Hatton meets Stewart in IBF eliminator. Show preview
Show preview by Daniel Heath (September 30, 2004) 
Ricky Hatton
Ricky Hatton, arguably Britain’s biggest boxing star, makes his return on Friday at his fortress of Manchester’s MEN Arena. In the opposing corner will stand American fringe-contender Mike Stewart. The winner will earn a stab at the prestigious IBF light-welterweight title as well as ownership of Hatton’s WBU bauble.

It is an important fight for Ricky who has already amassed a 36-0 (26) ledger. Whilst still the country’s biggest draw by some distance, his stock has been diminishing of late. The failure of his promoter Frank Warren to land Ricky a big fight has caused frustration throughout the boxing world, not least from the fighter himself. Efforts to bring WBA champion Vivian Harris to England this October spectacularly collapsed with both sides pointing fingers. This followed Kelson Pinto’s farcical withdrawal just days before their scheduled April meeting and an all-British match up featuring fierce rival Junior Witter has also vanished into thin air. Stewart’s appearance on these shores is unlikely to appease the critics.

However there does appear to finally be some light at the end of the tunnel. Victory for Hatton on Friday will earn him the IBF’s number one ranking, entitling him to a shot at the winner of November’s rematch between Kostya Tsyzu and Sharmba Mitchell. Hatton also currently sits as rising star Miguel Cotto’s mandatory challenger for the WBO title. The opportunities are there. Ricky, and his promoter, must now deliver.

The Stewart fight offers the Manchester man an opportunity to reassert himself on the world stage. When Hatton burst onto the scene, he was being talked about as future superstar material. A come-forward brawler with a ferocious body attack, as well as underrated boxing ability, he seemed perfect TV material. After a long apprenticeship, he blitzed former world title challenger Tony Pep to defeat in four rounds to clinch the WBU light-welterweight title in March 2001. He added four further scalps that year which included domestic force Jason Rowland and former world champion Freddie Pendleton in a blistering two rounds. There were already calls for Ricky to be moved up in class.

He began 2002 with a one-sided mauling of the durable Mikhail Krivolapov. This set the scene for a showdown with his rival, the Irish enigma, Eamonn Magee. This proved to be Ricky’s hardest test of his career to date. Hatton had to pick himself of the canvas in the first, overcome a huge second round from Magee and produce a more disciplined technical approach to his boxing to earn a unanimous decision. Whilst questions were raised over his punch resistance, Hatton impressed with his tactical awareness, versatility and cool head.

By 2003 Ricky was ready to make a splash on the world scene. Veteran Vince Phillips, the only man to ever defeat then undisputed champion Tsyzu as a pro, was brought to Manchester. Hatton overcame a horrendous cut in the first round to produce a textbook performance behind his jab to earn a near shutout points win. His injury kept him out for five months however and when he returned he despatched of overmatched lightweight contender Aldo Rios in nine rounds. He needed a big fight to close out the year and duly got it. Ghanaian Ben Tackie came to these shores with the reputation of a big puncher with a rock solid chin and a warrior’s heart. Hatton put on another masterful boxing display in front of his Manchester faithful to win a lopsided decision. It set 2004 up to be the year of Hatton.

It hasn’t happened though. A combination of fighter pullouts, sub-standard opponents and poor form has made it a year to forget. In March, after Pinto failed to show, Ricky had to make do with Dennis Holbaek Pedersen. The Dane was brave, but overmatched and undersized. He succumbed to Hatton’s trademark body attack in the sixth round. Far more worrying was Ricky’s performance against Argentine hardman Carlos Wilfredo Vilches last time out. Vilches had been destroyed by Sharmba Mitchell the previous year and was a controversial choice of opponent. Hatton however, despite winning comfortably on points, struggled to deal with the South American and produced a lacklustre performance completely devoid of its usual intensity. It is here, at the dawn of his next fight, where we wonder whether Hatton is struggling to motivate himself to fight second-tier opposition, was merely guilty of an off-night or is alarmingly on the downward spiral already, aged 25.

