Hatton steps up to earn top fighter honors

Updated: December 30, 2005, 1:47 PM ET
By Dan Rafael | ESPN.com

When would Ricky Hatton step up and face a serious opponent? It was a question that dogged him for a few years.

Hatton, the favorite son of Manchester, England, had a huge following in Great Britain and was generating substantial revenue, even against no-hopers. So many believed he would remain safely tucked away against less-than-stellar opponents to ensure that the gravy train would continue rolling along.

Kostya Tszyu/Ricky Hatton
John Gichigi/Getty ImagesHatton (right) established himself as king of the division with his June victory over Kostya Tszyu.

But Hatton, as we found out, was serious about proving his worth, so serious that he won two world title belts by dethroning a legendary champion and then unifying belts against another titlist. For his accomplishments, Hatton is ESPN.com's fighter of the year.

As 2005 opened, Hatton set his attention on the single most dangerous opponent any junior welterweight could find: Kostya Tszyu.

Not only was Tszyu the long-reigning champion and a top-five pound-for-pound entrant, but he is one of the best 140-pounders of all time and destined for the Hall of Fame.

The fight was finally set for June 4 in Manchester -- and would take place at 2 a.m. so it could be seen live on Showtime on the East Coast of the United States. No matter. The joint was jammed with Hatton's loyal supporters and he did not disappoint.

Hatton, who turned 27 in October, proved that he was to be taken seriously by the elite fighters in his loaded division. He was simply too strong and too determined for Tszyu.

It was a rough, physical fight, and although Hatton was up to the task, Tszyu was not. By the 11th round, he was trailing on the scorecards and taking a beating from the aggressive Hatton.

Finally, after the 11th, Tszyu retired on his stool, beaten down by the relentless new champion in a memorable fight.

Rafael's Fighters of the Year
Year Fighter
2005 Ricky Hatton
2004 Glen Johnson
2003 James Toney
2002 Vernon Forrest
2001 Bernard Hopkins
2000 Felix Trinidad

The months that followed were bumpy for Hatton, who went through a messy split with promoter Frank Warren. Yet Hatton remained focused on his goal to unify the division. To that end, Hatton (40-0, 30 KOs) sought out Carlos Maussa. Hatton had been ringside in Atlantic City, N.J., when Maussa won a title with an impressive upset knockout of Vivian Harris in June.

Maussa traveled to England to face Hatton on Nov. 26, and Hatton again looked terrific, scoring a sensational ninth-round knockout to unify belts and cap an outstanding year.

Hatton said a week after the Tszyu fight during a breakfast with American beat writers that the constant questions about his desire to fight the best had indeed bothered him. He said, however, that they motivated him going into his career-defining bout with Tszyu.

"It was upsetting me," Hatton said. "For ages, I've been saying I want to fight the best in the division and I'm not overhyped or overprotected, shying away from the big names. I didn't need to beat Kostya Tszyu to prove it to myself, but hopefully from your [media] guys' point of view, you'll start believing a little bit more maybe, that I wasn't just saying it. That I did believe it."

We believe. We believe.

Other contenders:

Antonio Tarver
Roy Jones Jr./Antonio Tarver
AP PhotoAfter conquering Jones, Tarver (right) will be Hopkins' final foe.
Tarver closed 2004 with a split-decision loss to Glen Johnson in December. But six months later, he reclaimed his throne as light heavyweight king with a clear-cut, unanimous verdict against Johnson in the rematch.

Then came his October rubber match with Roy Jones Jr. They had split their first two fights, including Tarver's sensational second-round knockout in the second bout. Although Tarver didn't score another knockout in the trilogy fight, he easily outboxed the fading Jones to retain his Ring magazine crown and convincingly win the series with his Florida boyhood rival.

Jermain Taylor
Jermain Taylor/Bernard Hopkins
In their first fight, Taylor (left) took it to Hopkins early, taking the undisputed title in the process.
In his breakout year, Taylor twice outpointed Bernard Hopkins, although both matches were too close for comfort. Taylor ended Hopkins' middleweight division record of defenses at 20 in row with a split decision in July to claim the undisputed title at a time when Hopkins was the reigning pound-for-pound king.

Then came the December rematch and another close, but this time, unanimous decision. Taylor also blasted out undefeated rising contender Daniel Edouard in three rounds in February on a Hopkins undercard to set up their eventual showdown.

Winky Wright
Felix Trinidad/Winky Wright
AP Photo/Eric JamisonWright (right) landed 185 jabs while Trinidad connected on just 15.
The undisputed junior middleweight champ moved up to middleweight in 2005 for what many viewed as a tough assignment against former three-division champ Felix Trinidad. But Wright made him look like an amateur, easily outboxing him for a 12-round decision victory.

Wright used nothing more than his punishing jab to send Trinidad back into retirement. Wright followed his shockingly easy May victory against Trinidad with a close, but deserved, decision against better-than-expected Sam Soliman in December to set himself up for an eventual showdown with Taylor.

Jorge Arce
Jorge Arce, left, and Hussein Hussein
Reuters/Steve MarcusArce (left) won all four of his fights in 2005, including this one against Hussein.
Sometimes the best things come in small packages. The junior flyweight champ vacated his title to move up to flyweight, where he had an outstanding year, winning all four of his fights by knockout. In March, he scored a 10th-round TKO of Hussein Hussein in one of the fights of the year and earned a title shot. In July, Arce claimed an interim belt with a three-round rout of Angel Priolo.

Then came the rematch with Hussein in October, which resulted in a dominant second-round TKO. Arce capped his brilliant year by stopping former junior bantamweight titlist Adonis Rivas in the 10th round in December.

Zab Judah
Cosme Rivera/Zab Judah
Judah (left) demolished Cosme Rivera earlier this year, earning a third-round KO.
The flashy Judah avenged his April 2004 decision loss to Cory Spinks in style, going to Spinks' hometown of St. Louis and scoring an impressive ninth-round TKO in February to lift the undisputed welterweight championship, silencing his critics and a crowd of more than 20,000 Spinks supporters.

As an encore, Judah defended the title with a sensational third-round knockout of mandatory challenger Cosme Rivera in May.

Miguel Cotto
Miguel Cotto/Ricardo Torres
REUTERS/Tim ShafferCotto (left) knocked Torres down four times in their September bout, but Torres also staggered the champ.
Three defenses of his junior welterweight title, three knockouts, and plenty of drama. Although rocked at one point, Cotto put away former titlist DeMarcus "Chop Chop" Corley in five rounds in February. In June, Cotto avenged his 2000 Olympic defeat to eventual gold medalist Mohamad Abduallev, stopping him in nine rounds.

Then came a September brawl with Ricardo Torres that almost cost Cotto his title. But Cotto gutted out numerous rough spots and survived the first knockdown of his career to win via seventh-round knockout in one of the year's most thrilling fights.

Jeff Lacy
Lacy and Pemberton
Lacy stopped Pemberton in the second round of their IBF 168-pound title fight.
The powerful super middleweight champ retained his title three times, all via knockout. First, he stopped Rubin Williams in seven rounds in March. Then came an impressive August defense against former champ Robin Reid, who had never been knocked down in his 12-year professional career.

That was until he met Lacy, who pounded him to the canvas four times en route to an eighth-round TKO. Lacy closed the year with a two-round demolition of Scott Pemberton to set the stage for the much-anticipated unification fight with Joe Calzaghe in March.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.

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