In Defense Of Paulie Malignaggi

(Paulie Malignaggi, left, jaws with his June 22 opponent, Adrien Broner)

It’s strange for me to see Paulie Malignaggi these days, basking in the heat of the Indian summer his career is currently enjoying. After all, he was never meant to get this far. He was meant to fade into obscurity a long time ago, like a good contender should, making room for the megastars and procession of Golden Boys that seem to be trotted out by the networks every few years. Paulie was always different, and I don’t only mean in terms of the proclivity for Jersey Shore highlights and sweatbands John Gotti’s kids would turn down.

I still remember the first time I was introduced to him, as part of the Ricky Hatton/Juan Urango undercard when he faced off with Lovemore N’dou and edged a split decision win after fading badly down the stretch. Paulie might not have boxed well that night, but he sure looked memorable with a Fabio-esque mane that billowed out when he threw a punch and swept over his shoulders like a sweaty, vaseline fuelled shampoo commercial.

It was a strange fight in many ways. For starters, Paulie was traveling to fight and not being positioned as the opponent, or at least not the opponent on that given night, considering the whole event was staged around placing Malignaggi and Hatton side by side in order to set up a future bout. I suppose as a ploy it was moderately successful. The British fans certainly knew who Paulie was after that, even if this was mainly due to his decision to wear hair extensions to the ring, only to have them repeatedly come loose and impair his vision, resulting in his then trainer Buddy McGirt hacking them off between rounds 8 and 9.

This was slap bang in the middle of Malignaggi’s moment in the sun — what most presumed would be his only such moment — during his first title reign when he was known as a slick, graceful boxer with a warrior’s heart. I was excited to get a look at Hatton’s future opponent and, having been brought up on a diet of Jake LaMotta, was always susceptible to the charms of a brash Italian-American New Yorker. Needless to say, I was still watching a few months later when Paulie lost every round apart from the 1st in a monumentally one-sided beatdown at the hands of the Hitman. The performance was far from memorable (he averaged less than three power punches thrown per round), but what I took away from that night was Malignaggi’s anger at Buddy Mcgirt’s decision to stop the contest during the 11th. Paulie had taken so much punishment and is so notoriously feather fisted that the result had become academic. McGirt was only doing the logical thing. Still, Paulie was visibly furious at being denied the right to finish on his feet, repeatedly insisting afterwards that he was “better than getting stopped.”

He hadn’t meant for his big night to end like that, but then he hadn’t really been meant to headline at all. As I worked my way back through his back catalogue of fights, past the first N’dou match and his victory over Edner Cherry that led him to receiving Ring Magazine’s Comeback of the Year award in 2007, it quickly became evident that Paulie Malignaggi was never meant to have got this far. He had been destined to slink off into the shadows long before sweeping into the consciousness of British fight fans on the back of a thousand “youknowwhatImeans?” and a flurry of “forgetaboutits.”

If boxing fans are honest, few expected to hear from Paulie again following his first professional loss back in 2006, when Miguel Cotto fractured his cheek, knocked several of his teeth out, and left blood flowing from an array of cuts over his face during the course of pounding his way to an unanimous decision victory. Watching the tape back at the time, I saw a bloody mask concealing the same solid chin and lion’s heart that he’d shown a flicker of against Hatton. It’s one of my favourite fights for that reason. Paulie may have been outclassed by Cotto, but he was not outfought. He hung in there and took his punishment like a man.

In my book, that’s all you can really ask for in a fighter. Not everyone can be Sugar Ray Robinson, but we can all learn to take our medicine. If you are to go out, you should do so on your shield. It’s a universal dictum, but it’s by no means universally evident. HBO commentator Max Kellerman might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he was on the money when he stated that “boxing is a sport in which more is required of you than is really reasonable.” Some guys understand that. And they’re the ones who should be revered. It’s for this reason that Paulie’s postfight interview from that night at Madison Square Garden stands in my memory. You can hear the heartbreak in his voice, but you can also see the admiration in the faces of all those around him. It actually takes him a while to notice it, almost as if the thought of opting out never crossed his mind and the whole thing had been second nature, rather than a colossal display of courage. He initially struggles to understand the belief of those watching that he had gone above and beyond the call of duty during those brutal 12 rounds. To him it was all part and parcel of stepping in the ring.

