Before an estimated U.K. crowd of 55,000, Manchester hero Ricky Hatton got wobbled twice by Juan Lazcano. He got hit cleanly to an alarming degree for a top-level boxer. But he recovered from his rough moments, and was in control the rest of the time, enough to pull out a dominant win on the scorecards in his comeback from a knockout in December by Floyd Mayweather, Jr. When’s a dominant win not a dominant win? When it deepens questions about whether the winner still deserves to be considered among the elite.
Paulie Malignaggi, considered the second best junior welterweight (140 lbs.) behind Hatton, also underwhelmed in a split decision win over Lovemore Ndou the same card, and did one worse: His stupid hair extensions got in his face so much it contributed to Malignaggi losing a few rounds, and he actually had to get a haircut after the 8th round. Flabbergasting. Because it was a close fight that one judge scored for Ndou, Malignaggi strolled dangerously to the precipice of losing a fight because of his hairstyle.
Hatton and Malignaggi did themselves no favors Saturday with their performances, and I can’t imagine who’d want to see them fight one another outside of their respective fan bases in Manchester and Brooklyn, since the major point of putting them in the same double-header was that it would serve as an appetite-whetter for Hatton-Malignaggi. I could be charitable to both men, as I have been in the past, but I’m not inclined. I could say Hatton had some cobwebs and that he shook them off admirably against a difficult opponent who some — including myself — expected to give Hatton trouble. I could say that because Malignaggi claimed to break his right hand, it’s amazing he won at all. But since 2005, in how many fights has Hatton looked like he belonged among the elite? One, at most, against Jose Luis Castillo, and even that’s got an asterisk because Castillo was so past his prime. Why, since Malignaggi won his title belt in brilliant fashion last year the first time he fought Ndou, has he delivered two straight uninspiring performances over competition that most expected him to defeat easily?
Tell me what they’ve done to earn the benefit of the doubt. In the meantime, here are more extensive breakdowns of both fights featuring four of Ring magazine’s top 10 junior welterweights, which, in combination with Junior Witter’s loss, Gavin Rees getting upset and the erratic trio of Vivian Harris, Demetrius Hopkins and Ricardo Torres, suggest that opinions of a revitalized group of 140-pounders are greatly exaggerated.
MALIGNAGGI – NDOU
I knew the Malignaggi hair extensions looked stupid, but I didn’t realize the sheer extent of their stupidity until they came untangled in round 1 and started flying all over the place. I’ve seen fighters with hair like that before and it’s not commonly a problem because it stays tied back for the most part. Not for Malignaggi, especially not with Ndou putting him in headlocks and all other kinds of rough stuff. At least Malignaggi recognized the foolishness of it all afterwards. “What a disaster,” he admitted. During breaks, his team kept repeatedly putting tape meant for gloves around his phony braids, to no avail. Finally, they were brutally scissored off between round 8 and 9. I mean, they didn’t even look good. I could almost kind of but not really understand if they did.
As for the fight itself, Malignaggi looked in control of Ndou for the first half of the fight, although not anywhere near as scintillatingly as he did the first time they met last year. He wasn’t especially sharp, much like he wasn’t in January against Herman Ngoudjo. This time, though, Ndou, unlike Ngoudjo, shared none of the blame. He was more inclined to let Malignaggi lead, as Ngoudjo did, and counter Malignaggi’s jab, but Malignaggi could get in and out with his superior hand speed whenever he wanted. I didn’t see Malignaggi using his right hand much early, but somehow, around the 6th, he hurt it. In an interview afterwards, he said, “I don’t like to make excuses, but I hurt my hand.” That’s an excuse, Paulie, no matter how legit. It wasn’t long after the 6th that Ndou began to find the range for his big right hand. Even though Malignaggi took them pretty well, they were winning Ndou rounds. I gave him five in all. Two judges gave it to Malignaggi by a few rounds, while the third gave it to Ndou. The third judge was not out of his mind.
I think more than one thing contributed to Malignaggi looking like he did. The hair. The hand. The fact that he trained in Sicily, close to family, instead of in the U.K. The fact that he didn’t want to fight Ndou again at all but had no choice if he wanted to keep his title belt and expected to beat him easily again. The fact that he was probably looking forward to the Hatton fight. But four of those five are his own damn fault, with “overlooking an opponent” being his excuse against Ngoudjo. And his hand problem is chronic, the kind of thing that makes you wonder whether he physically has it in him to be as good as he wants even if he does get his hair and head on straight. I defended Malignaggi following his lackluster win over Ngoudjo. It’d be a stretch to defend him after two bad performances in a row.
