LAS VEGAS – If 2007 will go down as the year when boxing made a spectacular revival, then December 7 deserves its place on the list of key moments which pulled the fight game back on to the top table of world sport.
Whatever happens when Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Ricky Hatton go into battle at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Saturday, their weigh-in on Friday afternoon was an epic piece of entertainment with an atmosphere as electric as many a fight night.
Even that great entertainer Tom Jones, who will sing the British national anthem before the clash for Mayweather’s WBC welterweight crown, could not match this unscripted scene of raw emotion and pulsating anticipation.
A crowd of 6,000 for the weigh-in – around 2,000 more were locked out – generated an incredible backdrop even before the official proceedings commenced.
A tiny pocket of Mayweather followers, many of them children, were shouted down whenever they tried to raise support for the number one fighter on the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound rankings.
“You’re supposed to be at school,” chanted the Hatton Army, as the mini-Mayweathers started up a dance routine in one corner. From the outset, the English supporters were not going to leave any doubt as to who owned this arena.
It might as well have been a venue in the United Kingdom, perhaps Hatton’s hometown Manchester Evening News Arena in Manchester, such was the ferocity of support in his favor. But this crowd had something extra, a sense of increased desperation and desire spawned by having invested so much of their own time and hard-earned money into crossing the Atlantic.
Legendary announcer Michael Buffer was not foolish enough to do anything to antagonize the fervent mass of travelers, many of them clad in the soccer shirts of Manchester City.
“The last time this many Brits invaded America it was 1812,” declared Buffer, to screams of approval. “And then you burned down the goddamn White House.”
The next man to take to the stage had less fortune. The only mistake made by Bob Halloran, the director of sports at MGM, was to thank “the fans from Grand Rapids, Michigan” before he extended the same courtesy to the English crowd.
They never forgave him.
“I want to give you some information, I want to give you the odds for the fight,” pleaded Halloran, to no avail. After being bombarded with chants of: “Who are ya?,” Halloran, unable to make himself heard, admitted defeat and trudged from the stage, accompanied by sarcastic jeers. Incidentally, the odds were tumbling even as Halloran tried to speak, with the weight of the patriotic pound having driven Hatton down to +170.
Next up was a sideshow involving the combatants in what could be one of 2008’s great match-ups, Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe. The pair had already clashed angrily in the MGM media center earlier in the day, with Hopkins barking at the Welshman that he would "never lose to a white boy."
News of the encounter had filtered through to the crowd, and whereas Sugar Shane Mosley, Juan-Manuel Marquez, Marco Antonio Barrera and Oscar De La Hoya all received a respectful ovation as they were paraded on stage, "The Executioner" was greeted with a chorus of boos.
Minutes later, Calzaghe was brought out and he and Hopkins stood face-to-face before being separated. The pro-Calzaghe crowd immediately rounded on Hopkins once again, raining down taunting songs on the man from Philadelphia.
Then it was on with the real show.
First up, comically, were Mayweather’s friends from Dancing With The Stars, "Mr. Las Vegas" Wayne Newton and racing car driver Helio Castroneves, carrying in the champ’s belts.
Then came Hatton, clad in his black T-shirt and black hat, flanked by his loyal crew – trainer Billy Graham, nutritionist Kerry Kayes and his stone-faced brother Matthew.
The crowd erupted once more, drowning out Buffer as he tried to introduce Mayweather, who appeared from behind a curtain with an enormous entourage of ego-boosting cronies.
His uncle Roger, so vocal all through the lead-up to the fight, chose to button his lip on this occasion. Instead it was Mayweather’s advisor who took up the verbal assault, shouting at Hatton from across the scales.
As Hatton stripped off, cries of "Fatty's gonna get you" started up from the Brits, biting back at claims from the Mayweather camp that the challenger’s propensity to pile on weight between fights would hurt him.
Hatton stared directly down at Mayweather as he stood atop the scales, before being announced at a weight of 145 pounds, two pounds under the welterweight limit.
Mayweather is next and is right on 147 pounds, but there is no likelihood that he had trouble making the weight. His manager, Leonard Ellerbe, claims Mayweather has never gone higher than 152 at any time in his life, whether in training or not.
Next, just as following the final media conference on Wednesday, Hatton and Mayweather stood face-to-face, neither wanting to give an inch. Once again, Mayweather leaned on Hatton, with the Englishman leaning back. If left to it, both men would have stood there glaring until kingdom come – neither was prepared to concede ground.
In the end, they were pulled away, and spirited off to their respective sections of the stage.
Mayweather could not resist a final taunt, jutting out his chin and swinging wildly, mocking Hatton’s scrappy style.
Hatton may need every advantage he can get on Saturday night, and made sure his fans were pumped up to the max before heading back to his temporary headquarters in the Vegas suburbs.
Snatching the microphone, he turned to the crowd. “What can I say?, he yelled. “What can I say about a turn-out like that? Absolutely fantastic.
“I just want to ask you two questions. Who have you come to see – Floyd?
"No!" came the deafening response.
“Me?” bellowed Hatton.
"Yes!" roared the crowd.
“Who’s taking the belts?”
“Let’s (expletive) have him!”
And with that Hatton is off, down the steps, away from the arena and head first into the final preparations for the fight that could define his career.
Mayweather headed away as well, complete with gray beanie, hangers-on, and possibly, some extra motivation, fueled by the taunts and aggression shown towards him.
Of course, the posturing and pre-fight drama will all be irrelevant once the protagonists touch gloves in the ring.
To look too deeply into the mind games and mayhem of the weigh-in is a fast-track to madness. On Saturday night it will be key factors such as Mayweather’s defense and hand speed, or Hatton’s heart and stamina, that will win out.
But if the bout matches what came before it in terms of thrills and drama, then boxing fans are in for a treat.
- Ricky Hatton