Monday, May 4, 2009

The Problem with a Big World... that if you're not perfect, there's someone out there to break you down.

Ricky Hatton, a British boxer, won the first forty-five fights of his career. He became a hero in England, and earned the nickname "Hitman" for his high-energy, attacking style. When he scored a TKO over Kostya Tszyu in 2005, his reputation went national. He won the light welterweight title later that year, and moved up in class to capture the welterweight belt in 2006. In that fight, against Luis Collazo, the chinks in the armor began to appear. Hatton came out gangbusters, knocking Collazo down in the first round, but the lefty Brooklynite soon figured out his style and began to use the Hitman's aggression against him. The tide of the fight began to turn, and Ricky was almost felled in the last round. It wasn't enough; despite some analysts calling the bout for Collazo, Hatton kept his undefeated record by decision.

More than most, Hatton looks like a boxer. The wide, blank canvas of his face is marked by a thick fighter's nose, close-set eyes, and a small mouth. It seems flat and lumpy at the same time. His hair is close-cropped and slicked straight down in the Roman style, and his right arm is tattooed with a pair of hanging gloves and the word "Ricky." His nickname is tattooed across his upper back.

There's a cruel twist to his face, in one light, but also a quirkiness that lends itself to humor. He's small in stature, but crammed with muscle. If you saw Hatton in a bar, you'd pick him out right away as the guy with a junkyard toughness who should be assiduously avoided in a fight. But he also looks good-natured and affable, and interviews have shown that he has the somewhat-clever, somewhat-simple jocularity that perfectly complements a boxing mentality.

In essence, he was easy to root for. Despite his perceived flaws, which included a vulnerability owing to heedless aggression, questionable endurance, and a dangerous tendency to keep his head in one place for too long, the boxing world began to wonder if this was a Rocky Balboa type, a brawler who could eschew technical perfection and win by pure grit. The underdog image was cemented by a knockout of Jose Luis Castillo. Many considered the Mexican a better fighter, but Hatton hit him with a hard left to the liver in the fourth round that broke four ribs and ended the fight. The Hitman defied popular wisdom.

Then came the showdown with Floyd Mayweather, Jr. The son of a great boxer, Mayweather had also accumulated an undefeated record. His style, though, was markedly different. Instead of attacking, Floyd had a retreating demeanor. He held both gloves far in front of his face in a protective stance, and flinched backward at any sign of movement from his opponent. Even his expression advertised discretion; he had the wary look of a paranoid grade-schooler constantly expecting a bully's attack.

Where Hatton was known for the bumps and bruises he collected on his way to victory, Mayweather earned the nickname "Pretty Boy Floyd" by never getting cut. But it wasn't cowardice or weakness that defined Mayweather; he was a technical genius, and his patient, observant manner served to highlight and exploit the flaws in his enemy's strategy.

Mayweather-Hatton was the ultimate clash of style. Ricky had made his way nearly to the top by virtue of strength, speed, and aggression, while Floyd had made it all the way to the top (Ring Magazine's pound-for-pound champion of the world) with textbook prowess. Even their fans reflected the dichotomy; before the fight in Vegas in 2007, American fans and celebrities waited patiently for the opening bell, while the thousands of British fans sang, played brass instruments, and booed the U.S. national anthem.

Hatton came out punching. In the first round, he staggered Floyd with a jab that sent the traveling Brits into hysterics. Mayweather's tactic in the first two rounds seemed to be studious caution, and to a neutral observer he may have looked cowed by the rough-and-tumble Englishman. But by round 3, the first blood appeared on Hatton's face. Mayweather landed jab after jab, taking advantage of his opponent's unprotected advances. All the while, he moved backward, backward, backward, forcing Hatton to chase him around the ring.

By the seventh round, the fight was effectively over. Ricky had lost his wind, and couldn't get close to Mayweather. A different boxer might have ended it there, but Pretty Boy Floyd didn't get his nickname by hurrying, and it wasn't until the tenth round when he deftly sidestepped Hatton's right and launched a vicious left hook that sent the Brit sprawling head-first into the corner post. Hatton wobbled to his feet, but Mayweather finished the job before the round was over.

