Ricky Hatton Vs. Paulie Malignaggi Preview And Prediction: Limping To First Place

Ricky Hatton and Paulie Malignaggi left bad last impressions in separate fights meant to sell the idea of them fighting one another. Hatton, coming back from a knockout loss in the biggest match of his career, struggled mightily with Juan Lazcano, even more mightily than I expected him to — and I expected him to struggle with Lazcano more than most people did. On the same card in May, Malignaggi struggled mightily with Lovemore N’Dou, a man he’d rather easily defeated one year earlier, in part because he came into the ring wearing absurd hair extensions that clouded his vision and had to be cut off mid-bout.

So even though this fight is for the real, honest-to-God linear junior welterweight (140 lbs.) Ring magazine title belt, and even though Hatton and Malignaggi are widely considered the best in their division, it’s not such a surprise that their fight on HBO this Saturday isn’t selling tickets all that well, reportedly. Neither is it helped by the economy nor the fact that the fight isn’t in Hatton-frenzied Great Britain nor the fact that Golden Boy Promotions is exerting most of its promotional muscle hyping Oscar De La Hoya-Manny Pacquiao on Dec. 6.

I like both men, and I like that the #1 man and the #2 man in a division are squaring off, but I am not terribly looking forward to this one myself. Hatton and Malignaggi can be entertaining at times, but their last outings left a bad taste in my mouth. What I’m most interested in is seeing how the brawler/boxer chaser/counter-puncher skirmishes play out… And if Malignaggi can pull off the upset…. And the effect of all the Mary J. Blige-esque subplots that have been playing out in the Hatton camp — reports that he’s in worse shape than ever, whether new trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr. can sand down his rough edges,the feuding between the two men about Hatton’s alcohol consumption… And what happens next for Hatton if he wins, since some of the best and biggest want to get into the ring with him and/or vice versa.

2271166109_9c0c14b7a5.jpgPaulie Malignaggi at his last fight, pre-midfight haircut, May, 2008. (From Flickr/mudpig)

Malignaggi naturally gets the role of “boxer” in this fight. Hatton may be polishing up his skills with Mayweather, but Malignaggi’s never had the option of brawling, because his punches lack knockout power, and so movement, defensive cleverness and hand speed are how he’s made a living. That’s not to say Malignaggi’s one of those dreaded “runners,” because he will stand and trade, as he bravely did with in his only loss to Miguel Cotto. Advanced boxing technique and raw speed, by the way, just happens to constitute one-half the recipe Floyd Mayweather, Jr. used to defeat Hatton and one-half the recipe Luis Collazo used to nearly beat Hatton. Malignaggi doesn’t have the other half: Both Mayweather and Collazo were bigger men, welterweights (147 lbs.) who were far more comfortable at the weight than Hatton was. Both were able to hurt him badly, something that Malignaggi’s unlikely to do.

There are a few other danger zones for Malignaggi. One is that he’s looked terrible in his last two fights. After winning an alphabet title strap against N’Dou last year, he very nearly lost to Herman Ngoudjo then to N’Dou in the rematch. I wonder if he thinks he’s proven his point about his toughness by bouncing back from the Cotto loss, and isn’t as driven by the desire for greatness he once espoused; maybe it’s recognition he always wanted, and, now that he has it, doesn’t need to fight for it anymore. More likely, I think he was unmotivated by his two opponents, neither of which he particularly wanted to fight. I bet he is “up” for Hatton. But a second, persistent danger for Malignaggi is that he breaks his right hand if the wind blows on it just right. He broke it against N’Dou in the rematch, and though he says it has healed, he’s a far less effective boxer when his biggest “power” punch (yes, those are sarcastic quotes) is out of commission.

Hatton attributed his performance against Lazcano to being over-eager to please the crowd and a little bit of nerves as he recovered from his first knockout and first loss. I don’t doubt that both contributed. But I thought I detected signs of decline. Hatton hasn’t ever looked as good as when he forced Kostya Tszyu to quit back in 2005, after the great Tszyu saw that he wasn’t going to keep the rough, mauling, body-punching Tasmanian devil off him no matter how many big right hands he landed on the up-and-comer. Since then, he’s more frequently found a way to scrap out wins rather than win spectacularly, save for the number he did on Jose Luis Castillo, which wasn’t as impressive as the win over Tszyu considering that Castillo was clearly a spent fighter by that night. I give him credit for coming out with the W against every kind of opponent save Mayweather. What’s concerning about Hatton is that I get the impression he has eroded as a fighter thanks to his hard-drinking, hard-living lifestyle. You just can’t routinely gain 30 pounds between fights and expect it not to catch up to you. Against Lazcano, the wear and tear looked especially pronounced. Never a defensive master, he was more hittable than ever.

Hatton’s outside the ring drama has been compounded this go-round by his break-up with long time trainer Billy Graham, which both men are still forced to talk about in interviews. Floyd Mayweather Sr. took over for him, and he and Hatton have had a dollop of soap operea. Mayweather says publicly Hatton needs to stop drinking; Hatton says publicly, no way. Mayweather specializes in defensive technique and other, subtle boxing arts, none of which point to the possibility that he might mesh with Hatton. But both men are on the same page about how he’s honed Hatton’s craft, making him better on defense and improved his jab. For Hatton’s sake, given the trouble he’s had with slicksters, they better both be right.

The stakes are high for Malignaggi, of course, what with him fighting in the biggest match of his life. Hatton, though, is one of the most beloved stars in the sport, mostly in his home country, where the zeal of his fans compares favorably to the followings of De La Hoya, Pacquiao and Mayweather. All of whom he has said he would like to fight next, with Juan Manuel Marquez making the list for good measure. He does need to win first to make that happen, and as such the stakes are just as high if not higher for Hatton than they are for Malignaggi. Losing to Mayweather was understandable. Losing to Malignaggi would be fairly understandable, too, considering that Malignaggi’s no slouch. But it would take considerable shine off Hatton’s continued viability as an elite fighter, already a label plenty of people have removed from his wuvable, pint-pounding, man of the people skull.

My prediction: My first reaction says Malignaggi. I think Malignaggi will be at his best because he’ll want to look great on his biggest stage, while Hatton’s unconvincing performances are now more the rule than the exception, no matter who he’s fighting or on what stage. All of the factors that have contributed to those performances persist and are likely to have worsened; word is that he’s having even more trouble than usual making weight this go-round. Add in the disruption of his trainer switch, and it’s harder for me to look past all that even though I think Hatton at his best beats Malignaggi at his best. I don’t think the best version of Hatton exists anymore. My pick is, therefore, Malignaggi. By decision, of course.

Confidence: 51 percent. If you asked me tomorrow, I might pick Hatton. A slipping version of Hatton still might be better than Malignaggi, says my brain.

My allegiance: None. As I said, I like both men. They’ve got their flaws — Malignaggi looks like a spikey-haired, headband-wearing pretty boy from New Jersey if you took that stereotype and dosed it on PCP, and Hatton’s refusal to maximize his talents in the ring is one of my greatest pet peeves about athletes — but they’re both colorful characters who fight bravely and will sign on the dotted line to fight anyone, anywhere, anytime.

About Tim Starks

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