduced by way of background stories and relevant statistics?
“Definitely. Boxing has to learn from how they do things because its definitely the way ahead. I was at this awards thing last week giving out an award, the [Fighters Only] World MMA Awards, and if you compare that to the British Board of Boxing Control Awards every year… well, there’s no comparison. Different level, different class. It was really, really good and I was very proud to be part of it. I think these are the kind of things that boxing can learn from.”
And while that quest goes on, what does Hatton see in his immediate future?
A self-confessed UFC fan, he seemed to have fun with today’s jiu-jitsu lesson. Does he envision himself taking up the gentle art and finding a new challenge in the manner of former would champion boxer Lou Dibella . “You know what, it intrigues me, it does. I wasn’t into it at all at first but the more I watch it, the more it intrigues me. But you won’t catch me getting in the ring with one of these guys; no chance!”
Picture by Roberta Casalino