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Boxing: HITMAN'S ON TRAIL OF GLORY; Hatton wants Big Four.

Byline: DERICK ALLSOP

A CACOPHONY of yelps, thuds and rap music, and the acrid stench of human endeavour, produces a heady atmosphere as the pale blur of a figure finds his target.

This is the Phoenix Camp and Ricky Hatton, hailed here on the east side of Manchester and way beyond as the best attraction in British boxing since Naseem Hamed, is honing body and mind for his latest WBU light-welterweight title defence.

On the receiving end is his trainer, Billy Graham, and the body belt between them seems scant protection. For round after round Hatton, 24, sustains a ferocious assault, until the final bell sounds a merciful relief for both men.

"He's never been in better shape," Graham enthuses between gulps for air. "He's devastating. He likes to be dramatic, even in the gym. He is without doubt the best, the most exciting fighter in the country."

Such eulogies come with the territory and a man inevitably nicknamed "The Preacher" could never be short of a word or two. Graham has even landed himself a part in the cult BBC3 series Burn It, though not as a clergyman. He plays a drug-dealer.

But the familiar pre-fight propaganda is superfluous in Hatton's case. He again tops the cast at the MEN Arena show on Saturday and his opponent, Argentina's Aldo Rios, is likely to be victim No 33 in 33 fights for the Mancunian.

Even in the gym, Hatton exudes supreme self-belief. When he is not sparring or exercising, he offers words of advice and encouragement to stable-mates. They hang on his every word.

At the end of training he sits and talks some more, but this is not the tedious boasting that has tainted boxing for too long.

"I'm a normal guy, down to earth," he says. "People compliment me on that and I find it astonishing. Why should I be any different? I have the same group of mates I've always had and they wouldn't let me get big-headed.

"I don't rubbish people. You hear some fighters say they're going to destroy their opponent in two rounds, but I don't feel the need to do that. I think people get enough excitement seeing what I do in the ring - I don't have to lower myself by getting into slanging matches."

The fighter who has earned the "Hitman" moniker originally conferred on Thomas Hearns adds: "I don't really change in the ring, but I suppose I do want to hurt my opponent - until the count of 10. Then I hope he gets up and we can go and have a drink together.

"I don't hate opponents. The only thing that drives me on is the thought that the fella across the ring is standing in the way of a better life for me and my son, Campbell.

"I want to achieve everything financially and inside the ring, then get out and stay in boxing in another capacity - television, training or something.

"The way I fight and the way I cut and train and put my body through the mill, I think I'm destined for a short, explosive career. To be honest, I wouldn't want it any different. But if this is the peak of my achievements I'll be very disappointed."

Ultimate satisfaction would be unbridled acclaim and to accomplish that, he acknowledges, he must beat the very best in the world and win the more credible titles.

So far, he maintains, his promoter Frank Warren has been frustrated in earnest attempts to make matches with Kostya Tszyu, Zab Judah, Arturo Gatty and Vivian Harris.

"These are the fights I want, but in the meantime you do one of two things: you sit on your backside or you keep fighting. I prefer to keep fighting. Into next year I'll hopefully be 34 fights unbeaten, a pro six years and more than ready."

Arios, usually a lightweight, should not sabotage the masterplan, but Hatton was badly cut again in his previous fight and that remains a potential problem.

Hatton says: "I was more worried when I had a similar operation on an earlier cut. Since then I've had 10 fights and it hasn't reopened.

"People are saying this fight is a pushover, but he's lost only two in 38, he's very awkward and hard to nail. The way I'm fighting, though, I think there's no reason why it shouldn't be the same outcome as the previous 32."

Another devoted MEN gallery will expect nothing less.

MICHAEL WATSON, who spent 40 days in a coma and had six brain operations after being beaten by Chris Eubank in 1991, has collected the GG2 Sportsman of the Year award sponsored by the Asian Marketing Group.

CAPTION(S):

CHAMPION: Hatton; ON TARGET: Ricky Hatton (left) is looking for his 33rd straight win on Saturday
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Sep 21, 2003
Words:799
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