The Imperfect Man's perfect career

The Imperfect Man's perfect career
By Bernard Fernandez/
November 30, 2007

New York Yankees righthander Don Larsen, the same Don Larsen who had gone 3-21 two years earlier with the Baltimore Orioles, had just thrown the only perfect game in World Series history, a 2-0 masterpiece against the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 8, 1956, in Game 5 of the Fall Classic.

Trying to make sense of the seemingly miraculous feat he had just witnessed, Joe Trimble of the New York Daily News struggled to find just the right words to begin his story. Dick Young came to his colleague’s rescue, typing in the seven-word opening paragraph that became one of the most famous leads in newspaper sports journalism.

“The imperfect man pitched a perfect game.”

Fast-forward 51-plus years, change the scene from Yankee Stadium to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and the same sense of disbelief can be applied to one of the two undefeated fighters who will square off eight days hence.

To paraphrase Young, who is deceased and thus unavailable to object, let’s just say that the imperfect man has pitched a perfect career.

So far.

No, the professionally flawed protagonist would not be WBC welterweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. (38-0, 24 KOs), whose physical gifts are such that he just might be nearly as good as he thinks he is. Only last week the self-obsessed “Pretty Boy Floyd” offered his opinion that while Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali were all right in their time, their skill sets were not nearly as expansive as his own. Perhaps Mayweather, whose last public engagement was an appearance on “Dancing With the Stars,” was including his ability to rhumba as well as rumble, although a case can be made that his footwork is no fancier than that exhibited by the original Sugar Ray and the inventor of the Ali Shuffle.

Put it this way: If Mayweather were to pitch a perfect game in a boxing equivalent of the World Series, it would be no more shocking than if a Sandy Koufax or a Bob Gibson were to do it. Which is to say, a surprise, maybe, but not a jaw-dropping slap to everyone’s sensibilities as was Larsen’s momentary blessing from the baseball gods.

Now consider the somewhat crooked path to this moment taken by Ricky Hatton (43-0, 31 KOs), who carries himself as the Everyman he sees himself as being, his arrival at the threshold of greatness notwithstanding. This is a guy you don’t necessarily put on a pedestal with the sports world’s deities, as one might an Ali or a Babe Ruth or a Michael Jordan or a Pele. He’s the average Joe you might run into at your friendly neighborhood pub, the good-natured, chatty one wolfing down a foot-long sandwich and washing it down with a pint or three of ale.

“There’s an honesty in my life, an honesty in the way I train and prepare for me fights,” said the pride of Manchester, England, whose only concession to vanity is a Floyd-like tendency to occasionally refer to himself in the third person. “I’d like to think Ricky Hatton is more of a whole package. My fan base likes me not just because of the way I fight, but because of the way I am … just a normal kid doing very well at what he does.”

Hatton’s guy-next-door approach is in stark contrast to Mayweather’s apparent belief that he is a superior being whose performances in the ring should inspire the sort of awe visitors to Vatican City feel when gazing up at the Sistine Chapel. Superior beings such as himself shouldn’t be expected to go through life acting, well, normal, which might explain why PBF is big on bling-bling, mansions, entourages and the obligatory fleet of luxury rides. His ego is so inflated it might not squeeze inside the Louisiana Superdome or the Sears Tower.

But it is Hatton’s primary link to the average (read: overweight) fight fan that, in part, fuels his popularity. A good many of Hatton’s supporters are like everyone else fighting the battle of the bulge, slightly lumpy men and women who daily hope and pray that Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers or the South Beach Diet can someday help them slim down into fighting trim. It is human nature to look into a mirror and see the chiseled hunk or supermodel we all believe is lurking inside us, somewhere.

When Hatton peels off an outer garment for next Friday’s official weigh-in, he’ll show off the six-pack abs of a world-class athlete. No surprise there, right? Isn’t that what you’d expect of someone ready to throw down with the world’s finest pound-for-pound fighter? Someone who, win or lose, is about to cash a $10 million paycheck?

