Ricky Hatton overcame an attack of nerves and a handful of booming left hands to get back into the winning habit and line up a world title showdown against IBF champion Paulie Malignaggi back in America in November.
Hatton claimed a 120-110, 120-108, 118-110 points win over durable Mexican Juan Lazcano in front of 57,000 at the City of Manchester Stadium, but the scoring did not reflect the extent of his struggle.
Seeking to bounce back from his first career loss to Floyd Mayweather in December, Hatton admitted the fear of succumbing to a second defeat in front of his home fans had weighed heavy on his mind.
And there was plenty of evidence of his indecision as Hatton left himself alarmingly open at times and soaked up big shots in both the eighth and 10th rounds that briefly threatened to dump the IBO champion to the canvas.
Hatton said: “Before the fight I was very nervous. You can’t prepare yourself for how you’re going to feel when you return to the ring after you’ve been knocked out.
“I’ve never been so nervous. I was confident and everything, but when 57,000 fans come and support you it’s not exactly a way of easing back into action. Talk about putting extra pressure on yourself.
“But that’s what I’ve always thrived on. I was nervous about losing and you’ve just got to get rid of those demons. The hardest one’s out of the way and I expect my performances to go from strength to strength from here.”
This was not a night for hyping an ambitious rematch with Mayweather. The name of the ’Pretty Boy’ was noticeably absent from the post-fight conjecture as Hatton instead looked towards a showdown with Malignaggi.
Like Hatton, Malignaggi failed to impress on the undercard, overcoming a suspected broken right hand midway through his split-decision victory over South African veteran Lovemore N’Dou.
The brash New Yorker even needed an impromptu haircut on his stool at the end of the eighth round after the hair extensions he had put in place on Monday worked loose and flapped around his face.
The deal for Hatton to face Malignaggi is already signed and sealed for November, with only the venue to be finalised. Madison Square Garden is leading the race over the Las Vegas casinos, despite capacity concerns.
Malignaggi, whose win was put into context by his first victory over N’Dou in June last year in which he won every round on two of the judges’ cards, admitted: “I didn’t fight to the best of my ability.
“I think both myself and Ricky can fight a lot better than we did tonight. But we’ve got to fight each other to prove who is the best at 140lb. I will say I will beat him. I’ve seen some weaknesses that I can exploit.”
Despite Malignaggi’s distinct lack of punching power, Hatton must know he will have to make significant improvements on his homecoming performance if he is to wrest the IBF crown from the flashy American’s hands.
Too often his eagerness to finish the job played into the hands of Lazcano, a durable fringe contender who had not fought since losing a decision to Junior Witter victim Vivian Harris in February last year.
The gangly, upright Lazcano whacked home a stunning left hook in the eighth round that rocked Hatton to his boots, and repeated the punishment two rounds later to briefly raise the fear of a stunning upset win.
Otherwise it was pretty much plain sailing for Hatton, who was aggressive throughout and would surely have scored a comprehensive knockout win over fighters without the heart and determination exhibited by Lazcano.
But each time Hatton opened up, Lazcano tucked in behind a tight guard and came back firing, none more so than at the end of round five when a series of cracking uppercuts looked set to make it an early night.
Instead, Lazcano responded with a right uppercut of his own and even ended the first half of the fight in the ascendancy, pouring home a succession of left and right hands with his back against the ropes.
While Lazcano’s moments of success were more fleeting in the second half of the fight, he did raise serious questions about Hatton’s remaining punch resistance by wobbling him with those two big left hands.
Hatton admitted: “He did hurt me with a few shots without really shaking me. He had his moments but I knew exactly where I was all the time. It’s all about surviving the moment, which I did.
“I won every round and showed good boxing ability. But when I stepped on the gas that’s when I got in trouble. I always go for the knockout and that can happen. But I think that’s what people love about me.”
Oscar De La Hoya, who was present at ringside alongside other boxing luminaries including Mike Tyson, said he looked forward to a Hatton meeting with Malignaggi despite two performances that might have been better.
De La Hoya said: “I think styles make fights and Ricky’s style against Malignaggi would make a great fight.
“It will be another spectacular event. Ricky is an even bigger name now than he was before his loss to Floyd Mayweather.”