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Khan-Malignaggi: A Fighter’s Code
By Thomas Hauser* * *
Paulie Malignaggi sat on a folding chair in his dressing room one floor above The Theater at Madison Square Garden. He’d just been stopped in the eleventh round of his bid to wrest the WBA 140-pound title from Amir Khan. There had been no knockdowns. Paulie was on his feet when referee Steve Smoger intervened to save him from further punishment.
Malignaggi’s face was bruised and swollen. A New York State Athletic Commission doctor sat beside him.
“Do you have a headache?”
“No,” Paulie answered.
“Is there any pain?”
“I feel bad that I lost, but I don’t feel that bad physically.”
“Are you sure?”
“Believe me; I’ve been through worse.”
“You’ll need some ice on those bruises so your face doesn’t swell up.”
The doctor left.
Cutman Danny Milano moved to Paulie’s side and pressed an iced towel against the fighter’s face.
Paulie looked at the people around him. His brother Umberto, trainer Sherif Younan, co-manager Anthony Catanzaro, and longtime friend Pete Sferazza.
“I felt old tonight,” he said. “It’s the first time in a fight that I felt like the older guy. I had a good training camp. I’m only twenty-nine. But he was moving around, getting off first. I said to myself, ‘That used to be me.’”
“You’re not one of the kids anymore,” Catanzaro told him. “You’re still a young man, but it’s different in boxing.”
Paulie smiled ruefully. For a fighter with his pride, each loss is a bit like death.
“It’s a long way from KeySpan Park,” he said. “That’s for sure. I remember coming out of the tunnel that night. My pro debut; I had all these dreams. My whole career was ahead of me. Sometimes that seems like a long time ago, and sometimes it seems like it was yesterday.”
Paulie took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“Did anybody talk to Grandpa? Could someone call Grandpa and tell him I’m all right.”
Paulie Malignaggi was the kid who couldn’t, who did. Abandoned by his father, mistreated by an abusive stepfather; he moved in with his maternal grandparents at age fifteen and turned to boxing for self-esteem. Three years later, he won a national amateur championship. He turned pro on July 7, 2001, under the promotional guidance of Lou DiBella.
Malignaggi was good-looking (still is). He had a big mouth (still does). And he could box (still can). Throughout his career, his weakness as a fighter has been a lack of punching power. Five knockouts in thirty-one fights. The last time that Paulie knocked an opponent out, LeBron James had yet to play in the NBA and Barack Obama was representing portions of the south side of Chicago in the Illinois state legislature.
Paulie won his first twenty-one professional fights. On June 10, 2006, he challenged Miguel Cotto for the WBO 140-pound crown. Cotto was at his peak. Malignaggi fought heroically and went the distance in a losing effort, absorbing a brutal beating in the process. After the fight, Arturo Gatti commended Paulie for his courage. “I’m proud that you’re Italian,” Gatti said.
One year later, Malignaggi got another title opportunity. This time, he won every round and seized the IBF 140-pound championship from Lovemore N’dou.
“After I beat N’dou,” Paulie says, “I thought the gates of heaven would open up for me.”
He was wrong. Victorious but unimpressive title defenses against Herman Ngoudjo and N’dou followed. Then Paulie got another shot at the stardom that had eluded him when he lost to Cotto. On November 22, 2008, he fought Ricky Hatton in Las Vegas.
“If I’d fought like I’m capable of fighting,” Paulie declares, “Hatton wouldn’t have been able to hit me in the ass with a handful of rice.”
But Paulie wasn’t Paulie that night. He hadn’t been for a year. Whatever else was going on in his life, the chemistry between him and Buddy McGirt (who’d replaced Billy Giles as Malignaggi’s trainer) wasn’t right.
“They say a fighter gets better when he wins a world title,” Paulie notes. “I got worse. Buddy teaches all his fighters to fight the same way. He wants you to fight out of a box, a defensive shell, and move your head a lot. It’s okay to fight in the pocket if that’s the kind of fighter you are. But I use a lot of movement. Buddy was trying to change everything that I was about as a fighter and he took away my main asset, which was my legs.”
