Dan Henderson be warned: Fight fans invading Manchester, England, for UFC 204 on Saturday night have a history of cheering their fighting heroes on to career-defining moments.
If history is anything to go by, Michael Bisping’s maiden world title defence against Hendo at the Manchester Arena in the small hours of Sunday morning is already a lock-in success for the Brit.
‘The Count’ can emulate the twilight successes of British boxing stars Ricky Hatton and Joe Calzaghe when he enters the Octagon in Manchester in the early hours for UFC 204’s main event.
The unusual start time – the first fight on the prelims won’t begin until after midnight local time – is to cater for the American pay-per-view audience. Yet if British fight fans have proven anything over the years it’s that they’re up for a big world title fight, whatever the time.
And the Manchester Arena is no stranger to hosting all-nighters. Ricky Hatton’s victory over then pound-for-pound great Kostya Tszyu also took place in the small hours back in 2005. That night, ‘The Hitman’ recorded far and away the greatest performance of his career in front of a raucous 20,000-strong home crowd.
Before the contest, Hatton was almost completely written off, with most American pundits giving the Mancunian no chance of usurping the long-undefeated and widely-avoided Tszyu. Over-hyped, over-protected and over-matched was the general consensus across the pond, and the bookmakers agreed, all siding with his Russian-born Australian star.
But from the opening bell it was obvious the fight wouldn’t be as one-sided as predicted. Hatton stormed out of the traps, landing some hard first-round shots and closing the distance, largely negating Tszyu’s much-feared right hand.
Throughout the fight both found sporadic success, but as it headed into the latter stages – after 3am – it was Hatton, roared on by his incredible home support, who found the extra in the gas tank.
With the final round about to begin, Tszyu – battered, bruised and behind on all three of the judges’ scorecards – retired on his stool, sending the Hatton corner and the Mancunian fans in attendance into delirium.
Speaking afterwards, Hatton remarked about the incredible atmosphere the crowd generated, despite the unsociable start time, and the energy he drew from his adoring fans. The atmosphere was celebrated.
Similarly, Welsh dragon Calzaghe, who retired undefeated as one of the greatest super-middleweights in boxing history, also featured in an early hours bout in the same Manchester arena, when he destroyed Jeff Lacy the following year in one of the most defining moments in his stellar career.
Based almost solely out of the UK throughout his run, Calzaghe was accused of ducking the best boxing had to offer. But those accusations were shattered the night the Welshman agreed to face Lacy – a fearsome, young undefeated finished who many at the time were drawing comparisons with a young Mike Tyson.
Yet, just like the Hatton fight the year before, the fans inside the arena defied the unsociable schedule – both ringwalks were well after 2am – and cooked up an intimidating atmosphere that motivated Calzaghe to arguably his best ever performance.
As chants of “Easy! Easy! Easy!” rained down from the stands, Calzaghe put on one of the great British boxing performances, as for 12 rounds the man from Newbridge used his blurring hand speed to bewilder his American opponent in a dominant, one-sided beat down.
The event proved defining in the careers of both men. Calzaghe’s reign was made legitimate and he continued his dominance for another two years before retiring with a 46-0 record. Whilst Lacy never again reached the heights of before, going 6-5 in the 11 subsequent fights that followed.
So, as Bisping prepares to face off against Henderson again this Saturday, fight fans invading the city of Manchester know what to expect and what is demanded of them. They’ve been here before – and on each occasion they generated an atmosphere fit for a champion.