Kostya Tszyu, the longtime ruler of the light welterweight division, often has said of his sport, ''He conquers who conquers himself." For most of his 13-year professional career, that has been his mantra. Last Saturday night, it became his epitaph.
The International Boxing Federation champion came into a jam-packed MEN Arena in Manchester, England, with 22,000 fans hollering the name of his opponent, a local kid. Ricky Hatton, 26, was undefeated in 38 fights and a cult hero in his hometown, yet Tszyu not only had agreed to go there to fight him but to do it at 2 a.m. to accommodate Showtime, which showed the fight live in prime time in the United States.
Tszyu always has been an accommodating man, in large part because he was so secure in himself and his ability. That was never more evident than when he stood in the back of the building as Hatton made a raucous entrance to the sound of ''Blue Moon," the theme song of his favorite soccer team, hapless Manchester City.
None of this fazed Tszyu, who once beat up Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez in front of thousands of witnesses in Mexico City. He felt he was ready to fight.
But things change when you are 35 and have fought only three rounds in 22 months. Things change when ring rust begins to settle over your skills, slowing your reflexes and your reaction time. Things change, too, when you face a young kid who believes the same things you believe.
As things would turn out, Hatton did everything he promised. He came forward bravely. He showed respect but no fear of Tszyu's legendary right hand. He followed the dictates of his plan, which was ''closest is safest," meaning he wanted to put his head in Tszyu's chest and throw short punches, because the closer he was to that right hand, the less effective it would be.
''I plan on pushing him back, which he hasn't experienced much in his career," Hatton had said, and from the first round he did, manhandling Tszyu and getting so close to the fire that he smothered its flames.
After four tough rounds, Tszyu seemed lost, but then he came on, winning three rounds in a row and finally scoring with the right that had knocked out 25 of his 31 victims. But even in those rounds Hatton was succeeding with a simple plan, which was to keep the heat on, forcing Tszyu to fight at a pace faster than felt comfortable.
The only man to beat Tszyu, Vince Phillips, had done it that way, and now Hatton was adding nasty body shots to make matters worse until the fight finally turned on a bit of youthful boldness. Hatton responded to the third low blow of the night in the ninth round by walking toward Tszyu and blasting him well below boxing's demilitarized zone with a left hand that sent the champion to the floor.
Referee Dave Parris looked at Hatton, who simply shrugged as if to say, ''Fair is fair." Tszyu did not complain. He got up and took some deep breaths but was never the same, finally succumbing on his stool at the end of the 11th round. For the first time in a long time, he could not conquer himself.
Hatton (39-0, 29 KOs) left him no other option. As age and inactivity began to grind him down, Tszyu could find no safe route around Hatton, who kept pressuring, kept hitting him until his face bore little resemblance to the man Tszyu had been when he entered the arena.
Hatton had his own pain to deal with, for Tszyu did not go quietly. Not until he sat resigned on his stool, realizing he could take no more.
''Do you want to go on?" asked Tszyu's longtime trainer, Johnny Lewis, with one round to go.
''No more," Tszyu said softly, his eyes turning wet as he spoke the two words he most despised.
''No more?" Lewis asked.
''No more," he said, and so it was done. So was one of the greatest fighters in the world, a man now reduced to an old fighter, which is seldom the same thing as a great one.
By the final few rounds, Tszyu's punches, once the most feared in the division, no longer carried the wasp's sting. They were gnats flying about Hatton's head, more an annoyance than a threat. Knowing he needed a knockout to win and knowing that one was not within him this night, Tszyu took as much punishment as he could and then said, ''No more." It was nothing to be ashamed of.
''He overwhelmed me," Tszyu told an old friend two hours after the battle had ended. ''I knew from the sixth round it was his night. I thought I was farther behind [than the scorecards had him]. Ricky was the better man tonight."
Hatton was the better fighter and his victory has created new interest in a division with other rising stars -- such as Miguel Cotto, the undefeated young World Boxing Organization champion who fights Saturday night on HBO against the man who defeated him in the 2000 Olympics, Muhammed Abdullaev -- but he was not the better man.
''If I become half the champion Kostya was, I will have done quite well," Hatton said to the crowd after the fight. It was a show of sportsmanship that is all too rare these days. It was also as accurate as all the promises he had made before a blue moon rose over Manchester in the middle of the night.