Against Hatton, Malignaggi did virtually nothing right. “I stunk out the joint,” he admits. “That fight cost me my dreams. If I beat Hatton, I become a star. I might even have made it to the Hall of Fame. The way I fought that night will bother me till the day I die. It was like God gave me a gift when they made that fight and I fucked it up.”
Malignaggi’s purse for fighting Hatton was US$1,200,000; far and away his largest payday ever. For his next bout (an off-TV contest against journeyman Chris Fernandez), he was paid $10,000. He changed trainers, moving from McGirt to Sherif Younan. Then, on August 22, 2009, he journeyed to Houston to fight Juan Diaz.
“I knew what the deal was,” Paulie says. “Diaz had just been knocked out by Juan Manuel Marquez. HBO and Golden Boy were trying to build him back up. I’m a light-punching guy who’s a former world champion, so HBO and Golden Boy and the Diaz people said, ‘Let’s get Malignaggi. We’ll put the fight in Texas, in Juan’s hometown. Paulie won’t stand a chance.’”
Paulie made just under US$200,000 for the Diaz fight. “The judges robbed me,” he says. “They didn’t take my money, but they stole the fight. And there’s no telling how much money that cost me.”
Most observers agreed. Gale Van Hoy’s scorecard (118-110 in favor of Diaz) was particularly egregious. “Nobody is that stupid,” Paulie says. “It was worse than incompetence. It was corrupt.”
The pain and frustration ran deep.
“It’s easy to throw your hands in the air and say, ‘Why do I bother working so hard?’” Malignaggi raged after the fight. “Why do I leave my family and friends and go to training camp and make all the other sacrifices I make to get ready? When the fight comes, I get screwed anyway. That’s what makes boxing so hard. It’s not just the physical part. It’s trying to motivate myself to train hard at the same time I’m wondering if I’m going to get fucked all over again. If Juan Diaz is a man, he’ll fight me again. If I got a decision like that in my favor, I couldn’t live with myself unless I fought the other guy again.”
On December 12, 2009, they fought again; this time in Chicago, a neutral site. Paulie won a unanimous decision.
Every fight has the potential to derail a world-class fighter’s career. A handful of fights have the potential to be career-altering wins.
After the second Diaz fight, Malignaggi had entered the ring for five watershed fights. He’d lost to Cotto; beaten N’dou to become a world champion; lost to Hatton; lost a disputed decision to Diaz; then triumphed over Diaz in a rematch. Against all odds, he had scraped and clawed his way back into the spotlight and was poised to reach for the brass ring again.
The obstacle to success was England’s Amir Khan.
Khan turned pro one year after winning a silver medal as a 17-year-old prodigy at the 2004 Olympics and started his career with eighteen consecutive wins. Then, on September 6, 2008, he was knocked out in the first round by Breidis Prescott.
Following the loss to Prescott, Khan moved his base of operations to Los Angeles and began training with Freddie Roach. After a comeback fight against Oisin Fagin, he won a five-round technical decision against a badly faded Marco Antonio Barrera in a fight cut short by an accidental head butt. Next, on July 18, 2009, he decisioned Andreas Kotelnik to win the 140-pound WBA belt. In his first title defense, he knocked out Dmitry Salita in seventy-six seconds.
Khan is being groomed for stardom by Golden Boy Promotions (which spirited him away from Frank Warren). He wanted to make a splash in the United States, preferably at Madison Square Garden. And he viewed Malignaggi as the sort of opponent a champion faces when he’s taking another step up the ladder toward elite status.
From Malignaggi’s point of view, the match-up was equally enticing. This was a title fight. But the belt was incidental to the fact that it was a high-profile bout against a “name” opponent that Paulie thought he would win.
“This fight is redemption for me,” Paulie said.
Khan-Malignaggi shaped up as an interesting confrontation between two luminescent personalities. Initially, the fighters evinced respect for one another.
“Malignaggi is a tough character,” Khan said. “He’s a clever boxer. We’re both quick; we both have heart; and we both don’t quit.”
Paulie responded in kind, although he did fan the flames a bit when asked if he thought that Amir was using performance enhancing drugs. That question came about because Khan and Manny Pacquiao are both trained by Freddie Roach and work with physical conditioner Alex Ariza. In the past, Malignaggi had voiced suspicions about Pacquiao’s training regimen.
