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Britain's beloved champion of the people

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MANCHESTER, England – Whether Ricky Hatton returns to this northern English city next week with the title of best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, or the first loss on his 44-fight record, one crucial showdown will remain on his schedule.

Like he does after every one of his fights, Hatton will congregate at the New Inn pub in Hattersley with a group of friends for a "(crap)-shirt competition," a contest where he and his pals will try to outdo each other by wearing the most hideously tasteless top they can find.

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Hatton's bout with Floyd Mayweather Jr. at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas could make him up to $10 million once his cut of pay-per-view revenues has been totalled up, but there is still no evidence of him abandoning his down-to-earth lifestyle for more ostentatious displays of wealth.

The 29-year-old likes his life just the way it is. That means awful shirts, games of pub darts every Thursday night, countless pints of Guinness when he is not in training and watching his beloved Manchester City FC. The English Premier League soccer team is Hatton's first love, and its signature tune "Blue Moon" accompanies him to the ring at all of his fights.

While being a lifelong supporter of the club has given Hatton little more than heartache – City has floundered for the last couple of decades while local rivals Manchester United has claimed nine league titles and a European Cup – tapping into the team's loyal fan base has added extra impetus to his career.

Many of the estimated 30,000 Brits who'll make their way to Vegas this week will be sporting Manchester City's light-blue colors as they try their damnedest to drain Sin City of its entire stock of beer reserves before roaring their man to victory.

"City has been starved of success for so long, and their fans have had to watch United carry all before them," said Sport Newspapers' Steve Lillis, one of Britain's most highly respected boxing correspondents. "For them, following Ricky is a chance to go on a trip and cheer on one of their own. He is so popular because he is just a regular bloke that the man on the street can identify with."

Manchester is a city divided by a soccer war of the haves and have-nots, yet despite his colors being nailed firmly to the City mast, Hatton has somehow managed to unite both warring factions behind him.

Yes, Manchester United fans support him, too, and the club's star forward Wayne Rooney even carried Hatton's belt into the ring for his victory over Jose Luis Castillo earlier this year. "I was more nervous carrying Ricky's belt than I am when I play for United. The atmosphere was like nothing I had ever seen before," Rooney said.

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Ricky Hatton gets out of a British-style cab as he arrives at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

It is hard for the average American sports fan to appreciate the level of devotion Hatton attracts. British fans have always travelled in numbers, with the likes of Lennox Lewis well-supported for most of his big trips to the United States. However, most of the support for Lewis came from wealthy London executives with spare cash to burn. Hatton's fans are cut from a different cloth altogether.

Like the two students who have maxed out their academic loans to fund a trip to the States and hope to somehow snare a ticket. Or the 30 patrons of a pub in Barnsley who will all travel together this week despite only two of them guaranteed a seat in the Grand Garden Arena.

Part of why they love Hatton is that he refuses to flaunt his wealth and remains true to his roots. His house on the outskirts of Manchester is comfortable and classy, but he is not over the top. No diamond-encrusted nonsense here.

"I live a simple life," Hatton said. "But that doesn't mean I won't be prepared for the bright lights of Vegas. Far from it. I was born for this day. Floyd hasn't met anyone like me before. I want this more than anything."

Every January, Hatton and his girlfriend, Jennifer Dooley, accompany his parents and his brother Matthew on a cruise. But you can forget about a prime cabin on the QE2. Hatton books his no-frills trip straight out of a brochure at the local travel agent.

His other holidays are taken in a normal apartment in Tenerife, not the latest trendy celebrity hotspot, and his one major extravagance can be easily forgiven. A few years ago, after one of his first big paydays, he splashed on an executive box for him and his family at Manchester City's home stadium.

Hatton provides thoroughly entertaining company, and that's one reason why he is passionately defended at every turn by the tough-to-please British press. He charms them with hilarious tales, like how he feared he had "turned" a former girlfriend when he bumped into her and a new partner, a woman, in Manchester. Or how, early in his career, he and trainer Billy Graham had to "do a runner" from a hotel in Germany when they ran out of money following a victory over Pascal Montulet of Belgium.

"He is the nicest bloke you could hope to meet and he has not changed a bit since day one. But suddenly a couple of hours before the fight, everything switches off," says Lillis, who has covered Hatton since his amateur days. "Then he starts breaking the dressing room walls. Mayweather has petrified people in the past, but he can't spook Hatton."

A victory by Hatton would be seen as a triumph for the everyman – the honest, working class Englishman beating a mouthy American. How much of Mayweather's brash persona is an act we may never know, but it is safe to say the Pretty Boy is thoroughly disliked in Britain thanks to his childish and disrespectful antics on the fight's promotional tour.

(There is even a group set up on social networking site Facebook titled, "I hope Ricky Hatton gives Floyd Mayweather a (expletive) good hiding." As of last weekend, the group was up to 103,000 members and counting.)

Even the most fervent Hatton supporter knows their man faces a mighty task if he is to topple Mayweather from his pedestal. Hatton himself concedes that his rival has more boxing ability, faster-hand speed and a stronger defense. His hopes are pinned on fitness, stamina, power and a lion-hearted attitude.

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Ricky Hatton poses at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Dec. 4 in Las Vegas.
(John Gichigi/Getty Images)

Hatton supporters believe body shots will be the key to a spectacular upset, just like when the Hitman crumpled Castillo with a sickening strike to the liver. The value of such a punch was rammed home to Hatton years ago when, as a 15-year-old, he was destroyed in a sparring session by former European light-welterweight champion Pat Barrett.

Superstitious Brits have pointed to the appearance of Manchester-style rain on the Strip this week as a lucky omen. "It makes it feel just like home," Hatton said. "But this isn't about luck or omens. It is about the educated pressure I will put on Floyd – that will make the difference."

The Mayweather camp, particularly Floyd's boorish uncle Roger, have tried to belittle Hatton at every turn, calling him a club fighter who boxes dirty. Yet that approach has little effect on a man whose greatest asset is a refusal to take himself too seriously. While Mayweather bristles moodily at any perceived slight, Hatton is happy to poke fun at himself.

After being dubbed Ricky Fatton for his propensity to pile on weight in between contests, Hatton adopted the jibe as a badge of honor, and even had a T-shirt made celebrating the nickname. But according to his nutritionist Kerry Kayes, Hatton, who brought his own cook with him to Nevada, has never been in better shape.

Unlike when he previously stepped up to welterweight, in an unspectacular victory over Luis Collazo, in May 2006, Hatton will not bulk up to the verge of the weight limit as he fears taking the edge off his reflexes and speed.

"The way Ricky fluctuates his weight will certainly shorten his career, no doubt about it," Kayes said. "But he needs to have a blowout now and then to keep him mentally right.

"He is able to adjust the weight when he needs to and we will have him just right when he steps into the ring. If Floyd expects anything else from Ricky, then he is in for an almighty shock."

If Hatton beats Mayweather, he will be a shoe-in to beat Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and fellow boxer Joe Calzaghe to the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year award the following night. Britain would erupt with joy.

But amid all the back-slapping and congratulation, there will be plenty of Guinness to be sunk, plus a Manchester City game to attend against Bolton Wanderers on December 15.

Hatton will also go on a shopping trip to find the most disgusting shirt he can lay his hands on.

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