Confession: it was with intense pleasure that I watched Denzel Washington and Spike Lee leap to their feet in the background as Floyd stood on the ropes with two raised fists and the Brits swallowed their tongues. The shine had come off a tenacious slugger who almost became legendary.

And therein lies the problem with a big world. Somewhere out there, in the inter-connected landscape, a figure will emerge who can exploit a weakness. You can be a hero in your town, your country, maybe even your continent. But if you aren't perfect, gravity will come calling.

And unlike in the Rocky movies, there are precious few comebacks once that flaw has been exposed. Saturday night, Hatton fought in his first big event since the Mayweather disaster. This time, it was against a Phillipino magician named Manny Pacquiao who combines Mayweather's virtues of technical brilliance with opportunistic offense. Last year, he ended Oscar De La Hoya's career with an effortless victory. "Pacman" has an unnerving, broad smile he wears before every fight, and whether it's legitimate or an act, he seems perfectly at ease in the ring. In my opinion, he's an even better fighter than Mayweather, and this really, really didn't bode well for Hatton.

My friend Brandon and I watched the fight in a crowded Astoria boxing bar called McCann's. I predicted a round 8 knockout for Pacman, despite the hype about Hatton's new, technically-oriented style. As it turns out, I was too conservative. Where Mayweather had used three rounds to discover Hatton's Achilles heel, Pacquiao needed only ninety seconds.

By the end of round one, Ricky had hit the canvas twice, and with ten seconds left in the second, an absolutely devastating left cross from Pacquiao impacted the point of his chin and reverberated, making awful undulations around his skull. The entire bar, myself included, went crazy as Hatton lay motionless and the referee stopped the fight. We cheered and laughed, and then HBO showed a close-up of Hatton's face. He was in a complete stupor, and I felt a surge of nausea in my stomach. "I think he's dying," said someone to my right.

He didn't die, thank God, but he wasn't well enough to be interviewed after the fight, and they sent him to the hospital for brain scans. That's the awful part of boxing; no matter how poetic and essential the sport seems, the constant risk of a battered human life underlies it all.

Discard the word 'human,' and the same can be said for horse racing. In Saratoga Springs, I once watched men in a small truck bring out a white scrim to block the spectators' view while they killed a horse with a broken leg. Last year, who can forget Eight Belles, a rare filly, making a valiant, failed charge to catch Big Brown at the end of the Kentucky Derby? The image of her forelocks breaking after the finish line is etched in the mind of everyone who watched, and she, too, had to be euthanized on site.

But there's still something about the sport, for whatever reason, that is compelling enough to hold our attention. In this year's Derby, which took place Saturday, the Big World concept was in play again.

Todd Fletcher, one of the better trainers in the world, has had twenty-four horses race in the Kentucky Derby. Zero have won. In his pre-race interview Saturday (he had three running in this year's Derby), Fletcher came across as arrogant and annoyed. He assumed the air of someone who felt he deserved the prize, and only outrageous luck had kept him from the winner's circle. Bob Baffert, a suave old pro who's had three Derby wins, was running a horse called Pioneer of the Nile that two NBC analysts picked to outrace the field. Thomas McCarthy, a genial old man from Connecticut, became the feel-good story when his horse General Quarters qualified to run. Sheikh Mohammed, a very rich person from the UAE, was trying to prove that horses with a foreign pedigree could win a Triple Crown event.

All this hype, all this build-up, and what happens? A 50-1 longshot called "Mine That Bird," ridden by a certifiably insane jockey and trained by a New Mexico redneck who navigated Churchill Downs on crutches because he demolished his foot in a motorcycle accident, made an unbelievable and totally unexpected surge from the inside and won going away.

The world is large, and opportunities are small. If you can't stay poised at the absolute peak of excellence, narratives and a steady rise don't matter- you'll be struck senseless by a smiling Philippino who kneels in prayer after every victory, or you'll watch the tail end of an unknown horse, with more legs than anyone could guess, grow smaller in the distance.

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