That he was knocked out in three of his last five fights – finally, on Saturday night by Vyacheslav Senchenko – after an unblemished run of 43 wins and world titles at two weights placed him in exalted company. Very few world champions in a century and more of the fight game have avoided a similar fate, and the greatest seem to fall hardest, among them the towering triumvirate of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis.
There is a simple reason they have to endure such a cruel farewell, as Hatton acknowledged in the small hours of Sunday morning. Half an hour earlier Senchenko, a tall competent Ukrainian and former world champion, had slipped a hook into his thinly protected midsection with all the clinical sweetness of Brutus slaying Caesar, and Hatton fell to his knees for the final count. That much we know. But why and how?
"Too many hard fights," Hatton mumbled through purpled lips, "burning the candle at both ends. It doesn't matter how hard you train, when that bell goes, a fighter just knows."
He knows but he cannot say. While there is breath, there is hope. Only when there is no more need for innocent lies – to himself, his opponent, those asking awkward questions – can a fighter embrace the truth. That is why they fall: they are magnificent deceivers.
There are few sadder sights in sport than a boxer in the aftermath of defeat, physically and spiritually spent, trying to rationalise the reality that has just consumed him. Somehow Hatton always managed to find the words (perhaps because they came at us like a flurry of red leather) to convince us that, whatever the wounds on the outside screamed, inside he was okay, thanks very much. After all, had there not been far more good nights than bad?
There had. And we wanted to believe him. We believed him, against all better judgment, when, putting a cheeky grin on the reality, he told us he "should have fuckin' ducked" against Floyd Mayweather Jnr in 2007. We believed him, less fulsomely, after the trauma of his two-round hell against Manny Pacquiao in 2009, when he promised us that he'd had enough, there was no more to give, that he could walk away. The sight of him sitting in the sun by the pool of his Las Vegas hotel, beer in hand, girlfriend by his side, only hours after being rendered unconscious at least held out the promise that he would welcome the release from his discipline and enjoy what he imagined might be a normal life.
It wasn't normal, of course: not what most of us would call normal. Always the most generous spirited of men, Hatton succumbed to the temptations of adulation, especially in the city that loved him most. In the bars of Manchester and beyond, he played as hard as he worked, drinking himself to the precipice of suicide while strangers slapped him on the back or, in the depths of his ordeal, turned the other way, embarrassed. That hurt him more than any punch, which is why we found ourselves at ringside again, watching him fight for their approval one more time. It is a drug as powerful as heroin, boxing.
And how they wanted him to relive the past: Twenty thousand of them, singing with the full gusto of any of the 13 previous nights they'd packed the Manchester Arena for him.
Those promises and reassurances from the distant and recent past were an illusion, a necessary one, perhaps, for the function of the exercise, but loaded with danger. "That's what I did three years ago," he said. "I made excuses. There's always an excuse to find. But I needed to find out if I still had it. And I haven't. I needed to find out if I can still mix it at world level. And I can't." He paused, and allowed himself a final indulgence: "But I've no complaints. I can look in the mirror and be proud of myself and say I gave it my best."
He did that, unforgettably. He can be ranked among the best British boxers since the war, in the company of Lennox Lewis, Ken Buchanan, Joe Calzaghe and Nigel Benn, (who were there on Saturday night), Lloyd Honeyghan, John Conteh, Chris Eubank and Naseem Hamed.
Only Henry Cooper on this side of the Irish Sea – and Barry McGuigan on the other – generated similar, unquestioning warmth among a hard-bitten constituency.
We should remember him for his triumphs – none better than seven years ago against Kostya Tszyu – however hard it is to obliterate the memory of that last wicked body shot and his sad drift to the canvas.
From the moment a boxer pulls on gloves for the first time, he is looking for approval, and that insecurity haunts all of them until the day they quit. Hatton is no different. He was just better than most, at boxing, and, until the end, sidestepping the truth more adroitly than he did Mr Senchenko's concluding, merciful blow.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
image: © helgeov