Beatdown of Hatton lifts Pacquiao into pantheon of all-time greats

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The Hitman had already become the hit man early in Saturday's junior welterweight title defense against Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas, twice getting knocked down in the first three minutes. But the coup de grace came late in the second round when an unseen left-handed missile caught Hatton's jaw and sent him crashing to the canvas, where he spent the next three minutes motionless while the Filipino diaspora exulted and thousands of traveling Britons wept in their pints.

It was a clinical finish, a hook devastating in its force, speed and precision, a shocking demonstration of power from a man who made his pro debut at a slight 108 pounds.

In his most recent outing, Pacquiao famously ended the career of Oscar De La Hoya with a brutal ninth-round stoppage. With Saturday's lopsided performance, the 30-year-old southpaw may have similarly ordered Hatton -- who hadn't previously lost a fight at 140 pounds -- to a premature retirement.

He never saw it coming.

Pacquiao entered the ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena as the finest pound-for-pound fighter in boxing today. He climbed out of it just 20 minutes later as one of the sport's undisputed all-time greats, having secured the lineal crown in a fourth different weight class and validated the floating comparisons to Henry Armstrong, "Sugar" Ray Robinson and Alexis Arguello -- other fighters who stamped their greatness across multiple divisions.

Pac-Man spent the evening peppering the ill-prepared Hatton with blinding combinations of punches from every angle, making himself an elusive target while constantly blurring the line between offense and defense. Hatton resembled for most of the fight a man in a dark room looking for the light switch.

Among those on the premises unsurprised by the outcome was Pacquiao's trainer, the sage Freddie Roach, who predicted a third-round knockout during training camp.

"Every time Ricky throws his left hand, he pulls it back, he cocks it, and he's wide open for a short right hook on the inside from a southpaw stance," Roach explained to HBO's Larry Merchant in the minutes following the violent denouement. "We worked on that every day in the gym -- the timing shot -- and it just worked beautiful."

The oddsmakers rated Pacquiao a 2-to-5 favorite entering Saturday's bout, which may not have reflected his healthy consensus in the court of public opinion. Everyone, it seemed, liked Manny. Hatton even opted to enter the ring first, the role typically reserved for the challenger; it was Pacquiao's mythical pound-for-pound championship at stake, Hatton reasoned, more than his own junior welterweight crown.

Indeed, the result itself was no surprise. But even Pacquiao's most optimistic supporters couldn't have foreseen such a swift and awesome destruction of an opponent renowned for his blue-collar tenacity.

We consequently start to get the sense there something perhaps supernatural at play here, as the myth of Manny Pacquiao continues to take an Ali-type hold on the global consciousness. Earlier in the week, Time named Pacquiao to its annual list of the world's 100 most influential people. "[H]e's almost like a god," wrote Lennox Lewis as a tribute in the magazine. "The people have rallied behind him and feel like they're a part of him, because they can see his talent, his dedication, his grace and his class." We witness a performance like Saturday's and we start to ask ourselves if there's any challenge out there too steep for the Pambansang Kamao -- or National Fist -- of the Philippines. He's already won titles in six different weight classes since making his debut at junior flyweight. What could be next?

One possibility is a dream match with Floyd Mayweather Jr., the former pound-for-pound king who announced his return to the ring -- perhaps not coincidentally -- just hours before Saturday's bout. Mayweather, who's never lost a paying fight, is scheduled to meet undisputed lightweight champion Juan Manuel Marquez at a catch weight of 144 pounds on July 18. Should Mayweather get past Marquez, a lucrative showdown with Pacquiao could be the fight of the year -- so long as both parties can agree to terms.

Sure, the cash-strapped Mayweather could try for an easier challenge. But there's only one Manny Pacquiao. Just ask the hit man.