“Amir is in the same stable,” Paulie offered. “I’m not saying he’s dirty. It’s just, he’s got the same team around him. Other than that, I don’t suspect Amir Khan of anything. But because he’s part of that stable, how is it not going to cross my mind?”
Roach responded by calling Malignaggi an “asshole.” Things went downhill from there, with insults flying back and forth.
“Paulie needs shutting up,” Khan declared. “I’m going to properly shut him up. I don’t think he’ll last more than a few rounds. I know for a fact that it won’t go the distance.”
“I don’t know what the big deal is with Khan,” Malignaggi countered. “I find it comical that this guy is suddenly in his mind going to take a former world champion like me and stop him. I’m not a big puncher. But let’s face it; if you blow on Khan’s chin, you might hurt him. He hasn’t been tested against a fighter who knows what he’s doing. This will be his welcome to big time boxing. He has no idea what he’s getting himself into.”
As the trash-talking escalated, Khan found himself faced with quotes attributed to him that were markedly unfamiliar. “One of my friends was responding for me on Twitter,” he explained. “I would read something in the newspaper and say to myself, ‘Wait a minute. I never said that.’ So now I’ve taken that over myself.”
Then Amir experienced a more embarrassing moment. In early May, the News of the World reported a claim by a Los Angeles model named Leanne Crow that Khan had sent her sex-text messages and nude photos of himself.
“The exchanges between us were very very explicit,” Crow maintained. “I admit I was attracted to him and, at the time, quite enjoyed the banter and gave as good as I got. It was just that I felt a bit cheap afterwards. Everyone knows Amir is supposed to be a clean-cut lad who lives for boxing. But Amir loves to talk dirty and act dirty. The picture messages he sent me were obscene. One was of his face; one was of his torso; and one was of himself aroused. He also asked me to send ‘filthy’ pictures back. I’d heard he was a strict Muslim.”
That led Malignaggi to declaim, “Tell that pervert to stick to sending photos to models, because this boxing game is a real sport.”
“I guess I went over the line with that one,” Paulie later acknowledged. “You say that sort of thing sometimes in the heat of the moment. But that’s the way I am. Talking is what I do. I talk in my sleep.”
Underlying Malignaggi’s talk was a large dose of resentment born of the belief that Amir was being given what Paulie had been forced to fight for throughout his professional life. Khan, in Malignaggi’s eyes, walked around on a red carpet.
The official storyline for Khan-Malignaggi was Amir’s debut in the United States. “Amir Khan is here to become a global superstar,” Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer proclaimed at the final pre-fight press conference.
HBO vice president Kery Davis followed Schaefer to the podium and poured more salt into the wound, saying, “Paulie has the skill sets to help us determine whether Amir Khan is the good marketable fighter we hope he is.”
In other words; Paulie was a measuring stick, a prop, a stepping stone for someone else.
“Arrogant” was one of the more polite adjectives used within the Malignaggi camp to describe Davis’s remarks and HBO’s abandonment of any pretense of neutrality.
Then things got uglier. At the weigh-in on Friday, the fighters were brought together for a staredown (the publicity-seeking ritual that has become an idiotic incendiary part of boxing). Security was poor. Khan’s fans had been allowed to spill onto the stage and were shouting insults. The insults escalated, both ways. Amir and Paulie stood nose to nose, leaning into each other. Golden Boy matchmaker Eric Gomez moved to separate them.
Khan, thinking it was Malignaggi who was laying hands on him, shoved Paulie.
Paulie shoved back.
Suddenly, fists were flying.
“The pressure is getting to Amir,” Paulie said afterward. “He can’t take it anymore. I’m a better fighter than anyone he’s ever fought, and he knows it.”
That was true to the extent that Malignaggi would have been favored over each of Khan’s previous opponents. Throughout his career, Paulie has been a consummate boxer. “I can make you miss in a lot of ways,” he says. “I can make you miss with my legs, with my upper-body movement, by moving my head. It’s not just speed. You have to know what to do with it.”* * *
Indeed, when Floyd Mayweather Jr was asked recently to name a current fighter other than himself whose “boxing brain” he respected, the first fighter he mentioned was Malignaggi.
