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Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Updated: December 20, 2:06 PM ET
Mayweather-Hatton shows boxing still has life

By Bill Simmons
Page 2

This article is taken from the Dec. 31 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

My buddy Ace and I were gabbing on the phone like two girls before the prom. We just couldn't decide what to wear on our big night out. Should we dress like we were heading to a nice dinner or a Hollywood club? Should we take it a step further and don suits without ties, like we were going on a late-night talk show? We volleyed the options back and forth before going for the talk show look.

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"If this were the '50s," I said, "we'd be wearing fedoras, too."

"White guys aren't allowed to wear those in public anymore," Ace joked.

We were 13 levels past giddy. The next day, we were flying with friends to Vegas to see the Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton fight, a worthy exclamation point to boxing's sorely needed comeback year. Despite the ongoing efforts of sleazy federations and sleazier promoters to undermine the sport's credibility, boxing has regained its footing with memorable battles like Pavlik-Miranda, Pavlik-Taylor, Cotto-Mosley, Cazalghe-Kessler, Marquez-Vazquez I and II and The Contender finale. Even the Mayweather-De La Hoya letdown generated 2.4 million PPV buys and created HBO's new reality franchise 24/7. Everyone who predicted the UFC would supplant boxing -- and by the way, I was one of them -- ended up with a three-egg omelet on his face. Boxing ain't dead, at least not yet.

The Mayweather-Hatton matchup delighted purists who knew that Hatton's smothering, brawling style transforms every ring into a phone booth. Normally, Floyd's supernatural speed and flexibility make him impossible to trap -- watching him is like watching a cat that doesn't want to be caught -- and he's far too savvy to trade haymakers just because he can. Watching Floyd fight is like watching a Ferrari that's cruising along in fourth gear. The car looks gorgeous, but you know it can go twice as fast. No one has ever really made Floyd step on the gas.

The hope was that Hatton would push him to do just that. The task required a superhuman amount of stamina, but the Manchester native had an ace in the hole: thousands of traveling fans from England who churn out a never-ending catalog of songs (their favorite: a twist on "Winter Wonderland" called "Hatton Wonderland") and generally do whatever they can to lift him to another place. They were the second-biggest reason my friends and I wanted to attend this one; Hatton's fights always feel like a Rocky movie crossed with a World Cup match.

The other reason? None of us had crossed "Fly to Vegas to see a big-time fight" off our fan checklist. The night lived up to every conceivable expectation. You could actually feel the energy coursing through the MGM Grand; the buzz before a big fight can be compared only with the final minutes preceding a Game 7 in the NBA or NHL playoffs. You could definitely hear the joyously belligerent Hattonites, all of whom looked like Jon Kitna after eight drinks, throughout the undercard. Their passion mixed with elegance. The fans were decked out as if we were all guests at a gigantic cocktail party, and there were so many good-looking women that my pals and I had to launch an impromptu guessing game called Wife, Mistress or Hooker?

Just when the atmosphere couldn't get more electric, celebrities began to emerge from the tunnels like fighters, moving briskly toward ringside. Everyone strained to catch a glimpse, eager to play Who Has the Most Juice? Will Ferrell and his pals landed in the second row. Minutes later, Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and their entourages took seats one row behind. Advantage Ferrell! (I kept expecting him to turn around to scream at Denzel, "I drive a Dodge Stratus!") By the conclusion of the final undercard bout, Brangelina, Bruce, Sly, Barkley, Tiger and Beckham had all found their seats, an Us Weekly fantasy draft sprung to life.

Meanwhile, the Hatton fans continued to sing as if they were being prompted by a karaoke machine. Like their hero, they were relentless. We couldn't help but admire their perseverance. By the time the main event kicked off, two-thirds of the arena backed Hatton, maybe 10% backed Mayweather, and everyone else was thinking, I may jump on the Hatton bandwagon just for the hell of it. It's not as if Floyd has ever been that likable, right?

Two moments changed that thinking. First, Mayweather wisely entered to Springsteen's "Born in the USA," the implication being, "In case you forgot, I'm the American here." Second, Hatton's fans made the unforgivable mistake of booing and whistling during our national anthem, leading to a chill scene straight out of a sports movie: American fans, reeling from such impossibly bad sportsmanship, respond by belting out Francis Scott Key's lyrics as loudly as possible. In its own goofy way, this was one of the greatest moments I've ever experienced at a live sporting event. When was the last time you sang the anthem with camaraderie and defiance?

Now we were ready for a war. We needed Floyd to win, to defend our country's honor, to shut up those classless hooligans. Hell, I would have started a "1776! 1776!" chant if my voice hadn't been shot from screaming the anthem. Only later did I consider the significance of Mayweather's improbably playing the role of patriot. Until that point, we knew him only as a stereotype: a brash, free-spending champ who had bought two Maybachs because one wasn't enough; a trash-talking narcissist who fancied himself rapper as much as boxer. Now Floyd was defending America's honor like Rocky in the Drago fight? You couldn't make this stuff up.

As promised, Hatton turned the first six rounds into a disjointed street fight -- all elbows, clinches and headlocks -- before being penalized for cuffing Mayweather in the back of the head. That's when Floyd decided enough was enough and shifted into fifth gear, unleashing his considerable talents with an unprecedented level of savagery. Hatton had served his purpose; he'll always be remembered as the brawler who brought out the best in the great Floyd Mayweather.

Of course, he'll also be remembered as the bleeder who got filleted over the final rounds, eventually getting knocked down with an exquisite left hook before being stopped by another ferocious combination in the 10th. Undaunted, his fans kept on singing as everyone else prepared for a riot that never happened. This turned out to be the crowning moment of boxing's big year, the night Floyd Mayweather defended his country and peaked as the greatest boxer of his generation. Who'd have predicted that?

As we were leaving the arena, chagrined Hattonites belted out some more songs and looked like moderate threats to throw a few sucker punches. So we made a concerted effort to avoid bumping into them or even making eye contact. Instead, we rehashed the incredible night as we prepared to cap it off with some drinking and gambling. We couldn't get over what had happened. Not only were we drained and hoarse, we finally had a reason to hate England again. The trip had exceeded our expectations -- and I didn't even get any blood on my suit.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available in paperback.