He will probably need better to overcome Stewart. The American’s career path is almost a miniature version of Hatton’s. He too has a strong fanatical fan base in his home state, the boxing wasteland of Delaware. The top wins on his 36-2-2 (20) record are name fighters coming to the end of their careers. The most striking similarity between the two though is probably their style. Mike is a brawler, partial to a toe-to-toe scrap. He rarely works off the back foot and has a dangerous body punch of his own. They say styles make fights and this one looks a decent spectacle on paper.

Stewart just seems that one step behind Hatton. In second tier class he has certainly been impressive of late. He stopped the durable Chucky Tschorniawsky last year to clinch the USBA title. A couple of high profile defences lifted him to genuine contender status. He destroyed former world champion Terron Millet in three brutal rounds in his first defence live on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights series. Five months later he derailed Ivan Robinson, who was on the cusp of a third meeting with Arturo Gatti, in eight rounds.

This earned him a chance at IBF interim champion Sharmba Mitchell on the Hatton-Pedersen card in March in what was intended to be a showcase for a Hatton-Mitchell clash later in the year. Stewart was thoroughly ineffective, kept on the back foot throughout and put down three times in a one-sided unanimous points defeat. It was a disappointing showing and does not bode well for his chances on Friday.

Stewart’s other defeat is to the tricky, but far from outstanding, Dorin Spivey by split decision in 2002. Also worth taking into account is the fighters’ common opponent. Whilst Hatton’s body attack demolished courageous American club fighter John Bailey in five rounds, he took Stewart the full ten round distance six months later. Ricky just seems a league above.

That said their styles should gel to produce an exciting fight. Mike has never been stopped and is a tough competitor. However he will find it difficult to avoid a tear up. An on form Ricky, reminiscent of his destructive self early in his WBU reign, should be able to grind Stewart down for a stoppage in the second half of the fight. Judging by more recent performances however, and with the big fights around the corner, I expect a more cautious performance from Hatton who eases to a comfortable points win.

Chief support sees Manchester’s Michael Gomez make the second defence of his WBU super featherweight title against unknown Russian Leva Kirakosyan. Gomez has got his troubled career back on track over the past twelve months. He destroyed Alex Arthur in front of the Scot’s hometown fans to win the British title a year ago which kickstarted a remarkable revival. He has followed this with two quick fire wins over Ben Odamattey and Justin Juuko, to win and defend his WBU strap. His record now stands at 31-5 (21). The Young Boxer of the Year in 1999, Michael’s star has probably never shone brighter.

Looking to send him plummeting back down to earth is Kirakosyan. Little is known about the Spanish based fighter. He has travelled around Europe to amass his 13-3 (6) record, causing a few shocks along the way. A third round stoppage win over decent Italian light-welterweight Giussepe Lauri stands out. He also captured the Russian super featherweight title in the year 2000. Although he has been stopped (by Spanish prospect Sergio Blanco) he’s clearly not someone to be underestimated.

It is hard to pick against Gomez on his recent form. He is looking as destructive as he has ever been and seems to have finally instilled discipline in his makeup. However he has been complacent in the past. When Michael seemed to be heading towards big things four years ago, another unknown Eastern European Laszlo Bognar derailed him. But I expect the more mature version of Gomez to earn a mid-round stoppage to keep his world title dreams alive.

A deep undercard also includes a couple of good English title matches.

English featherweight champion Stephen Foster Jnr. makes his first defence against Liverpool veteran Gary Thornhill. It’s a tough step up for the young Mancunian who has blown hot and cold of late. He looked impressive stopping Sean Hughes to win the belt, but looked a little one-paced last time out. Thornhill has the experience to cause him problems but is fighting inactivity and has not made featherweight in a while. It should be a close one. Foster’s body shots may be decisive, although an upset could well be on the cards.

At welterweight, unbeaten Michael Jennings from Chorley challenges Barnsley veteran Chris Saunders in a trans-Pennine clash. Jennings has finally broken through over the past year with wins over Sammy Smith, Brett James and Rafael Jackiewicz earning him a lofty rating with the WBO. He has always been a fine technician, but is now developing the power to back up his accurate punching. Saunders clinched the title with a shock first round knockout over Marcus Portman and will have a puncher’s chance. Jennings’ class should tell though to earn him a comfortable points win.
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