After 12 lacklustre rounds of holding, clinching and spoiling, Matthew Hatton fell to arguably the most disappointing loss of his career against IBO welterweight champion Chris van Heerden. The Manchester fighter struggled to find any rhythm or combinations in the face of his sprightly opponent and the unanimous decision was perhaps as convincing as it gets. Before the scores of 118-110, 117-112 and 116-112 were announced, the only unresolved issue was how generous the judges would be towards Hatton.
In regards to Van Heerden, after a second defence of his IBO gold, a step up in standard could be his next venture. A fight with Paulie Malignaggi is rumoured, while in a more farfetched move, Van Heerden has also spoken of discussions with Zab Judah’s team. The 25-year-old controlled the Sandton ring with a sense of arrogance and after a performance of such authority, a fight with another tall welterweight, Vyacheslav Senchenko, becomes an attractive prospect too.
Granted, Van Heerden’s height was always an overwhelming physical advantage against a stocky, compact competitor such as Hatton. Early on, he utilized a long, rangy jab and drove his opposite number into the ropes. The South African set a ferocious pace and as both fighters struggled to score clean shots in the clinch, referee Howard John Foster warned the rivals to stop holding.
By the bell for the third, Van Heerden began to relax in his punches and cut off angles. His brutish flurries against the ropes, punctuated by stiff right crosses, were becoming a recurring theme. Van Heerden suffered a nasty cut across his right eyelid towards the end of round three, though, as the ugly, hard fought nature of the fight began to take its toll.
Sensing an opportunity, Hatton regained a sense of accuracy and countered with sharp, malicious one-twos. The former European champion began to express himself for the first time in the fight and may well have taken the fourth and fifth stanzas with fast reflexes and slick defensive tactics.
However, despite the stream of blood seeping into Van Heerden’s right eye, the home favourite rallied in round six and scored with a crushing counter uppercut that Hatton didn’t see coming. Indeed, perhaps fuelled by retribution after suffering that grisly cut, Van Heerden threw frantic punches at the end of the session in search of a finish, but despite the crowd’s enthusiasm, he possibly wasted too much energy with such a desperate surge.
Even so, it seemed that Van Heerden had figured out Hatton’s tactics. Round seven came and he found inroads with another vicious counter that caused Hatton to sag forward involuntarily. During the latter stages of the fight, though, quality was at a premium. Referee Foster required as much stamina as the two fighters themselves for all his efforts in untangling arms and barking demands. It wasn’t a pretty fight, but Van Heerden and his English rival were embroiled in a war of attrition.
The champion bore forward in the final moments but was unable to escape the clutches of a bereft, tired Hatton. Sadly for Matthew, he looked like a fighter undone by the strain of 51 previous fights over a commendable 13-year career.
Calls for Hatton to hang up the gloves at 31 are a touch premature but in today’s era of constant media coverage and social networking, the naysayers will always make themselves heard. Kell Brook stands alone as Britain’s best welterweight without a doubt, but while the likes of Lee Purdy, Frankie Gavin and Denton Vassell are still around, it’s now up to Hatton to show there’s still life in the old dog yet.
By Alistair Hendrie