Freddie Roach also admired things about Paulie. “He’s a top-ten fighter,” the trainer said five days before Khan-Malignaggi. “He’s resilient and tough. He showed a lot of balls against Cotto. He can make you look bad because he’s elusive, and he’s coming off a good win.”
“But I don’t rate Juan Diaz that high,” Roach continued. “Diaz is slow and comes right at you. Anyone with boxing ability can beat Diaz. And Paulie has some bad habits that Amir will take advantage of. Paulie keeps his hands low and doesn’t throw a straight punch except for the up-jab. So if you’re fast, which Amir is, you can beat him down the middle. Paulie has a habit of pulling straight back from punches, which works against a lot of guys. But it won’t work against Amir, who’s taller, has a longer reach, and is faster than Paulie.”
“Amir can do everything Paulie does, only better,” Roach concluded. “I see Amir starting off very fast and very aggressive. Body shots will be the key. And Amir will trade hooks with him. Paulie has talked himself into some big fights, but I think he talked himself into too big a fight this time. I don’t see it going long. And if it does, Amir is in great shape. He’ll be able to push Paulie hard at a fast pace and knock him out late. Paulie was a world champion. He’s got heart. But Amir is just too much. We’re going to make a statement in this fight.”
In sum; Malignaggi would be in the ring against a younger (twenty-three vs. twenty-nine), taller (5’10” vs. 5’7”), harder-hitting, and possibly faster opponent. The 5-to-1 odds in Khan’s favor (which most observers thought were high) reflected that reality.
When Paulie looked at Amir, he saw bits and pieces of himself the way he was six years ago. Young, fast, talented, charismatic, with hopes for a hall-of-fame career ahead. Malignaggi wanted to slam the door to that future in Khan’s face and break his nose.
On fight night, Malignaggi arrived at his dressing room at Madison Square Garden at 8:15. The room was small; twelve-feet squared with a gray linoleum-tile floor and white cinderblock walls.
Paulie shadow-boxes in his dressing room before a fight more than most fighters do. Over the next two-and-a-half hours, he was constantly getting off his chair, dancing around, moving his hands.
“Keep that right hand in position when you jab,” Sherif Younan instructed. “He comes in a straight line. Circle both ways. Work angles . . . Walk him into something that will make him think twice.”
Referee Steve Smoger came in and gave Paulie his pre-fight instructions. If one were looking for bad omens, Smoger had been the third man in the ring for Cotto-Malignaggi.
Younan wrapped Malignaggi’s hands and gloved him up.
For the next half-hour, Paulie hit the pads on and off as Younan offered a stream of encouragement and advice.
“When you’re hooking, keep your right hand high . . . You have better footwork than he does . . . Time to shine, champ. Time to shine . . . He’s gonna hit the air all night long . . . When frustration sets in, that’s when you take him.”
Danny Milano put Vaseline on Malignaggi’s face.
“I’m gonna fuck him up,” Paulie said.
In the end, it was a bad night for Malignaggi. The tipoff that he was in trouble came early in the fight. The first few rounds were entertaining and fast-paced. But Paulie wasn’t using his legs defensively the way he’d used them when he was young.
Round three was Malignaggi’s best round of the fight. He moved effectively, got some solid punches in, and slowed Khan down a bit. But his face was starting to puff up.
Soon, Khan was landing jabs and right hands at will. Then it was combinations with power in each shot. Even when Paulie made Amir miss, he seldom made him pay. And when the opportunity presented itself (which was often), Khan pushed down hard on the back of Malignaggi’s head and neck. That’s a foul, but one that referees often overlook.
In round five, Khan started landing hooks to the body. Midway through the stanza, a hard body shot hurt Paulie. Amir followed by pushing down hard on the back of Malignaggi’s head, and Paulie took advantage of the moment by touching his knee to the canvas.
“That body shot hurt,” he admitted afterward. “I figured, okay, he’s pushing my head down, so I’ll go down without a knockdown being called and get a few seconds rest. Amir knew it.”
