ABU DHABI // Ricardo Ricci sat transfixed in the front row, wearing a pair of mini red boxing gloves, listening to his idol.
He is just eight years old, but has been boxing since the age of two with his dad, a former semi-professional back in Italy. The young sports fan first saw Ricky Hatton in his two-round knock-out defeat to the Filipino Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas last year. He learnt an important lesson when the former world boxing champion visited his Al Yasmina School yesterday.
"You have to put a lot of effort into the things you do," said the boy, just before having his gloves signed by the star. "Dad's at work and jealous he couldn't come today."
Hatton was brought to the UAE by the financial consultants deVere and Associates. He is due to speak at another, as-yet unconfirmed, school in Dubai today.
Despite rumours of a comeback, the father-of-one from Manchester, whose nickname is "The Hitman", has been channelling his energies into motivating young people, visiting schools in the UK as well as becoming a manager and promoter to new talent. "I haven't officially announced my retirement," he said yesterday. "Never say never, but I've no desire to get back in the ring now. I might get up one day and feel differently though."
Although his last fight was a humiliating defeat that left Hatton unconscious, there were many who expected his subsequent retirement to be a quick one.
Brutally overworked by his trainer, Floyd Mayweather Snr, the father of the only man before Pacquiao to beat him, Hatton said yesterday: "I was a shell by the time I got in the ring. Everyone was saying I needed to rest, that I was working too hard, but I was beaten by the best."
Now, he hopes to pass on lessons he has learned to the young. Speaking to an audience of about 200 children, as well as their parents and teachers, he urged them to take their school work seriously and aim high.
"Whatever you do in life, you have to give it 100 per cent," he said. "Always believe in yourself and don't let anybody tell you you can't achieve what you want."
Hatton, who was the class clown when a child, said his biggest regret in life was not working harder at school and leaving with no qualifications.
"If I hadn't been successful in boxing, I'd have been nowhere," he said. "Not everyone can be lucky enough to be successful in the things they choose to do. One minute you're at school and having a laugh and before you know it, your school years are over."
In spite of his financial success Hatton, who came from a tough, working-class neighbourhood in Hyde, in the north of England, knows the importance of paying your own way.
"It's a very hard world out there," he told his audience. "Really concentrate and give it your absolute best."
While its violent reputation could prove a hindrance he would like to see boxing brought in as a school activity, emphasising that it helps promote discipline and respect.
"It's about getting people to understand it's not just about the punches," he said. "You learn to respect your gym mates. You learn to be fit and healthy. It's made me a better man, a better person. I'm just fortunate to have made a living from my hobby."
Although by 13 Hatton was already representing his country, he was 17 before he knew he would take boxing to the next level. "My dad and grandad played for Manchester City [Football Club] and for a while, I thought I'd do the same."
He calls being awarded the prestigious MBE (Member of the British Empire) in 2007 from the Queen, for his performance in the ring and charity work outside of it, his biggest achievement.
Al Yasmina's head, Bob Malone, said it was important for the children to meet their heroes in such an intimate setting, to see that they are indeed, "really quite normal".
The former Harlequins rugby player, Dean Richards, the golfer Trevor Immelman and the former Australian cricketer, Rodney Marsh, are among those the school has brought in to speak to the pupils.
"They need to have role models to aspire to," said Mr Malone. "Health and wellbeing is a very important element of the school here and we greatly promote sport and healthy competition."
After his speech, crowds swarmed around Hatton for his autograph of the boxer who lost just two of his 47 fights.
Chloe Lawson, 12, from England, said: "You can achieve your goals if you work hard."