Paulie Malignaggi: Photo by Holger Keifer
By Thomas Hauser
“The truth comes out in a boxing ring,” says Paulie Malignaggi. “I’ve seen a lot of guys who are tough on the streets come into the gym and turn their back once they get in the ring. Boxing does one of two things. It makes a coward out of you or it makes you a man."
In Malignaggi’s case, boxing has made him a man. It has taken a self-described “street punk,” given him self-esteem, and (through his own Herculean effort) made him one of the best junior-welterweights in the world. But on January 5th, Paulie’s future was up for grabs when he defended his 140-pound IBF championship against Herman Ngoudjo in Atlantic City.
Malignaggi is a compelling personality. He’s media-friendly, gracious with fans, and never says “no” to a microphone or camera. Words come out of his mouth like bursts of machine-gun fire. He wears his heart on his sleeve and craves attention. “I love big crowds,” he says. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re cheering for me or booing. I send the ones that are booing home unhappy.”
“Boxing is brain over brawn,” the legendary Ray Arcel once noted. “If you can’t think, you’re just another bum in the park.” In that vein, Malignaggi is a thinking fighter. He has won 24 of 25 pro fights and gives one hundred percent every time out. “I’m never completely satisfied with what I do,” he says. “I’m driven by negatives. I always expect more of myself.”
The naysayers expect more too. Their primary criticism of Paulie is that he has only five knockouts in 25 fights. Adding fuel to the fire, three of those knockouts came in his first three outings, leaving Malignaggi with a .091 knockout average in his last 22 bouts.
“I’m a world champion,” Paulie says in response. “My punches hurt. You never hear a fighter say ‘ow’ when he gets hit, but all punches hurt. I hit hard enough that guys don’t walk through me. Common sense should tell you that.”
In a way, Malignaggi’s lack of knockout power makes his accomplishments all the more impressive. Often, when he goes into battle, his opponent is armed with a machete, while Paulie is carrying a pocket-knife. But as Patrick Kehoe observes, “Fans crave the big blow, the definitive ending marking the clearest statement of dominance. Champions knock guys out, turn contenders into defenseless heaps.” And Paulie fights jab-by-jab, one round at a time.
The sole blemish on Malignaggi’s record is a loss by decision to Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden on June 10, 2006. “Going into the Cotto fight,” Paulie says, “I was prepared to get hit and I knew his fans would go crazy if he hurt me. But even though I was psychologically prepared, it was a very lonely feeling in the ring that night. My first mistake was I thought the ring was too small to move around the way I normally do, so I tried to smother him. That meant I was fighting inside and got cut [from a head butt] in the first round. Then I took the fight to him so I’d be ahead on the judges’ scorecards if they stopped the fight because of the cut, which meant I was fighting his fight even more and got knocked down [in the second round]. It was a chain reaction where one bad thing led to another.”
“I can’t complain about the decision,” Paulie continues. “Cotto won. A different move here, a break there, maybe it would have been different. I won four rounds; five on one judge’s scorecard. I showed I can get off the canvas, go twelve rounds, and fight my way back into a fight when I’m hurt. But you judge a fighter based on results, and I lost. I’d spent my entire life waiting for that moment and I came up short. It was a very disappointing night for me. The loss to Cotto hurt me more than winning the title last year lifted me up. I only hope I have a chance to win in an event of that magnitude again.”
Some fighters quit when they’re getting beaten up. Others just try to survive. It wasn’t lost on the boxing public that, against Cotto, no matter how badly Paulie was hurt, he kept trying to win.
“After the fight,” Malignaggi says, “people were saying, ‘Wow; Paulie has lots of courage. Paulie is better than we thought.’ And I knew I didn’t fight as well as I could have. It’s something I’ll always be obsessed with. I know I can beat Cotto. I might come out of it with more broken bones in my face, but I can beat him. Whatever else happens to me in boxing, no matter how many titles I win; if I retire without fighting Cotto again, there will always be an empty spot inside me.”
But not many fighters come back from the kind of beating that Malignaggi absorbed against Cotto and are as good as they were before.
“I was in the hospital with a fractured orbital bone,” Paulie remembers. “I had surgery on my face. People watch a fight and, when it’s over, they turn off the TV and go to bed. The next day, they’re out doing whatever they want to do. My whole life changed after that fight. I spent the whole summer recuperating.”
Then Malignaggi came back. On February 17, 2007, he won a ten-round decision over Edner Cherry at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York. Four months later, he got a second title opportunity and won every round against Lovemore N’dou to capture the IBF welterweight crown. That’s when he learned that sometimes, even for a champion, the fight to get in the ring can be as hard as the fight in it.
Hand surgery had sidelined Paulie for all but one fight in 2005. The damage he suffered against Cotto kept him out of action for the second half of 2006. After beating N’dou, he hoped to make up for lost time. But the television dates weren’t there.
“My whole career,” Malignaggi says, “I’d been told, ‘You have it all; the looks, the mouth, the personality, the style. Once you win a championship, you’ll be big.’ So I won a championship and it still didn’t happen for me. Other countries support their fighters. If I was fighting in Sicily [where Paulie’s parents were born], everyone in the country would be behind me. Joe Calzaghe is a hero in Wales. He’s a good fighter; but if I made a title defense against someone like Will McIntyre or Tocker Pudwell, I’d be boiled alive. Ricky Hatton is a hero in England. He’s is a good fighter too; but he fought a bunch of handpicked opponents like Joe Hutchinson and Michael Stewart.”