HATTON – LAZCANO
Leave the stage props outside of the ring; that’s what Hatton’s entrance said. He came out in a fat suit with a pair of shorts that read “Fatton,” the nickname he’s won and embraced for his between-fight weight gain from nights at the pub. He stripped the whole outfit off before he got to center stage. It’s a great thing for a star to be so self-deprecating. What’s sad about it is that this habit of his to eat and drink without remorse between fights almost assuredly has hurt his career. It puts a strain on his body, so that, when, at 29, you’ve been doing this weight fluctuation for years, and, what’s more, you fight without much regard for whether you get hit or not, you may be past your prime already. I do not have a conclusive answer about whether Hatton has definitively left his prime, but I’m leaning toward thinking he has.
For what it’s worth, he’s got enough left in the tank to be a pretty good fighter. Lazcano came in underrated, I think — others felt he had no chance — but except for a couple moments, never was in control of the fight. Hatton outboxed him, outworked him, outquicked him and only lost two rounds in my book. One judge agreed with me, and two thought he never lost a round. I still think Hatton at this level of his game beats every top 10 junior welterweight there is, although, as I said, the division is sorrier than I realized until today.
The problem is, Hatton is not far removed from most people’s list of the 10 best fighters around today, no matter the weight class. Ring still had him listed at #8. Being a pretty good fighter and the clear best in one’s division is a step down from being considered one of the best, period. And this fight is going to give skeptics plenty of ammunition. It’s given me cause to doubt him more than I had, obviously. Hatton’s always gotten hit a lot, but at his best, he has dealt out so much more punishment it made that tendency less noticeable or significant. Against Lazcano, and in a number of his recent fights, actually, the gap has narrowed. Juan Urango and Luis Collazo both had him in trouble at times. Mayweather knocked him out with a left hook as he leaped in; Lazcano hurt him badly with the same punch in the same way in the 8th. Hatton stormed back and hurt Lazcano in return, but he got hurt with left hooks once more in the 10th. This time, the ref — who played favorites with Hatton all night long — found an excuse to pull Lazcano off of Hatton, then gave him a really long time to retie his shoe, granting him plenty of recovery time.
There’s something to be said for gutting out wins against tough opponents after getting hurt. Felix Trinidad is about the only fighter I can think of who did it regularly and remained among the top fighters of his time. The difference between Hatton and Trinidad, however, is that after Trinidad got hurt, he often came back to blast out his opponent with a vicious KO. Hatton doesn’t have that kind of equalizer to make people forget about in-fight blips, so he has to look sharp from start to finish. Saturday, he only looked sharp in glimmers.
Next for the losers: Lazcano contemplated retirement before this fight. It was assuredly too good a paycheck to pass up. What’s he got to fight for now? If he wanted, he could hang around in the second tier of junior welterweights and fight fellow second-tierers. He would make a decent “opponent” against the first tier, as they say in the industry, although it’s not clear to me who that would be these days beyond Hatton and Malignaggi, and we already know how he’d do against the former. He fought decently for a guy coming off a 15-month layoff, but I can’t see him ever rising above where he is now. At 33, there’s only down left to go for a natural lightweight (135 lbs.) fighting tough against bigger, better foes. Ndou is in much the same place, albeit at 36: confined to the second tier, only helpful as a potential “opponent,” with losses every time he shoots for bigger game.
Next for the winners: I have to imagine the powers that be will think twice before making Hatton-Malignaggi next, but I still suspect it’s on deck. Where else do Hatton and Malignaggi have to go? Their division isn’t looking so stellar right now, and neither are well-suited for the divisions just above or just below it, where there’s plenty more action. For better or worse, they are the cream of the crop at junior welterweight. I can tell you this: Their respective fantasies about avenging their losses against the best competition they’ve faced — for Hatton, Mayweather; for Malignaggi, Miguel Cotto — look even more ludicrous today than they did before.
ADDENDUM: 1. Hatton said after the fight he had nerves. I do think he deserves credit for overcoming them and mentally seeming to get past his ego-shattering knockout loss. In that sense, this was a success. 2. Some think he tired late in the fight. I thought his energy level was consistently high, but not as high as it used to be; he was more off-balance and clumsy and he was getting timed by Lazcano for counter-shots, which I think speaks to an overall decline. At best, it was simple ring rust. 3. Hatton thinks he got over-eager at times to finish Lazcano when he hurt him. Probably true. But his reflexes to get out of the way of Lazcano’s return blows were dull.