From that point on, Khan dominated the fight. By round nine, he was beating Malignaggi up. Paulie had nothing to keep him off. His last line of defense was his toughness and his pride.
It wasn’t enough. One minute and twenty-five seconds into round eleven, Steve Smoger stopped the fight. Khan won every round on each judge’s scorecard. He didn’t want it more than Paulie. He just fought better. The most significant number of the night wasn’t Amir’s 259-to-127 edge in punches landed. It was that he connected on forty percent of his punches.
The once-elusive Malignaggi wasn’t.
After the fight, Khan told boxing fans what they wanted to hear. He said he’d like to fight Marcos Maidana next and then the winner of Timothy Bradley vs. Devon Alexander.
But it appears as though Bradley will duck Alexander for the time being. And Khan has a suspect chin. His defenders say that he simply got caught early in his first-round loss at the hands of Breidis Prescott. But the prevailing view is that Amir has less room for error than most elite fighters and a desire to avoid punchers whenever possible. Maidana is a flawed fighter. He lost to Andreas Kotelnik and was on the canvas three times against Victor Ortiz. But he can punch.
As for Malignaggi; he isn’t as old a fighter as Khan made him look. Let’s not forget that, five months ago, Paulie outboxed Juan Diaz. He can still beat a lot of guys. But he’d be a decided underdog against any of the 140-pound elite.
Fighters who rely on speed and reflexes as their edge over opponents peak young. Malignaggi’s career as a fighter is on the downward side of the hill. Against Khan, once again, he didn’t use his legs the way he used to. But this time, it wasn’t by design.
Also, against Khan, Paulie’s neck gave him trouble. “My neck was dead,” he said afterward. “That’s left over from the Hatton fight. It doesn’t take much to aggravate it. Amir kept pushing down on my head and neck. After a while, I was afraid to throw a right hand because, if I missed, my head would be hanging out there.”
Worse, Paulie seems to be losing the mental edge that drove him as a fighter. He no longer believes in himself the way he once did. He knows he can lose. The hunger isn’t quite the same either. He has been a champion. He has proven as much as he’s going to prove as a fighter. Boxing is now a job, not a passion.
Khan-Malignaggi was a bad styles match-up for Paulie. But in truth, he didn’t fight with the same resolve that he showed against Miguel Cotto.
Against Cotto, Malignaggi was badly beaten up. By the end of the fight, his face looked like it had been distorted by a computer imaging program. But he never stopped trying to win the fight. By the time it was over, he’d won four rounds. One judge gave him five.
Against Khan, by contrast, there came a point in the middle rounds where it seemed as though Paulie was resigned to his fate and his goal was to survive with honor. It’s harder for a fighter to walk through fire when he’s older.
Naazim Richardson recently observed, “A fighter takes two things from every fight; punishment and experience.”
Right now, Paulie is taking more punishment than experience from his fights. And the punishment is mounting. His hands have been broken multiple times. There’s permanent damage to nerves in his face as a consequence of the Cotto fight and a neck problem courtesy of Ricky Hatton. It’s a given that he’ll have arthritis later in life. How much more punishment to his body does he want to take?
The good times never last long enough for a fighter. Let’s hope that Paulie cuts the bad ones short. He has fought with honor throughout his career. He won every fight that he was expected to win and some that he wasn’t. But the human body is more fragile than we like to think it is. Paulie knows that from personal experience; his own and the experience of others.
On August 16, 2008, a young man named Ronnie Vargas was shot to death. Vargas was a promising young fighter; a three-time New York Golden Gloves champion with an 8-and-0 professional record.
Four days later, Paulie visited the Ortiz Funeral Home in the Bronx (where the family was sitting) and gave his IBF championship belt to Vargas’s father so Ronnie could be buried as a champion.
If Paulie has a much respect for himself and his body as he has shown over the years for his fellow fighters and boxing, he’ll think seriously about moving on to the next stage of his life.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His next book (a novel entitled Waiting for Carver Boyd) will be published in late-June by JR Books. Hauser says that Waiting for Carver Boyd is “the best pure boxing writing I’ve ever done.”