In Praise Of Paulie Malignaggi

Paulie Malignaggi has something of a persecution complex, but as Nirvana once said: “Just because you’re paranoid/don’t mean they’re not after you.”
After winning a junior welterweight (140 lbs) belt in a June performance on HBO that won the admiration of its wizened ringside commentators, Malignaggi had every expectation that he’d be back on the king of boxing networks soon. It didn’t work out that way. Next came months of news releases defending his fighting style, then the interviews where Malignaggi ranged from being perplexed about his situation to defiant about it.
It’s hard to say why he wouldn’t be back on HBO except for the most obvious conspiracy: Malignaggi doesn’t knock anyone out — he has only five in 23 wins. People like knockouts. Therefore, to complete the syllogism, HBO reasoned that people don’t want to see Malignaggi. It didn’t help him that he got entangled in sanctioning belt politics, which are boring, so I won’t repeat them.
I once disliked Malignaggi.

He’s brash, cocky and loud-mouthed, at least part of which is showmanship. He clowns around in the ring. He was a popular hometown fighter in New York, and, I thought, an overrated one. He’s a pretty boy who’s actually done some modeling, which struck me as annoying when put together with the rest of the package. And you know what? I didn’t like his lack of knockouts, either. I’m not a fan who needs a bunch of KOs to make me happy, but for me to like a fighter there needs to be at least the threat of it, from the standpoint of strategic interesting-ness.
Then came the fight where Malignaggi earned the respect of not just myself, but a great many other haters. In June of 2006, he got beaten up just about as badly as you’ll ever see a fighter get beaten up, by Miguel Cotto. Cotto literally broke his face. Malignaggi spent some time in the hospital recovering from a fractured orbital bone. What’s remarkable about this is that he fought his heart out against Cotto. He probably could have run away a little more than he did that night and taken less damage, but he opted to stand and trade with a far more fearsome puncher. That took real guts. And Malignaggi made matters competitive in a battle where he was but one stepping stone on the path to rebuilding Cotto’s reputation after his near loss to the unheralded (at the time) Ricardo Torres.
I’ve got no unified theory of why I like one person but not another. Is Malignaggi much different in his personality than Floyd Mayweather, Jr.? Nah. He’s funnier, maybe, with a sharper wit. He comes across as a little more earnest, maybe; both want lasting greatness, but you get the impression Malignaggi would rather take the hardest possible route, against the toughest possible opponents, whereas sometimes Mayweather wants to take the just-difficult-enough route. But overall? Nah. I always disliked Erik Morales and liked his rival Marco Antonio Barrera, even though Barrera was probably about as much a jerk as Morales. Don’t know why. It’s just the way it is.
But after that Cotto fight, I liked Malignaggi. He was humbled, somewhat; all the reports were that he was devastated emotionally. Before long, it was back to cocky Malignaggi, though, and I still liked him. He bounced back to win a title belt where lesser fighters might have called it quits. After getting defeated, humbled and rebuilt, his cockiness became charming, not grating.
Even when I didn’t like Malignaggi’s persona, I always liked his skills. He’s fast. He’s got a diverse offense. He has good defense, and even when he gets hit he’s usually rolling with the punches in a way that keeps him from getting hurt against most opponents.
Here’s the most important part: Malignaggi is an exciting fighter. I don’t care if he knocks anyone out, although it may be preferable. The fact is, his fights have a lot of action. He’s not afraid of getting hit in order to get off one of his rapid-fire combinations. In the three Malignaggi fights I’ve watched, he was anything but boring.
Malignaggi’s on Showtime Saturday night, defending his belt against Herman Ngoudjo. I expect he’ll win it in entertaining fashion against a fighter who will come forward and try to out-hustle him, a recipe for a good fight with Malignaggi. After that, Malignaggi might be in line for a big money fight with the consensus division champ, Ricky Hatton.
In a just world, Malignaggi gets just that. I don’t care if Malignaggi packs the same punch as Peach Schnapps. He’s hungry for superstardom, and, crucially, for lasting historical boxing greatness. He’s paid more than his share of dues in blood and broken bones, and he’s worked his way back to being a titlist. And he’s entertained along that journey. He deserves to be back in the limelight because of it.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board ( He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.