Ready to deliver knockout blow

By Nick Parkinson

MANCHESTER, England (AFP): When Kostya Tszyu puts his International Boxing Federation (IBF) light-welterweight title on the line against local hero Ricky Hatton on Sunday he can count on being the most unpopular man at the MEN Arena.

Australia-based Tszyu may be one of the world's best pound-for-pound boxers after first winning this world title ten years ago but, as he bids for a fifth defence in his second stint as champion, he is likely to have few friends in the 22,000 capacity venue.

But it will take more than a few boos to put off the 35-year-old champion.

Tszyu, who was brought up in the Russian town of Serov in the Ural Mountains, is fighting in Europe for the first time since defecting from the old Soviet Union after the world amateur championships in Sydney in 1991.

Having beaten legendary Mexican Julio Cesar Chavez away from home five years ago and with most of his world title fights taking place outside of his adopted homeland of Australia, Tszyu insisted Sunday's bout was nothing new.

"When I beat Julio Cesar Chavez in his territory, I earned so many Mexican fans," he said. "They now treat me like one of their own and see me as a Mexican fighter."

"I am sure all the English fans will appreciate on me on June 5. "I'm here to show my skills and I am very confident in myself.

"Having to fight him (Hatton) in front of 22,000 of his countrymen has given me extra motivation.

"The atmosphere will be no problem for me. "I'm going to step in the ring and from then on, nobody from those 22,000 can help him."

Not since Frank Bruno, the heavyweight who briefly reigned as the World Boxing Association (WBA) champion for six months from September 1995, has a boxer been so popular in Britain as Hatton, who attracts bigger crowds than former world featherweight champion Naseem Hamed.

Part of Hatton's appeal, along with his all-action style, is his personality which has made him a folk hero in his native north west of England.

As he makes his way to the ring, Hatton ? at 26 nine years younger than Tszyu - may look like a frightening ghoul with his pale skin, snarling face and dressing gown hood pulled over his head.

But out of the ring, Hatton is the antithesis of the vicious fighter who has defeated 28 of his 38 opponents inside the distance.

The unbeaten Mancunian, whose loyal army of followers snapped up all 22,000 tickets just two hours after they went on sale, still plays darts and drinks - but never alcohol while training for a fight ? at his local pub in Hattersley, close to the council estate where he was brought up.

"I'm not different to how I've always been," said Hatton this week after finishing a training session at a gym in Denton, on the outskirts of Manchester.

"When fights are finished I still go out with all my old school mates and still play in the darts team for my local pub The New Inn in Hattersley every Thursday and sponsor the Sunday football team.

"They don't roll out the red carpet for me which is nice because I want to be treated normal. "They just look at me as Ricky one of their mates, not Ricky the world champion."

Hatton, nicknamed 'The Hitman', even involves his fans in his preparations, in once case right up to the first bell.

Hatton, despite the advantage of fighting at the MEN Arena for the 13th time, is the underdog in most observers' eyes but should he lose it won't be for a lack of preparation.

"I think it's the challenge of the biggest fight of my life that has made me punch harder and faster in training."

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