- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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LAS VEGAS -- The last time Ricky Hatton was inside the ring at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, Floyd Mayweather wiped him out via 10th-round knockout in December 2007.
Hatton had entered the welterweight championship challenge undefeated, but 10 rounds later his perfect record was stripped away under a hail of Mayweather power shots as the arena that was filled with his singing British countrymen at the start of the night was left disappointed by the end of it.
Hatton exorcized those demons Saturday by authoring a near-perfect performance in an 11th-round TKO of Paulie Malignaggi to retain the world junior welterweight championship in a meeting of the 140-pound division's No. 1 and No. 2 fighters.
"I enjoyed this fight a lot more than the last time I was here," Hatton said while his fans continued to sing their seemingly never-ending chorus of "There's Only One Ricky Hatton."
Not nearly as many of Hatton's passionate fans converged on the MGM this time -- about 6,000 of the crowd of 9,053, including the marching band, compared to more than 30,000 who arrived for the sold-out Mayweather fight. But those who did were treated to a vintage Hatton performance.
Clearly, his pairing with new trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr., the father of the man who beat Hatton, worked wonders as Hatton looked as sharp as he has since defeating Kostya Tszyu to win the title via 11th-round TKO in 2005.
"You can't say six or seven weeks is a long time but people can see he can get a lot better than he even was tonight," Mayweather Sr. said.
Hatton (45-1, 31 KOs) had rebounded from the loss to Mayweather Jr. with a ragged victory against Juan Lazcano in May, but not long after he fired longtime trainer Billy Graham and replaced him with the elder Mayweather.
Graham arrived in Las Vegas to, as he put it, say goodbye and put the ghosts to rest, as he spent most of the week drinking in the MGM's lobby bar.
But his presence didn't distract Hatton, who sang the praises of his new trainer after Malignaggi trainer Buddy McGirt threw in the towel for referee Kenny Bayless to stop the fight 28 seconds into the 11th round.
Mayweather Sr. had stressed head movement, using the jab and slipping punches, and Hatton, 30, responded to the man who had once called him a "human punching bag."
"I was in a new camp with Floyd and I showed a lot of my new stuff in this fight," Hatton said. "I was getting frustrated in the fight because Paulie is a lot tougher fighter than you would think. I think I hurt him too early on but slowly but surely Floyd got me back to the new me."
Indeed, Hatton hurt Malignaggi with a clean right hand in the second round. The only thing that prevented him from going down was when he grabbed on to Hatton. Hatton landed several more hard blows before the round ended, stunning Malignaggi as the pro-Hatton crowd erupted.
"I dropped my shoulders and allowed my punches to go," said Hatton, who earned at least $2.5 million to Malignaggi's career-high $1 million. "Paulie is a great fighter, but this felt like a comeback. I think you can see all the new things I worked on in camp. I slowed down. I was more composed and used my left jab. I was picking shots off better. I left my chin out to dry a few times, but I was picking shots off better, using my jab better, moving my head a little bit more. It can still get better."
Hatton landed a slew of hard blows throughout the fight and hurt Malignaggi repeatedly, including a terrific uppercut in the eighth round. Usually it is Hatton who has been guilty of grabbing and holding his opponent, but this time it was Malignaggi (25-2, 5 KOs) who held on early and often.
"The referee wasn't on top of things like he said he would be," Mayweather Sr. said. "He should have taken a point away because he was grabbing Ricky all night. Ricky was trying to fight all night and he wouldn't let him."
Malignaggi, who relinquished a sanctioning organization title to face Hatton rather than take a meaningless mandatory against Herman Ngoudjo, whom he had beaten already, was upset that the fight was stopped even though he had virtually no chance to win, given his lack of power.
"I'm better than this. They wouldn't let me continue," said Malignaggi, who turns 28 on Sunday. "Maybe I wasn't winning the fight but I'm better than being stopped. I wasn't hurt once during the fight. I saw nothing crazy out of Ricky. He had a couple of different looks. A little different training and he moved well. He was tough to hit. I couldn't get a rhythm. He uses his jab really well, I just couldn't get to him. I couldn't hit him.
"Ricky fought a terrific fight. He's a terrific fighter but this goes as a knockout on my record, but it shouldn't be. I was worse off in the Miguel Cotto fight [my other loss] and they didn't stop it then; why should they stop it now?"
However, McGirt did not second guess the decision to stop the fight.
"The reason I stopped the fight was because my guy was losing and I wanted him to live to fight another day," McGirt said. "I didn't want him to get seriously injured. It only takes one shot. I would rather have him be mad at me for stopping the fight than let him get hurt and never fight again."
While Malignaggi will have to start over, Hatton's future is bright with potential mega-fights. In two weeks at the MGM Grand, Oscar De La Hoya faces pound-for-pound king Manny Pacquiao. Hatton is the clear choice to fight the winner, especially if De La Hoya wins. Both fights interest Hatton, who said it again after his impressive victory.
"Bring it on. I'd definitely like to do it," Hatton said, acknowledging he'd have to return to welterweight to face De La Hoya. "No one will beat me at junior welterweight, I really believe that. But what sort of champion would I be if I just stayed at my normal weight?
"I only have a couple of more years left. I want big fights."
If he keeps fighting the way he did Saturday, he's going to get all the big fights he wants.
Kirkland rolls past Vera
Middleweight James Kirkland kept firing and firing until he finally put Brian Vera away via eighth-round TKO in the co-feature.
Kirkland (24-0, 21 KOs), one of boxing's most exciting rising contenders, scored two knockdowns in the second round and another in the eighth before finishing Vera, a Season 3 participant on "The Contender," at 1:45 in a dominant performance.
Vera (16-2, 10 KOs) showed tremendous guts to stay in the fight as long as he did after the two early knockdowns, but he was taking a lot of punches in the entertaining slugfest.
Kirkland, 24, and Vera, 26, both of Austin, Texas, have known each other for years and sparred with each other, although they don't call each other friends.
Even if they were, they didn't act like it as they traded nonstop. But Kirkland, the heavier puncher and busier fighter, was too much for him. He landed 53 percent of his blows to Vera's paltry 14 percent.
In the eighth round, Kirkland outlanded Vera 22-2 and scored a knockdown before Vera took another brutal combination and referee Vic Drakulich stepped in.
"It was a great fight and I got hit a bunch but I really enjoyed it," Kirkland said, who had not been past the second round in his previous four fights. "I hope to do bigger and better things in the near future."
It was Kirkland's first fight since signing with Golden Boy Promotions in October and settling a legal dispute with former promoter Gary Shaw, whom he dumped in July.
Although Kirkland fought in September without either promoter, the fight with Vera, who hadn't fought since an upset knockout of heralded prospect Andy Lee in March, was only finalized last month, so both were fighting on somewhat short notice.
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.
A crisp jab, effective feints, better footwork: Was that really Ricky Hatton? Indeed, it was. Hatton put his boxing skills to good use in stopping Paulie Malignaggi on Saturday.