Watching two rounds of Paulie Malignaggi’s first junior welterweight (140 lbs.) title defense, I saw Malignaggi jabbing Herman Ngoudjo to pieces and thought, “Yup, this is going to be as easy as I expected.” To quote a certain owner of a miraculous hamster, “Not so.” Malignaggi wasn’t sharp — a long layoff simply doesn’t behoove a reflex guy like Paulie — and Ngoudjo was significantly more clever then I knew him to be. I scored it 115-113 for Malignaggi, but wouldn’t have blamed anyone for giving it to Ngoudjo, because a number of those rounds were close. The judges saw it more clearly for Malignaggi, on the whole, so he wins. Malignaggi dominated the first two stanzas. Then, out of nowhere, Ngoudjo started counter-punching him with a hard, fast, right. From moment one it was clear that Ngoudjo was fast, but he was counter-punching Malignaggi’s jab, a pretty fast punch and not the one I would have imagined Ngoudjo being able to counter. For the remainder of the rounds, on one end of the see-saw was whether Malignaggi jabbed enough and got out of the way fast enough; and on the other end was whether Ngoudjo landed enough hard counters and took advantage of his few opportunities on the inside. Each round could be scored based on which end of the see saw was carrying more weight at the end of each round. The only exception was the seventh, which Ngoudjo clearly owned because of an assault that had Malignaggi on the verge of going down. I’ve thought ill of Buddy McGirt as a trainer in the past, who has had a bad couple years with his fighters in big fights. But he was almost perfect with Malignaggi tonight. When those unexpected counter rights started flying, Malignaggi looked clueless, but McGirt told him what to do and, to his credit, he did it. Likewise with the uppercut McGirt started asking for, another great instruction given the way Ngoudjo began leaning his head down as he came in late in the fight. In the post-fight interview Malignaggi saw his other mistake, but never fixed it on his own: Confused by Ngoudjo’s unexpected lack of energetic, leading attack, he kept falling in — a bad habit of his that’s going to seriously cost him one day if he doesn’t correct it — and getting plugged as he leaned. That Ngoudjo was able to do all that flummoxing had everything to do with him and the craftiness of his game plan, a reason for praise of his trainer, Howard Grant. It was a pretty impressive chess match by both teams out there. And a fight with unexpected drama that can largely be attributed to just that. Next for the winner: Malignaggi didn’t do himself any favors tonight. It’ll be interesting to see whether it hurts his chances of getting a big money Ricky Hatton fight this summer. If I were him, I’d begin plotting another defense of the belt real, real soon against a less awkward and gritty — and, it must be said, less smart — opponent than Ngoudjo, to give himself an opportunity to look good. Of course, that’s risky, because a cut could put him on the shelf for a while. Failing a Ricky Hatton fight, there are some good scraps out there to be had for Malignaggi in the junior welterweight division — like against Junior Witter, or Ricardo Torres, or Demetrius Hopkins. It’s just that none of them will get him rich. I’m not blaming Malignaggi excessively for his performance, which resulted in part from his team’s inability, or the refusal of the networks, to give him a date for his first defense sooner. But it’s clear enough he needs to be in the ring more often, at all costs. Next for the loser: Based on what Ngoudjo showed tonight, more than ever, I wonder if he’s been rushed into big fights too soon. It’s clear he can do a lot in the ring. Sure, he doesn’t have world class power. I worry about his conditioning, despite all his oft-repeated marathon experience, because he’s bulky for a 140-pounder and appeared to tire in the late rounds before turning on the jets again to finish (late round energy has been a consistent problem for him). But he’s fast, crafty, hits hard enough to make his opponents notice and his style would give any and every 140-pounder in the world trouble with its awkwardness. I just don’t think he’ll ever be great, or even a titlist, unless he catches a weak belt-holder on an off-night. He can make a pretty good living on ESPN2 or as a gate-keeper for a young prospect or as a solid test for a more established fighter, at least. More seasoning might have given him a better chance at bigger, better things.