Uh, yes. All that is true. But the Ricky Hatton who’ll be on display in the ring on Dec. 8 bears scant resemblance to the bloated version of a few months ago, the one who cheerily packs on weight between bouts like his idol and lifestyle role model, Roberto Duran.

In the current edition of ESPN The Magazine, Hatton’s deplorable eating habits are chronicled in depth. Out of training, he is, the article acknowledges, a “lardo,” a binge gorger who routinely tops out in the 180- to 185-pound range before signing a contract for another fight and another diet.

Except that it isn’t necessarily a crash diet. When it’s time to eat, drink and be merry, Hatton does that as enthusiastically as he does when it’s time to hit the gym and subject himself to another round of sweat equity. Up, down. Up, down.

All of which begs a question. Is the real freak of nature someone like, say, a Bernard Hopkins, whose birth certificate says he’s pushing 43 although he has the body of a 25-year-old Chippendale’s dancer? B-Hop claims to have not eaten a doughnut in nearly 20 years, which on the face of it is absurd unless you’re familiar with the Philadelphian’s history of self-denial and discipline in the pursuit of boxing excellence.

The polar opposite of Hopkins would be a Duran, whose appetite for all earthly pleasures knew no bounds. At press conferences to announce his upcoming fights, the “Hands of Stone” would more closely resemble a Belly of Jelly, his jowls drooping like those of a basset hound. Everyone would wonder if Duran could possibly whip himself into good enough shape to get by on fight night, but he almost always did, and he fought at or near the highest of levels for 30 years.

One of these days, when Duran passes from this mortal coil, some doctor will perform an autopsy and be amazed to find innards belonging to an alien from outer space, the kind of sci-fi movie creature that can morph into anything it cares to be, whenever it cares to be.

Even those who spent considerable time around Duran can’t believe he abused his body on such a regular basis and still fought as if he had adhered to a Hopkins-like regimen of work and more work. Some have conservatively estimated that the great Duran gained and lost at least a ton, or maybe two, during his boxing career.

“I used to tell Roberto, `Imagine how great you’d be if you didn’t have to lose so much weight all the time,’” recalled Mike Acri, who promoted Duran during the latter stages of his Hall of Fame career. “He’d just smile because, in his mind, he never was anything but great. And that was certainly true.

“Duran’s drug of choice was food. It was ridiculous sometimes. He just shoveled it down when he wasn’t in training. He barely slowed down long enough to chew.”

Now along comes Hatton, who sees himself as sort of an updated Duran, although the pale Brit’s nearly translucent skin is hardly reminiscent of the Panamanian’s jet-black hair and olive complexion.

“I don’t think I’ve heard anyone utter that particular blasphemy,” Acri said when told Hatton had compared himself, at least in part, to Duran. “There was only one Roberto Duran. He was a completely unique individual.”

But Hatton believes that if one recovering food addict can fall off the wagon at regular intervals, so can another. And he thinks he’s just the man to follow in Duran’s legendary footsteps.

“I have a lot in common with my hero,” Hatton said of the parallels between himself and Duran. “We never take a backward step. We’re very passionate, we’re very fiery characters.

“Duran’s fighting style is like mine. He was great to watch. Not only that, but we have enjoyed ourselves. A lot of people say that would affect your longevity. It certainly didn’t affect Roberto Duran’s longevity, but I suppose it can.”

Yo-yo dieting definitely can and does adversely affect athletic performance, said noted New Orleans nutritionist and physical-conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone, who has applied what he has learned about the human body to his associations with such notable fighters as Michael Spinks, Riddick Bowe, Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins. Shilstone helped bulk up Spinks, Jones and Hopkins the proper way, and he helped Bowe pare down just as sensibly.

