Two “shows”, one ring, two very different headliners – this wasn’t your average fight night in Manchester on Saturday.
But the last fight was an exhibition bout between former world champions Ricky Hatton and Marco Antonio Barrera, both long retired.
“I felt like I was stepping into the unknown a bit,” said Hatton, who at 44 lost four stone for the fight. “Was it a fight, was it a fight, or was it something in between?
The contrast made the evening interesting and begged the question: is there a place for exhibition fights in boxing?
The Hitman Returns
Hatton was returning to the scene of some of his greatest triumphs, including his stoppage of Kostya Tszyu in 2005, but hadn’t fought since his last professional bout here in 2012.
Over the course of his career, the Mancunian has shed light on his knack for piling on weight between fights, calling himself ‘Ricky Fatton’ and wearing a big suit.
And although he has since established himself as a trainer at his own gym in Hyde, he admits he had become “massively obese” again.
But the opportunity to fight former three-weight world champion Barrera, 48, proved the catalyst to get back into shape and give Manchester fight fans another chance to see the ‘Hitman’ in action .
Their fight was promoted by Europa while the main event and undercard were promoted by Boxxer. Both sold out tickets, with fans entitled to watch both shows.
With only the lower tier open, the arena seemed full and a handful of fans cheered on local fighter Bradley Rea, who lost to Tyler Denny.
Otherwise the atmosphere in the undercard was oddly subdued, and while Liverpudlian Jonas has become a fan favorite in Manchester, now winning two world titles here this year, a stroll along the hall suggested who had come to see more. .
With three fights still to come, the revelers were already chanting “there’s only one Ricky Hatton”.
“I’m not for my pipe and my slippers yet”
After routine wins for Frazer Clarke and Dalton Smith, Jonas’ ring walk livened things up.
It was her first time to headline a major venue as a professional and there was tension in the air. The crowd appreciated what was at stake.
And although Jonas produced a polished performance that showed she was worthy of win a third world title, he never produced the moments when fans roared from the rafters like happened in Hatton’s heyday.
The Manchester crowd joined her in celebration anyway, and it gave way to a celebratory atmosphere to greet the arrival of their hometown hero.
The ring was tweaked for the exhibition fight before Mexican music was played for Barrera with an upbeat version of Blue Moon, Hatton’s beloved Manchester City anthem.
There would be eight two-minute rounds, with no judges and no confirmed winner. But Hatton’s steely gaze from the opening bell and the sharpness of his shots showed he meant business.
Hatton must have taken it seriously, Barrera having had two exhibition fights last year, but he didn’t lose his sense of humor. Two women dressed in nurses’ outfits waited at ringside with a comedy-sized zimmerframe.
A band also kept the carnival spirit alive by playing tunes such as the Rocky and Rule Britannia soundtrack during the fight, which provided little drama, but was fun.
It was far from a case of two overweight, punch-drunk fighters having an agonizing last dance.
He was two friends, two legends, enjoying what they do best, and Manchester fight fans had the chance to pay tribute to a man who remains one of the city’s favorite sporting sons.
In the end, the referee raised both fighters’ arms, but for Hatton in particular, victory was just being able to get back in the ring.
“I’m quite happy with that,” Hatton said. “I think it was entertaining, no liberties were taken. We got to show our skills one last time to the fans.
“I got the chance to experience firsthand how good he was, which was a dream come true. But more importantly, it ended up being a lifestyle change for me.
“I’ve reached a beautiful stage in my life where I don’t want to balloon anymore. I’m not for my pipe and my slippers yet.”
“When it’s done for the right reasons, it’s inspiring”
Hatton also used the platform to raise awareness about mental health, telling the crowd about his depression at the end of his career, and the buzz surrounding his exhibition fight did not overshadow another night of glory for Jonah, he made it better.
“I’m not usually a fan of exhibition boxing but when it’s done like this, for the right reasons, it’s inspiring,” said Jonas promoter Ben Shalom.
“We’ve all seen Ricky fall off the rails and then we see him come like this. That’s what it’s all about. It’s great for the city and the sport. Ricky Hatton is a legend and still capable to attract a large audience.
And it wasn’t just his fans who cheered at ringside after the fight. His parents, brother and son – both boxers themselves – were there too after witnessing his transformation.
“I’ve done so many great things in my career, but it has to be up there,” Hatton added.
“There were a few skeptics who said this show was going to be a waste of time. I don’t think that’s the case, far from it.
“You always worry about your heroes, how they might get hurt. But one last time they can see us with the risk of no one getting hurt, I think that’s a winner.
“What it did for me, I got letters from people saying, ‘Ricky, you inspired me to lose weight. If you can do it, I can do it”. Also people with mental health [issues]. And some people say these exhibits aren’t worth it.
“If another one comes up, I think I’ll have to stick with it.”