Cotto (23-0, 19 KOs) best hope his boxing skills exceed his prognosticating skills. Last week he said of Tszyu-Hatton, ''It's a one-sided fight. Tszyu should win easily before the seventh round. Tszyu's too strong and has too much experience for Hatton." Cotto now has to worry about Abdullaev (15-1, 12 KOs), whom he faces at Madison Square Garden. Abdullaev won the gold medal in Sydney and is the last man to defeat Cotto; he believes he'll be the next man to beat him, too. ''I dominated him," said Abdullaev. ''I outscored him cleanly, 17-7. Of course, things are a bit different in the pros. He's a terrific fighter but I don't see a problem repeating my victory." Abdullaev's only loss came to Emmanuel Clottey in a fight he was winning easily until he ran into a haymaker and was dropped. He and his corner lost the referee's count and he stayed on the floor one second too long . . . On the same night, Mike Tyson takes on Irish heavyweight champion Kevin McBride in Washington. The 38-year-old Tyson has not fought since being stopped by Danny Williams 11 months ago. Cotto's promoter, Bob Arum, said he is still interested in signing Tyson. Despite the fact that Tyson hasn't won a fight in several years, Arum insists he still could be a factor in the heavyweight division if he trains properly and is promoted carefully . . . Also on the Cotto card will be a lightweight title elimination fight between former champion Joel Casamayor (31-3, 19 KOs) and 2000 Olympian Kid Diamond (alias Almazbek Raiymkulov), who is 20-0 with 12 knockouts . . . Lamon Brewster's next mandatory challenger is supposed to be European champion Luan Krasniqi. If Krasniqi wins any form of the heavyweight title, he'd be the first German to do so since Max Schmeling.
Boxing promoters are often criticized for their business practices, but at times they deserve praise. That is the case with Kathy Duva and Carl Moretti, who run Main Events, the New Jersey promotional company that put on the three Micky Ward-Arturo Gatti classics. Ward suffered serious eye damage in the third fight and needed surgery, but by the time Ward had the operation, it was 10 days past the one-year limited liability of the fight's insurance policy. Not surprisingly, the insurance company refused to pay the $10,000 in medical expenses. When Moretti was made aware of the situation, he went to Duva, and Main Events paid the bill . . . World Boxing Association heavyweight champion John Ruiz had to have a second nose operation in Las Vegas after the first one failed to repair damage sustained in his controversial fight against James Toney. Ruiz, who retained the title despite losing the decision because Toney tested positive for Nandrolone, will not be available before October, but already movement seems afoot inside the WBA to stack the deck against him. Nicolai Valuev was ranked No. 1 and would have been Ruiz's next mandatory, but after a meeting in Buenos Aires that included King, Valuev was dropped to No. 2 and the No. 1 spot was left vacant. Not long after that, King announced that Valuev would fight disgraced Andrew Golota Aug. 13 in Chicago on the undercard of Hasim Rahman-Monte Barrett for the World Boxing Council interim heavyweight title. What seems likely is that Ruiz will be forced to fight the Golota-Valuev winner, even though he just made his mandatory vs. Toney. Meanwhile, Ruiz's advisers called for stricter drug testing, suggesting that instead of fighters being tested immediately before and after a fight, they be subject to random testing at any time after a fight has been agreed to. That is a solid suggestion that any national commission, if one ever is formed, should adopt . . . Former WBA welterweight champion Jose Rivera, who lost his title in his last fight but remains the WBA's No. 1 contender, was recently named Worcester's Citizen of the Year by the local Rotary Club. He will receive the key to the city June 16 from mayor Timothy Murray. His promoter, King, has offered Rivera a fight this summer on the same card as new champion Luis Collazo with a rematch to follow, but there's a hitch. King is insisting Rivera sign a contract extension . . . Irish sensation John Duddy, who has local ties in Boston, will fight an eight-round bout on the Cotto undercard Saturday. Duddy (9-0, 9 KOs), who faces Patrick Thompson (9-4-1, 4 KOs), is a young middleweight prospect who bears watching . . . Former Boston College football player Derric Rossy is now 6-0 with 5 KOs as a heavyweight prospect.
Material from personal interviews, wire services, and other beat writers was used in this report.