“When I was brought into the Bowe camp by Rock Newman, it was not only to bring Bowe’s weight down, but to improve his stamina,” Shilstone said. “I started with him for the (Pierre) Coetzer fight. After that, Bowe got the chance to take Evander Holyfield’s title, and he did.

“I would have to bring Bowe down from 270 or more pounds to a fighting weight that we optimized at 235. But as we went on, and he had more difficulty taking the weight off, training camps went from six weeks to three months. It was just a bad situation.

“The bottom line is that Bowe’s metabolism had slowed down. With that sort of weight-cycling, it’s common. What this young man (Hatton) is going to experience is a self-inflicted deterioration of his metabolic rate. Where that will begin to haunt him is when he cannibalizes muscle at the expense of fat. Over a period of time, if he doesn’t correct this, it will affect his life in the future – and not just boxing. Athletes who continually weight-cycle over a period of years find it tougher and tougher to get the excess weight off.”

For Hatton, 29, that time apparently has not arrived. Perhaps it never will. Maybe, like Duran, he is the rarest of exceptions to the rule, like the smoker who puffs through four packs a day for 40 years and never contracts emphysema or lung cancer.

For some fighters – and that would include Duran, whose best days were as a lightweight – the course of least resistance is to stop trying to ride the yo-yo all the way down. Duran moved up to welterweight, then junior middleweight, then middleweight, and eventually all the way to super middleweight before he was forced to retire, at 50, after an automobile accident in 2001. James Toney, who started out as a middleweight, figured heavyweight was the best division for him because, hell, he’d never have to make weight again.

Better to be fat and good than starving and ineffective

“Weight don’t matter,” Toney said before his March 18, 2006, bout with Hasim Rahman. “Can’t nobody whip my ass. The last person to whip my ass was a doctor, 37 years ago.

“If I’m so fat and out of shape, why am I beating all these top heavyweights, these top cruiserweights? The top middleweights, back in the day? When I was playing (high school) football, I was 205 pounds. Everybody was telling me at the time that I was too short to fight at heavyweight. So I dropped all the way down (to middleweight). I had my first fight at 158 pounds.

“I struggled my whole career to maintain an unnatural weight for me. When I was middleweight champion of the world, the last week before a fight I was living on water and lettuce.”

Who knows? Maybe some day soon, we’ll see Ricky Hatton, the fleshy super middleweight. Or perhaps not. For now, all the “Hitman” knows is there’s a time to eat, and a time to beat (opponents).

“People try to insult me by calling me `Ricky Fatton,’ but what they don’t realize is that I call myself Ricky Fatton. I do put on a lot of weight in between me fights. That’s the whole reason for me putting on a Ricky Fatton T-shirt after the fight. For so many years now, critics say, `He’s put too much weight on.’ I think it was before the Kostya Tszyu fight when I put on about 40 pounds and everybody said, `He won’t last four rounds.’

“Sometimes I feel like telling them to change the record a little bit. They’ve been going on about this for the last six or seven years. During that time I’ve won four world titles in two weight divisions, had one of the longest unbeaten runs in British boxing and I’m fighting the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. Maybe it’s time to stop pointing fingers at me weight because whatever I’m doing, it’s working for me. It certainly worked for Roberto Duran.

“I always feel the need, before I start training camp, to be out of shape. I need to have a mountain to climb, so I’ll knuckle down to it. The beautiful thing about training methods is there’s no right way or wrong way. Ideally, it’d be better if I didn’t put as much weight on, but that’s the way I am. It worked for Roberto Duran, it works for me. It might not work for someone else.”

So now Hatton is in Las Vegas, land of the 24-hour-a-day, all-you-can-eat buffets, preparing for a fight in which he is an even bigger underdog than he was the night he became a superstar by making Kostya Tszyu quit on his stool.

Beat the unbeatable Mayweather? Some would say there’s only a fat chance the imperfect man can pull this off.

Really, he’d have it no other way.

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Updated on Friday, Nov 30, 2007 2:24 pm, EST

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