Though it was a never a reproach against the heart of the man at the centre of it all, there was always a fear that could never be detached from each swirl of hype gathering around the head of Ricky Hatton.
It was that as a fighter he just wasn't good – or naturally big – enough. As it unfolded in the early hours of yesterday morning, the doubts were confirmed on both counts. As Hatton himself said, with infinitely resigned sadness, Floyd Mayweather was physically too big, too hard to handle, still less subdue. He also happened to live on an infinitely classier street.
In the first shock of Hatton's defeat, many who had argued that his destiny, for reasons which were never explained with anything like forensic clarity, was to win, to out-hustle, the best pound-for-pound fighter on earth, claimed that the referee, Joe Cortez, had been part of a conspiracy to frustrate and ultimately disable the man from Manchester. To his great credit, Hatton made little of such claims. He owned up, as an honest fighter must, that Mayweather had the beating of him however the action developed. Mayweather was as effective inside as he was out, as he had promised to be, and long before the final, decisive punches were thrown in the 10th round the result had become a formality.
This is the harsh but most uncomplicated glory of the ring. You can bombard the ropes with a thousand theories and hunches; you can still argue long after the fight is over. But it is in the ring where reality, one that will last forever, is imposed. Mayweather did it with a clinical efficiency that, it has to be said, was rarely truly tested and Hatton, again with a formidable and becoming detachment conceded the point. "I could have been better," he said before apologising to the great legion of British fans who perhaps had a more pressing reason for atonement after their boorish, if predictable booing of the American national anthem.
If Hatton felt he had to apologise, it was to himself for a failure to produce the fight of his dreams. But he should not be too hard on himself. They were dreams, after all, that Mayweather rendered into fantasy soon enough.
It was an absorbing fight but it lacked the promised drama because after Hatton's early efforts to dominate, to bend Mayweather into the pattern that gave him his only chance to triumph, there was no serious question about the outcome. Hatton came with a plan but its irredeemable flaw was that it depended on the compliance of an opponent about as eager to co-operate as a one-armed bandit.
Mayweather made light of the doubts that had been piled up against his status as a master of boxing, the best around at this point in the sport's troubled history and one who would have acquitted himself well in more fertile epochs. His appetite, along with his hands were questioned, but had he been equipped with a knife and fork rather than gloves you had to fancy he might have cleared a banqueting table.
In the end there was nothing for Hatton to do but subside, and that he did it with courage and, finally, much grace, was in the end no more surprising than Mayweather's ability to inflict himself most persuasively on every phase of the fight. A Hatton jab did once cause him to stumble off balance, but it was the briefest punctuation mark in a story of one man's seamless ascendancy.
Historically, the precedents Hatton most needed to follow had been set by the great lightweight champion Roberto Duran, who had overwhelmed arguably Britain's finest post-war boxer, Kenny Buchanan, in Madison Square Garden and then, as a welterweight in Montreal's Olympic Stadium, waged such effective psychological warfare on the hitherto luminous Sugar Ray Leonard that the man of much greater natural talent found himself fighting another man's fight.
That was Hatton's hope in his remorseless pre-fight questioning of the durability of Mayweather's will.
Unfortunately, there was a missing element; Duran not only talked like a demon, with insults which went to Leonard's very marrow, he also fought like one. When he went into the ring in New York and in Montreal his dark eyes burned like well-lit coals. When Hatton walked to the ring his eyes were pools of something less than conviction; not the outright apprehension that gripped Frank Bruno when he went in against Mike Tyson for a second time, nor that which grew in the much ballyhooed Naseem Hamed when he felt the force and the speed and the sheer determination of his first truly serious opponent, Marco Antonio Barrera, but a dawning of the fact that he had talked his way into something far, far more challenging than anything he had ever faced before.
When Leonard raised his arms, optimistically, in Montreal, Duran was outraged to the point of aiming a kick at his backside. This was a man who had, according to Panamanian legend, once felled a mule with one punch, whose favourite pet was a lion cub, who had persuaded himself he had the measure of the dazzling Sugarman. Hatton made a similar case for himself in regard to Mayweather, but as fight time drew near the difficulties of prosecuting the argument seemed to be written on his face.
Hatton insists he will fight on, probably at light-welterweight, where he will feel more secure in his powers – and where he knows he will not encounter a force as mature and formidable as the one released by Floyd Mayweather.
The American's post-fight charm offensive was a routine provocation to the inevitably high percentage of cynics who regularly populate ringside – as opposed to those who flock like lemmings when the celebrity count is high enough – but there was no reason to second guess his respect for a fellow fighting man.
Mayweather and his camp had called the fight with indisputable prescience. They said that Hatton lacked authority in his jab and his ringcraft but they never cast a shadow over his fighting heart. They were vindicated in just about every aspect of their fight analysis, and when the conqueror embraced his victim there was classic respect for one fighter from another.
This is the main comfort Ricky Hatton can draw from his night of maximum exposure. When the tickets were sold, when the need for hype had gone, he was honest about his limitations, candid about the fact that he was always involved, behind the bullish talk and the optimistic body language, in a reach of faith. "I could have been better," he said sadly, but then had he been so, who is to say that Mayweather would not, as casually as he might turn a tap, have adjusted to another level?
Home Box Office's television's wily boxing analyst, Larry Merchant, perhaps a little optimistically so soon after the heat of battle, attempted to coax Mayweather into talk of a fight with the Puerto Rican, Miguel Cotto, but he was told of other plans, maybe for promotion, but certainly the ambition that he would retire from boxing rather than have boxing retire him.
Everyone says that and it is also true that Mayweather's latest performance will trigger fresh hopes for another superfight. Cotto has long promised the highest level of performance, and has sometimes produced it. He has a fine technique and a warring spirit and it is not easy to imagine the eloquence of some big money talk.
For Hatton, financially secure for life, the future for the moment at least is not so star-spangled or cash-laden. No doubt his marketability, at least in Britain, remains high, but as he felt the full, deflating rush of defeat, there was surely the dawning of one of boxing's oldest truths.
It is that all of your career can lead you to one night of nights, once chance to take yourself into an entirely different category. That night came in the big showroom of the MGM Grand and now it is over. The certainty is that it can never be reproduced. It is Hatton's pain and boxing's rough way of imposing an unwelcome reality. In Las Vegas, Ricky Hatton could be proud that he didn't lose his courage. What went missing was his mystique, and hardly a fighter who ever lived left the ring with that possession unscathed. This is especially true if, as in the case of Hatton, the fighter had the courage to face, and accept the consequences, of meeting the toughest challenge in all of boxing. That, beyond all doubt now, was what Floyd Mayweather represented in the wee, dispiriting hours of Sunday morning.