No-one seems to know quite how many Britons have flown 7,000 miles to be in Las Vegas this weekend, but most estimates suggest it's at least 15,000 and possibly as many as 25,000. Since no more than 4,000 of them can actually have tickets for Saturday's fight between Ricky Hatton and Floyd Mayweather this is an invasion army of impressive proportions.
But then the British - and especially the English - have always loved their fighters and their fights and Ricky Hatton today enjoys the sort of celebrity once known by the great prize-fighters of the nineteenth century. If a spot of foreign travel can be thrown in then all to the good. Hatton's ticketless fans have come to Vegas for some sunshine, plenty of beer and an adventure, just as their ancestors left sodden Britain for the Bay of Bengal or the Cape. Back in the Day the Boys on Tour t-shirts might have read Khartoum, Mafeking, Calcutta. these day it's the Costa del Sol and, this week, Las Vegas. But the aim is much the same: a dust-up with the locals, a rollocking good time and the chance to share in glory and, if they have their way with the bookmakers, plunder some booty too.
It's clear in fact that the American press is bemused by Hatton's supporters. Nearly six thousand of them queued - another traditional British pastime! - for more than five hours just to attend Friday's weigh-in (Hatton two pounds under at 145, Mayweather 147 for those keeping score). They entertained themselves by singing God Save the Queen and their hero's own anthem: There's Only One Ricky Hatton. You can have too much of this sort of thing but, in small doses, there's something extraordinary about the British sports fan on tour.
At least Hatton's fans aren't especially belligerent. They're in Vegas to watch a fight, not start one. Even so, their beery humour, their childish pleasure in repeating the same three chants for hours on end, their general it's-all-a-laugh-innit? sense of the extreme can be wearying if endured for more than a day or two. Other countries don't export behaviour such as this. And yet it's the Americans who are supposed to be boorish and supremely full of themselves? Well, much of the time the English sports fan abroad is the descendant of John Bull: comically unprepared for foreign travel yet, even in the jet age, entranced by the exoticism of life overseas. Call this beer? Call that food? Blimey, it ain't like home is it?
It all brings to mind the Duke of Wellington's appraisal of his own army during the Peninsular War: "I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by God, they terrify me." You rather think Las Vegans may be of similar mind this weekend as they confront the beer-bellied, polyester-clad invasion of their city.
But by god will these lads create an atmosphere for tonight's fight. And, by god, Ricky Hatton is going to need it. Even the punchily patriotic British press has been hard pressed to give him even an even chance of prevailing against the world's pound-for-pound champion. The desire to see Ricky do it is predicated, for sure, upon his down to earth, cheeky boy next door character but there's more to it than that. I doubt any British or Irish fighter since Barry McGuigan has been the housewife's choice the way Hatton is this week. Like horses, sometimes you just fall for a fighter. (And like horses, fighters can be expensive mistresses).
It helps that Mayweather takes the absurdities of ghetto bling and philthy rich posturing to tedious, boorish heights. You can - and should - admire Floyd but it's hard to warm to him even if one suspects that there's a softer, more intelligent Mayweather lurking behind the scenes.
Perhaps the trash-talk does sell fights. But I'd rather thought we'd tired of such amateurish dramatics. On the other hand, at least this is a fight that needs no hyping. Hatton is a live underdog, even if ESPN"s Dan Raphael says he doesn't know a single American hack whose picking the Briton. those who know Hatton better are more optimistic, giving the Hitman perhaps a one in three chance of success. My old mate Kevin Mitchell, for instance, reckons it's Ricky by a stoppage in nine or ten.
I hope he's right. It's been a while since I was so keen for a fighter to prevail.
There's plenty of nonsense written about the decline of boxing. Sure, Hatton is one of just a handful who can carry an army 7,000 miles. But Joe Calzaghe brought ore than 50,000 to a 2am fight in Cardiff last month (but maybe that's just those crazy British fans again?). In any case, we've heard enough from the old-timers whining that fight nights ain't what they used to be and that boxing can never reach its former glory. Well we kind of know that. And guess what? That's ok. Get over it. We also know that there's more than two or three TV channels. Everything is niche these days. Why should boxing be any different? More than one million people are going to shell out $55 each for Mayweather-Hatton. That's not bad.
And in fact there's good reason to suppose that boxing has endured the worst. True, it would help if there were more compelling fights in the heavyweight division, but there's plenty of talent out there (not least at welterweight). Maybe it took the threat of the Ultimate Fighting Championship or maybe the fans finally revolted against the idiocies of the Alphabet City sanctioning bodies (who bear much of the blame for boxing's steeper than necessary decline), but the real fights are happening now. Faced with the abyss, fighters and promoters have realised they gotta put on the bouts the punters want. It helps too that the fighters appreciate - at least some of them do - that it's who you beat not the belt you wear that counts. Despite what the Alphabets say, there's only one world champion at each weight - and that's the fellow wearing the Ring Magazine crown.
Irritatingly, the head says Mayweather will be too fast, too slick, too damn skilful. But Ricky can box a bit too and no-one's gonna question his heart and heart can carry a fighter a long way...
If it's a dull fight it's Mayweather by half a dozen rounds; if it's a rip-snorting tear-up then, with a bit of luck, we'll all be walking in a Hatton wonderland soon enough.
Enough's enough. It's time to rumble. As Hatton said at the weigh-in: Let's fucking have it.