WE CAN BE a little self-satisfied, it's true. Arrogant, even. Maybe it's because our country's so big. Why would a "world" series need to include anybody beyond our borders (we kind of adopted Montreal and Toronto when it came to baseball and their TV markets)? Just one example. But our smugness about sports is across the board. We entertain no international rivalries, brook no claims of competitive zeal across oceans, and just generally laugh off any athletic culture besides ours. Cricket? Give us a break.
It's been a virtual closed-borders policy from Day One. Which is a shame, or should I say a bloody shame, because we're missing a lot of fun. Not that we should all start grooming pitches and swinging big paddles. We're not going to change our national menu at this point. But, as last week's sweetly lilting chaos in Las Vegas proved, it wouldn't hurt to engage the foreigners every once in a while. In fact, to the extent that it doesn't end with blood in the streets (this didn't, against many predictions), it can be quite energizing.
About 25,000 of the palest Brits you ever saw descended upon the desert last week, and not a one of them soaked up a single ray of badly needed sunshine as far as I could tell. They were there, at considerable expense, to cheer on one of their lads, Ricky Hatton, in his challenge of Floyd Mayweather's welterweight title. Now, Hatton is a durable boxer and was, at the time, undefeated, but it's hard to imagine that any of his fans truly believed that Hatton, from a working-class family in Manchester (where he was mythic as the Mancunian Mauler), belonged in the same ring with Mayweather, the finest boxer of this era. Their support was sweet, but the travel seemed to have been accomplished in the context of a complicated pub crawl. If they didn't soak up much sunshine, they made do with beer.
Their numbers were impressive, even in a town accustomed to visiting hordes (rodeo riders, software salesman). Especially when you remembered that the fight had long been sold out and that only 4,000 tickets had been allotted to the Brits. Everywhere you turned, though, was a contingent of Union Jack'd lads hoisting beer and breaking out into song. Actually, only the one stupid song—a perversion of Winter Wonderland that, while seasonally appropriate, otherwise made no sense ("Walking in a Hatton Wonderland!"). The song was a weeklong sound track, erupting full-throat at the slightest application of beer. It is in my head still.
The lads represented a certain working-class demographic, sourcing as they did the spirit of Manchester, a city that inaugurated the Industrial Revolution but failed to participate in subsequent transformations. This occasioned a lot of self-loathing and apology from the better-bred British journalists in attendance, who bewailed the "invasion of the proletariat." One of them explained to me that "the English underclass was a growing problem," as if they hadn't been saying that for about 800 years. It was, in any case, a fresh reminder of the role of class in society, if not sports. Here social mobility seems more fluid—Mayweather was born to the same environment Hatton was (the flagging cities of Michigan) but had the ambition, or at least the need for self-gratification, to move to Las Vegas. Hatton, in a million years, would not leave Manchester (where his mother, incidentally, is the Mancunian Matriarch, but his manager, strangely, is the Sage of Salford). This is to say, one is American, the other not.
Hatton indeed seemed aggressively British, self-deprecating, stoic, entirely absent of style. There is something endearing about an athlete at the top of his game who insists upon the endorsement of his father's carpet shop—check out his robe, where it says free fitting. And his straight-ahead preference for combat, without such frills as even a jab, were comforting to his fan base. The Brits love their glamour, of course, else why would we have David Beckham? But it's clear who has their hearts. ("Beckham," a British writer said to me, "the best-groomed athlete we've ever sent you.")
Mayweather, for his insistence upon flash and cash, was something of a mystery to the visitors (as he is to many boxing fans here, who fail to see the childlike scamp behind the make-believe thuggery). Having beaten Oscar de la Hoya and having appeared on Dancing with the Stars, Mayweather might be poised to push boxing back into the mainstream, should he wish to continue. He is without question the most exciting talent around, purely American in his need for more—cars, titles, money beyond the $40 million he banked this year. As I say, a mystery to the visitors whose man was forced to admit at a press conference that his watch was from Guess.
The cultural divide could only satisfy so long, though, before the actual fight had to take place, when it was revealed at The Star-Spangled Banner that way more than 4,000 Brits had found their way into the MGM Grand Arena. The anthem was whistled down, booed-out, trampled. "Oh, dear," said my British friend at ringside.
The fight went off more or less as expected. Hatton, bereft of any repertoire besides running straight at Mayweather, proved badly overmatched, and Mayweather bided his time until the 10th round, when he turned slightly at the charging Hatton and clocked him with something he called a "check hook." Several punches later Hatton simply tilted sideways onto the canvas. Here's your Hatton Wonderland, indeed.
If there was disappointment, any sense of a letdown, though, I didn't feel it. Immediately afterward, Hatton was interviewed and he reported that the fight was going swimmingly until "I f—ing slipped." His fans, thousands of them, howled in delight, broke into song ("Walking in a Hatton Wonderland!") and then repaired to the lobby bars. They are there right now.
ONLY AT SI.com Your one stop for offbeat humor and the wackiest sports stories and links, including Hot Clicks and the Daily List, is SI.com/extramustard.
"The travel seemed to have been accomplished in the context of a COMPLICATED PUB CRAWL."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND