LAS VEGAS – Ricky Hatton, the United Kingdom's most popular fighter, likes to refer to himself as an honorary Mexican and, indeed, will be escorted to the ring for his super lightweight fight against Jose Luis Castillo on Saturday by Marco Antonio Barrera, one of Mexico's greatest boxing heroes.
Castillo concedes that his sons, Jose Luis Jr. and Christian, will be more eager to be in Hatton's corner than his, because they are fans of Manchester United soccer star Wayne Rooney, who plans to join Barrera in the walk with Hatton to the ring.
And both men concede that their dream fight is against each other.
It's a Fight of the Year in the making and, after a frustrating year for both men, they're anxious to have someone in front of them to pound on.
"We don't need to be eyeballing each other or bad mouthing each other or staring each other down," Hatton said. "We do it the way professionals should do it. We both know we're going to knock the living daylights out of each other once the bell rings."
Hatton is anxious to fight someone he knows will be in front of him and willing to fight, because his last two bouts didn't afford him that opportunity. He was ill in his January win over Juan Urango and the second half of the fight was little more than a clinch fest.
Hatton didn't feel well and Urango wasn't inclined to punch.
His fight before that was against a slick southpaw, Luis Collazo, and was hardly the satisfying toe-to-toe war that both Hatton and Castillo have come to symbolize.
Castillo, though, has done it at a higher level of competition than has Hatton. Castillo is a former lightweight champion and has come the closest of anyone to having defeated Floyd Mayweather Jr.
There is perhaps no one better at the inside game than Castillo, who has an astonishing ability to land hard punches even with his opponent smothering him, as Hatton undoubtedly will be.
That Castillo is the more skilled inside fighter of the two seems without question to all but the closest Hatton confidantes.
Hatton wouldn't go so far as to refer to himself as a Castillo clone, but he conceded the two are very much alike.
"I think I have the edge on him in every department, honestly," Hatton says. "My footwork is a little bit better. I've got a bit better speed, a bit better boxing ability and I’m a little bit stronger than he is."
Castillo grins when he hears such talk.
"I'm glad he feels that way," Castillo said. "But you might want to ask him again on Saturday night."
There are plenty of questions that surround Castillo, including whether he still has any high-level fights left in him.
He's 33 and has been a pro since he was 16. Most of those fights were grueling affairs that sap a lot from a man.
Even Castillo promoter Bob Arum is concerned.
"It's something you have to be aware of," Arum said. "All reports I've gotten from his people in his camp have been good, but there is the possibility that the guy is old at a young age. Does that make sense?
"If he's the Castillo I know, he definitely wins this fight. He's the better fighter, even though I have a lot of respect for the other kid. But you have to at least be honest enough to ask the question if he has it left."
That unanswered question, more than anything else, is why Hatton is favored to win the fight. It was down to about 9-5 on Friday, though it should push back over 2-1 with all of Hatton's British fans hitting town and the sports books.
There's also the question of Castillo's motivation considering his paycheck. He's slated to make $500,000, though a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order to the estate of the late Diego Corrales to have the purse put into an escrow account.
Corrales sued Castillo last year after Castillo failed to make the 135-pound lightweight limit for a planned June 3, 2006, bout. The fight was canceled and Corrales, who died in a May 7, 2007, motorcycle accident, sued Castillo to get the $1.2 million purse he was to have received.
Though U.S. District Judge Kevin Hicks granted the order, a move that ensures the purse will be held, a $200,000 bond has to be posted by the Corrales estate or Gary Shaw, also a plaintiff. Neither has done so.
Arum said he expects Castillo to leave the arena with around $100,000 post-taxes Saturday.
"Castillo's going to be hungry, because he needs the money and the only way he gets the money is by winning this fight," Arum said. "Ricky is an engaging kid and he can absorb a loss.
"For Castillo, if he loses, particularly if he loses badly, it would take a miracle for him to get back to where he's going to be able to make this kind of money again. If he wins the fight, then there is a rematch and there are other big fights out there for him.
"So I believe whatever he has left, you're going to see it all."
Castillo looked trim in all his pre-fight public appearances and had the same glint in his eye he did when he knocked out Corrales in their 2005 rematch.
So, given the choice between an honorary Mexican and an authentic Mexican, I'll go for the real deal.
Take Castillo by unanimous decision in what will become the Fight of the Year.
- Ricky Hatton
- Jose Luis Castillo