It will come as no surprise given his reputation for straight talking, but if you ask Paulie the identity of his toughest ever opponent you’ll get a quick, unequivocal answer in return. Cotto, he’ll say, because he took him into the trenches. He’ll name the guy who gave him his worst beating, who hurt him more than anyone else ever managed, and there’ll be no shame in his voice. He won’t inflate his achievements, or underplay his toughest tests with a sly sense of self-aggrandisement. Nor will he disrespect any of his opponents after stepping into the ring with them. He’ll simply state the truth, because that is what defines him.

With all this in mind, his famous 2009 rant following the controversial decision loss to Juan Diaz in Texas would have come as no surprise.  Paulie got robbed and he made his feelings clear. Once again, many would have expected never to hear from him again following the damaging loss.  et he stood and fought his corner. In a shockingly candid outburst, he admitted he fought for the money, more often than not as an opponent rather than the name fighter, and he stated facts about the Texas State Athletic Commission that had long been held amongst ringside observers who’ve grown increasingly tired of their ineptitude. Fans responded well to his tirade, and it was most likely what led to a rematch being ordered on neutral ground four months later — a fight in which Malignaggi cruised to an unanimous decision victory.

Now it should be pointed out that Paulie has been known to fib a little, with a recent example being when he turned down a blood-sniffing Keith Thurman’s offer of a bout — following the latter’s win over Jan Zavek earlier this year — on the grounds that he “didn’t fight for co-main event money.” What he meant to say was that he doesn’t fight for co-main event money anymore. The truth is, Paulie will fight anyone, anywhere. He’s just at the stage of his career where he only has a handful of bouts left, and he wants to make the most of them from a financial perspective.  There was a time when he’d do it for almost anything, though. This is a guy who’s fought in Canada, England and the Ukraine — all as either undercard fighter or opponent. Famously, he flew out to Kiev last year en route to capturing Vyacheslav Senchenko’s WBA belt last year via knockout. It was a fight that Paulie knew he needed a stoppage to win. As any member of the boxing media could have told you at the time, the judges gave Senchenko any round in which he landed a clean punch. Yet Paulie worked his opponent’s left eye until it was swollen shut, and he took home the belt. It wasn’t a bout I tuned in to. But it was a result I welcomed. Paulie doesn’t duck anyone, and that’s one of the reasons I consider myself a fan.

He’ll fight Adrien Broner in June, for what could be his last monster payday. Broner is younger, quicker and better skilled, but he’s never been truly tested. He might turn out to be great; we’ll just have to wait and see. For now he’s jumping two weight classes to 147 pounds and stepping through the ropes for a contest that promises to be explosive, both in and out of the ring. Watching the pair of them get into it after the Danny Garcia/Zab Judah press conference was like stepping back in time. It was vintage Malignaggi: quick-witted, sharp and very funny. His assertion that Broner was “lying to himself” was refreshing because it was born out of the fundamental truth the drives Paulie.

He may run his mouth, make ill-advised comments about buying houses with his jewelry collection and wear clothes more befitting of a high school “Belieber” than a 32-year-old man, but Malignaggi is an honest guy, first and foremost. That he operates in one of the most dishonest professional environments going should not detract from this fact. You have to possess at least a passing knowledge of the dark arts to succeed in boxing. This is the reason I so desperately wanted him to square off with Hatton one more time, prior to Hatton’s unsuccessful comeback last November. It would have been perfect boxing asymmetry: the former conqueror, returning to the site of battle after years of physical and emotional tumult. One of boxing’s straightest shooters, facing off against a man who’d spent the previous three years crippled by feelings of dishonesty and regret. I believe Paulie would have taught Hatton a lesson were that fight to have been made. And I believe it would have been a victory for integrity in the sport.

Look, I accept Paulie’s shortcomings. You simply can’t overlook them. I know he’s not a great fighter, and I can understand why people don’t like him. It’s easy to think of him as more of a talking head than a boxer, given the frequency with which he gives attention-grabbing interviews. I can see how he could wind you up, but I also believe we have a duty as fight fans to look past the pouting and wise guy mannerisms to the true character below. At a fundamental level, Paulie may merely be good, rather than great, but he is everything you could want in a competitor. Sure, he might have pillows for hands, but he can take a shot with the best of them and never whine about it afterwards. That reminds me, he’s also an excellent analyst when he appears on Showtime, despite what you may think about the East Coast nasality of his voice.I believe he’s got a long career ahead of him as a co-commentator and I’ll definitely be tuning in. Paulie can talk your ear off, but he tells it like it is. And in a sport that is corrupt to its very core, he’s on the money more times than most.