Friday, February 9, 2007

COMING TO AMERICA


The Beatles in 1964 and The Rolling Stones in 1965. Featherweight champion Barry McGuigan in 1986. They were all hometown and national heroes. They sold out their own local arenas and big-city stadiums. But, until they made it here they hadn’t made it anywhere. Now, Ricky Hatton is looking to conquer America and make his name on this side of the pond in this latest UK Invasion.

Following in the footsteps of the many that came to the shores of America before him, Manchester, England’s favorite son, Ricky Hatton will fight his first big bout in America on May 13th at the TD Banknorth Garden in Boston, Mass.

Hatton is the IBF and WBA Champion at 140 pounds and he has a glistening professional record of 40-0 (30)KO. Coming off spectacular stoppage wins over Kostya Tszyu and Carlos Maussa, Hatton was named 2005 “Fighter of the Year” by “The Ring” magazine, so to say he is riding high would be an understatement. Hatton is eager to test his mettle against the best America will have to offer him and fight fans here in the states are excited to see if he is the real thing.

Ricky Hatton is now here in the states firming the deal for his next opponent and negotiating television contracts. When asked what fighting here in America means to him, Hatton said, “My main goal at the minute is to fight in the states. Vegas, Madison Square Garden, these are things that I’ve always dreamed of. Nobody has seen me fight live in the states in the flesh yet. Let people see what Ricky Hatton is all about live…live and in action.”

When Ireland’s Barry McGuigan came to America in 1986 he was riding the crest of a similar wave. McGuigan was extremely popular throughout Ireland and on the nights that he fought the warring factions of Catholics and Protestants in the country came together as one. Barry would enter the ring to the sound of his father’s loving voice singing the Irish ballad, “Danny Boy”. Once the partisan crowd got going it was the roaring chants of “Here we go, here we go, here we go!”

McGuigan had won the WBA featherweight title from the long reigning champion Eusebio Pedroza of Panama in June 1985. A year later the pressure was on for him to come to America and show American fans who he really was. Fight manager Barney Eastwood guided McGuigan’s career and he made it no secret that he never wanted McGuigan to come to America. In fact, even McGuigan himself was reluctant to fight in the United States.

In 1986 Eastwood remarked, “I have never been in favor of coming to the United States. Barry has done so much good for the local community, both north and south. He brings both sides together, even if it’s only for one night. In a way, it’s a pity to move him on. In fact, if it wasn’t for a cutback in American TV money, there would have been no reason not to stay.”

By June 1986 the stage was set for McGuigan to defend his title and make himself known in America against Argentine featherweight champion Fernando Sosa. “My goal is to be the most popular fighter in America” McGuigan said.

The fight was part of Bob Arum’s “Triple Hitter” card at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas that featured Thomas Hearns vs. Mark Medal and Roberto Duran vs. Robbie Sims. Sosa was expected to be a soft touch for McGuigan and it was thought that this would be a great match-up in which to showcase the young lad from Ireland. However, Sosa had to pull out of the fight because it was discovered that he was suffering from two detached retinas that ended his boxing career. In stepped what was thought to be another relatively safe opponent named Stevie Cruz.

A young, unknown fighter from Fort Worth, Texas, Cruz worked as a plumber’s helper and entered the fight against McGuigan as a 4-1 underdog. Like Hatton, McGuigan had fought once in the United States before coming back to make a big splash as champion. Eastwood describes the effect that fighting away from home that first time had on McGuigan; “When Barry came to the United States to fight in 1983, he got very homesick. He was OK for the first 10 or 12 days, but then he got very lonely. I could see it coming on. He’s just a wee, country boy, you know. He missed the green grass and the countryside.”

Despite training for a month in the heat of the Palm Springs, California desert, McGuigan’s Irish body never adapted to the extremely high temperatures that the desert brings. The bout against Stevie Cruz was held outside in Las Vegas in June and the thermometer readings were in the110 degree range. Three thousand Irishmen came over to support their hero at Caesars Palace but it was no use. The heat was the real villain for McGuigan and for that he had no answer. In what was voted the fight of the year by “The Ring” magazine, McGuigan and Cruz engaged in a toe-to-toe war in what was one of the most action packed featherweight title bouts in history. Ultimately, however, McGuigan was ravaged by Stevie Cruz’ punches and the oppressive heat. Cruz dropped Barry once in the 10th round and twice in the 15th and McGuigan lost a unanimous decision as well as his title.

Taken from the stadium in an ambulance, a vomiting and visibly ill McGuigan spent the night in a Las Vegas hospital suffering from severe dehydration and heat prostration. Nobody knew it then, but Barry McGuigan’s career essentially ended that night on the Las Vegas strip. McGuigan never got back on track from the disaster against Stevie Cruz and never again fought in a world title fight or in the United States. It was a fight that was supposed to mark a new beginning for McGuigan and showcase him in America, but what it really marked was the end. Barry McGuigan would only fight four more times in the next three years losing his final bout at age twenty-nine.

Fast-forward twenty years and Manchester, England’s Ricky Hatton is perhaps the most sought after fighter in the sport of boxing. Hatton has regularly sold out the Manchester Evening News Arena in his hometown and his bouts there are spectacles not be missed. Hatton enters the ring to the song “Blue Moon” and thousands of his fans sing along in unison as he makes his way into the ring.

Hatton is an electric performer who is all action and his bouts are lively affairs with lots of aggression, wild swinging, drama and sometimes blood. Before signing promotional contracts with Dennis Hobson and Artie Pellulo, half a dozen of the world’s top boxing promoters were chasing after Hatton in order to have the opportunity to promote his fights. Both HBO and Showtime television networks here in the United States are still vying for the chance to televise his future bouts.

Hatton has always said that he wants to headline in Las Vegas and see his name and likeness on the strip in Las Vegas, “That’s the days you dream of really. To see my name up in lights on the strip of Vegas and you know, topping the bill at Madison Square Garden. I always had confidence in myself but I never, ever dreamed I’d get to this stage and now I’m here and that’s the next goal.”

Barry McGuigan knows very well the challenges that America will bring. During the last few years, Hatton has found himself a friend in Barry McGuigan. In his role as an elder statesman and commentator in Great Britain, McGuigan has offered Hatton both advice and encouragement as the young Hatton’s career has progressed.

McGuigan was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June 2005 and he spoke fondly of Hatton. “He’s a lovely young lad, very humble, funny and approachable. I know it's a cliché, but it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. He's just a smashing kid, simple as that. He's a real throwback and it’s because he’s such a nice guy that he generates such incredible support. I am absolutely delighted for the kid. Ricky has that appeal, right across the board. Fight fans love him, people on the fringes of boxing love him, and the British public loves him too.”

America is ready for Ricky Hatton. Is Ricky Hatton ready for America?

February 2006

1 comment:

John S. said...

You can hear a wonderful musical account of that McGuigan-Cruz 1986 fight on the Hacienda Brothers second album, "What's Wrong with Right" - the song is written and sung (lead singer, ex-Golden Glove boxer) Chris Gaffney. Great song, great singer, great fight.