“I was in Times Square and saw a big billboard for Mayweather-Hatton 24/7,” Paulie continues. “I want that to be me. I don’t want to not love boxing because of the problems I have getting fights, but it’s already happening a little bit. I make all these sacrifices; I’m good at what I do; I’m willing to go in tough. And I couldn’t get a TV date after I won the title.”
Finally, Showtime stepped up to the plate, offering promoter Lou DiBella a $300,000 license fee for Malignaggi’s mandatory title defense against Herman Ngoudjo.
Ngoudjo was a quality opponent. Born in Cameroon and now a Canadian citizen, he had 16 victories in 17 fights. His only loss was a split-decision verdict against Jose Luis Castillo in January 2006.
There was the usual pre-fight trash-talking during the build-up to Malignaggi-Ngoudjo. “I’m the best you ever fought, you stupid boxer,” Paulie told Ngoudjo during a pre-fight media conference call. “You’re not even close to the best I’ve fought. I’ve been in the ring with sparring partners better than you. I’m going to use your head as a pinball.”
But on a more realistic note, Malignaggi acknowledged, “Ngoudjo is a hard worker and he does what he does well. I know the hunger that he has inside him. I remember what it was like when I fought for the title.”
On fight night, Atlantic City was overrun by pre-teen girls in town for a concert by 15-year-old Miley Cyrus (a/k/a Hannah Montana). It was a telling commentary on the strength of boxing versus kiddie culture in today’s economy that Cyrus had sold out the 13,000-seat Boardwalk Hall, while Paulie would be fighting in a room at Bally’s that seated 1,300.
“It takes an elite fighter to test me and a great fighter to beat me,” Malignaggi said shortly before the fight. “I’m a better fighter than Herman Ngoudjo. It’s as simple as that.”
Paulie’s “dressing room” was in a large meeting room adjacent to the ballroom where the fight would be held. Cordoned off by a black curtain, it was eight feet wide and 28 feet long. The nearest running water was in a public restroom across a nearby corridor.
Paulie entered the ring dressed in silver and black with twelve tassels on each shoe. The crowd was solidly behind him.
Most of Malignaggi’s fights have a similar look. He establishes control early with his jab and reduces matters to what looks like an intense sparring session. Against Ngoudjo, Paulie won the first three rounds with his footwork, speed, and jab. The challenger moved steadily forward, trying without success to set Malignaggi up for a big right hand. He also tried to rough the champion up on the inside, but it’s hard to rough up mercury that’s flowing.
Then Paulie stopped using his jab effectively, which allowed Ngoudjo to close the distance between them. Thirty seconds into round four, a right to the body caught the champion off balance and put him down. Referee Allen Huggins ruled it a slip. But more significantly, Paulie suffered a cut on his left eyelid in the same round and the challenger intensified the process of tracking him down.
Rounds five and six were more of the same, with Ngoudjo landing solidly and dictating the flow of the flight. He started round seven by scoring with two big right hands and, at the forty-second mark, landed a third right that buzzed Paulie and had him holding on. A barrage of punches followed.
Malignaggi was hurt. His only defense was his heart. “I knew what was going on but it kept happening,” he said afterward. “I just told myself, ‘You know you’re getting hit, so it could be worse. Get through it.’” He survived but was in trouble.
Then, in round eight, Paulie returned to his jab and some of the intensity went out of the challenger’s attack. For the rest of the fight, Ngoudjo didn’t press the action as much as he had before. Maybe he was tired. Maybe getting hit in the face again and again by Paulie’s jab took its toll. Either way, Ngoudjo let Malignaggi back into the fight.
This observer scored the bout a draw. Most of the ringside media had it even or 115-113 one way or the other. The judges were more generous to Paulie, ruling in his favor by a 117-111, 116-113, 115-113 margin.
Late that night, Malignaggi sat in his hotel room at Bally’s surrounded by a coterie of family and friends. The skin around his left eye was discolored and swollen. The cut on his eyelid had been glued shut.
Paulie is his own worst critic. “I had a good training camp,” he said, reflecting back on the battle just won. “I was in shape, but I couldn’t get up for Ngoudjo. I never got that hard mental edge, which is my own fault.” He waved his arms in exasperation. “Let’s face it; I fought like a fucking retard tonight. I looked like shit.”
“You’re still the champ,” he was told.
“Yeah; but I’m not where I want to be. When I was twenty years old, I thought I was going be the next Oscar De La Hoya. I haven’t thought that for a while now; but I did think that, once I won a championship, my name would be out there more than it is. This is the way I make my living. I don’t want to be one of those guys who, after his career is over, people look back and say, ‘He was better than we thought. Too bad he didn’t make any money.’ Boxing is all I have, and I’m not set financially yet. I wish I was still 21, but I’m not. I’m 27, and time runs out. I have to take advantage of being champion now.”
“My top priorities used to be fame and my legacy,” Paulie continued. “Now I’m more concerned with being financially secure when I stop fighting. My hand will never be the way it should be. I’m always just one punch away from something bad happening to my hand that could end everything for me. There’s permanent nerve damage in my face from the Cotto fight that will be with me my entire life; and who knows what will happen next. I just hope, when this is over, that I’m not messed up and broke.”
Then Paulie’s face brightened a bit. “There’s talk that Ricky Hatton wants to fight me,” he said. “That would be another chance to become a superstar and prove that I’m best junior-welterweight in the world. Beating Hatton might even get me rematch against Cotto. I still believe it’s in me to be a superstar. I have my dreams; and no one but me knows how much I want them to come true.”
So let’s appreciate Paulie Malignaggi for what he is: a talented fighter who’s always in shape, works hard to promote his fights, comes to win, does the best he can with what he has, and refuses to quit. If that’s not faithful to the best traditions of boxing, I don’t know what is.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org