Thursday April 30th, 2009

In sports, there are two types of fans. There are regular fans -- a group that ranges from the tailgating, body-painting and opposition-cursing diehards, to the corporate 9-to-5'ers who knock back a couple of pints at the local bar a few hours before a game before taking their seats, donning freshly purchased jerseys. These fans are loyal. Most eat, sleep and drink their local team, and some will even pack a duffel bag on occasion and make a road trip.

Then you have the Ricky Hatton fans.

If you have never met a Hatton fan, you can't understand the magnitude of their devotion. They are a beer-guzzling, ear-splitting group of Brits who start drinking on Wednesdays of fight week and don't stop until well after the final bell rings on a Saturday.

They are devoted to the point of obsession, with their most prized accessory a white T-shirt that reads "_______ SUCKS." That way they can buy them in bulk and just fill in the name of Hatton's next opponent with a Sharpie.

Hatton fans are undeterred by anything. Anything. Seventeen months ago, Hatton was demolished in nine rounds by Floyd Mayweather Jr. As Mayweather was conducting a post-fight interview in the ring, his words were drowned out by the thousands of rabid Hatton fans who had descended on Las Vegas, who, even in defeat, were serenading their hero.

They love Hatton unconditionally because he is one of them. The fighter loves a good pint; he's famous for ballooning 20 or 30 pounds above the 140-pound junior welterweight limit, and he is often spotted at some of Britain's local watering holes.

"I'm never short to enjoy myself," said Hatton. "I mean, if you don't catch me at the bar, you'll catch me at the buffet with a chicken breast."

In fact, the only difference between Hatton and his fans is that Hatton can fight. Since 2005, the year Hatton flattened Kostya Tszyu to win the IBF title, the "Hitman" has been the undisputed king of the junior welterweight division. Challengers like Juan Lazcano, Juan Urango and Jose Luis Castillo were summarily dismissed, leaving the Mayweather loss -- which was at the 147-pound welterweight limit -- as the only real blemish on Hatton's record.

Yet, despite his record of dominance at 140 pounds, Hatton finds himself in the unusual position of being an underdog this weekend when he defends his IBO and Ring Magazine titles against Manny Pacquiao (HBO PPV, 9 p.m.) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Against Pacquiao, a lot is at stake for Britain's boxing hero. Aside from protecting his titles, the champ will have to prove his ability in fending off southpaws in a division he has dominated for four years.

"I just think that Pacquiao has underestimated me," said Hatton. "[Pacquiao's camp] thinks I struggle with southpaws. If that's their opinion, you know, don't expect me to share their enthusiasm. They think Manny's going to knock me out in three rounds.

"I think I started off against Kostya Tszyu as a 7-to-1 underdog ... I know what I'm doing and I know what I'm capable of."

And what he is capable of has grown over the last two fights. Already a fearsome brawler, Hatton has been developing his boxing skills under the tutelage of trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr., who joined Team Hatton before the Brit's fight with Paulie Malignaggi last fall. Against Malignaggi, Hatton was less a bull in a china shop and more of a boxer. His jab was crisper and his head movements (which have been non-existent for most of his career) were more fluid.

"I was trying to steamroll [opponents]," said Hatton. "[I thought], 'what are the areas I need to work on?' And the areas were my defense, my left jab, my head movement, my footwork, my combinations and my speed. And I think you saw the difference in the Malignaggi fight."

Hatton feels his natural size will work to his advantage. Pacquiao, who will be making his 140-pound debut, was lauded after jumping two weight classes to defeat Oscar De La Hoya last December.

Of course, Hatton wasn't among those offering his praises.

"I don't want to sound too disrespectful to my friend Oscar De La Hoya, but [Pacquiao] could've done the same thing hitting a punching bag that night," said Hatton. "That's not the Oscar that we've come to love over the years. Pacquiao may have had one fight at 147, but this is a new weight division for him, and I feel very, very confident because I've never lost at this weight. I've always proved too big and strong.

"I don't see it being a tickling contest. I see it being an absolute war because we're both fighters by nature."

And that's something every type fan will enjoy.

SOUND OFF: Can Hatton beat Pacquiao?

HBO VIDEO: Pacquiao's Greatest Hits

HBO VIDEO: Hatton's Greatest Hits

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