By Thomas Hauser: Portobello’s is a pizzeria in lower Manhattan. Entering the restaurant, patrons pass a long glass-partitioned counter that displays pies with a dozen different toppings. There’s a large soda refrigeration case and two more counters where hot entrees and deli sandwiches are served. But the pizza is the main draw.
Part of a wall toward the back of the restaurant is covered with photos and press clippings that recount Paulie Malignaggi’s ring exploits. Anthony Catanzaro (one of Portobello’s owners) is Paulie’s business adviser and friend. They’ve known each other since the fighter was 16 years old.
At 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25th, Malignaggi walked into Portobello’s. Three nights earlier, he’d fought to defend his WBA 147-pound title against Adrien Broner at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“This is my moment,” Paulie told writer Tom Gerbasi shortly before the bout. “Coming into my hometown as a world champion, defending my world championship in front of a packed arena against a guy that people think is the next big thing. These are the kind of opportunities you dream of when you’re a kid and you put on that first pair of boxing gloves and you’re hitting the bag and you’re in awe of the big fighters training alongside you like I was when I was in Gleason’s Gym at 16 years old. This is why I was boxing to begin with. I intend to make it my best moment, a career moment, a trademark moment. I’m going to look back at this fight with a smile on my face when my career is over.”
When the bell rang for round, Malignaggi started well against Broner. Moving, jabbing, and counter-intuitively going to the body, he won four of the first five stanzas on most scorecards. But while he was able to frustrate Broner, he couldn’t hurt him (“hurt” being a relative term in boxing). In the middle rounds, the momentum shifted. Paulie tired a bit and Adrien began stalking his foe. From that point on, Broner landed the harder punches and more of them. But he was inactive at times. And when he landed, Paulie handled his power without serious incident.
Judge Tom Miller scored the bout 115-113 in Malignaggi’s favor. Glenn Feldman (115-113) and Tom Schreck (117-111) gave the nod to Broner.
Inside Portobello’s, Paulie sat at one of the Formica-topped tables spread around the black terrazzo tile floor. There was a bruise beneath his right eye and a welt on the right side of his neck. Otherwise, he was unmarked, although the palm of his right hand was swollen.
“I hurt it when I hit him on the elbow,” Paulie said. “There’s some tissue damage but it didn’t affect the fight.”
The red stripe that had adorned his hair on fight night was gone. He was casually dressed with six days growth of beard on his face.
“Last Saturday was the first time in my career that I didn’t shave on the day of a fight,” Paulie noted. “I shaved three days before the fight. Then I decided to leave it at that, so it would get in Broner’s head that he was fighting a grown man.”
“How much do you weigh now?”
“One-sixty-three, maybe 164 pounds. But I’m in good shape.” Paulie lifted up his shirt to show his abs. “I’ll put on a few more pounds, but I’m not one of those guys who balloons up after a fight.”
Malignaggi is 32 years old now. He has earned everything he has gotten from boxing. Like most fighters, he has earned it the hard way.
Paulie turned pro in 2001 after a decorated amateur career that saw him win a national amateur championship at 132 pounds. He won his first 21 pro fights, rebounded from a brutal loss to Miguel Cotto, and, in 2007, pitched a 12-round shutout against Lovemore N’dou to capture the IBF 140-pound crown. After two successful title defenses, he was dethroned by Ricky Hatton. Forty-one months afterward, Malignaggi traveled to Ukraine and stopped Vyacheslav Senchenko to annex the WBA 147-pound belt. A narrow points win over Pablo Cesar Cano on the first-ever fight card at Barclays Center followed.
In early 2013, Team Malignaggi began negotiations with Golden Boy Promotions (his current promoter) for a title defense against Shane Mosley. Paulie didn’t have a win over a Hall of Fame fighter on his résumé. The Mosley fight could have changed that.
“It’s a coin flip,” Naazim Richardson (Mosley’s former trainer) said of the proposed match-up. “Either guy could win and it would be a good win for either guy.”
But the fight fell through. Malignaggi’s promotional contract with Golden Boy called for him to receive a guaranteed purse against a percentage of certain adjusted revenue streams from each fight. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer wanted to limit Paulie’s payment for Malignaggi-Mosley to a flat (albeit generous) purse. Team Malignaggi objected. Rather than try to work through the issue, Schaefer terminated negotiations. He had another opponent in mind.
The essence of boxing in its purest form is truth. Stripped of phony belts, corrupt officiating, and other maladies, it’s the most honest of all sports. But in recent years, a tidal wave of hype has washed over the “Sweet Science.”
Enter Adrien Broner.
Broner is a talented young fighter, who won his first 26 fights and had stopped 16 of his last 17 opponents. During that time, he’d been anointed by the powers that be as the next great fighter in boxing. His résumé was thin, but the manner in which he’d devastated a series of carefully-chosen foes was impressive.
Broner’s chosen nickname is “The Problem.” Outside the ring, that certainly has been the case. As an adolescent, Adrien was often on the wrong side of the law. “I did everything,” he told reporters earlier this year. “You name it, I did it. I owned a couple of guns in my day.”
He was also incarcerated for beating up someone and leaving the victim in critical condition.
“I got into some trouble, some big trouble,” Adrien admitted at a media sitdown last November. “They tried to give me some football numbers, you know, receiver-like numbers, like 85 years. I was in for about a year and two months. The first day out, I went to the gym, and they all said I looked better than before I left.”
At last count, the 23-year-old Broner had five children by four different women. In March of this year, a video surfaced that purported to show him at an adult club, administering oral sex to a stripper onstage.
“I’m not a villain,” Broner says. “I’m just being me. I don’t care where I am; I’m going to be me. I’m going to do what I do. I know it can rub off on some people the wrong way. ‘This guy is too cocky or he’s too arrogant or this or that.’ But once you get to know Adrien Broner, people just fall in love with me.”
Broner’s rise to prominence was nurtured by HBO. Last July, he weighed in three-and-a-half pounds over the 130-pound limit for a title defense against Vicente Escobedo, refused thereafter to try to make weight, and tipped the scales at 148 pounds at 6:00 p.m. on fight night. At the post-fight press conference, after stopping Escobedo in five rounds, he told reporters, “[HBO] really ought to change [its] logo to my face.”
Seven months later, Broner defeated an overmatched Gavin Rees and told the media, “I’m a legal bank robber. I just robbed the bank tonight. As long as HBO keeps paying me to fight these lightweights, I ain’t never been on the farm but I’m milking the cow real good.”
After the Rees fight, Broner moved to Showtime with the rest of the Golden Boy roster. But his self-reverence remained: “I’m trying to be the best boxer who ever laced on a pair of gloves. That’s my goal...I’ll make any fight look easy…The difference between me and other fighters is, they do what they can; I do what I want…You can’t really do nothing for power. You’re either born with it or you aren’t. It’s just something that God blessed me with. I’m God’s gift to boxing.”
The promotion of Malignaggi-Broner was largely about Broner.
“I knew going in that it was going to be that way,” Paulie says. “It was all about him getting another belt. Even though I was the champion, the first contract Golden Boy gave me to sign had Broner going to the ring last and being introduced last. I wouldn’t sign it.”
Broner was a prohibitive favorite with the odds running as high as 15-to-one. He has speed, reflexes, skill, and power. Malignaggi never had power and, it was thought, no longer had the speed and reflexes to implement his skills. One was hard-pressed to find a knowledgeable boxing insider without a stake in the promotion who thought that the fight would be competitive. Indeed, in a March 2013 poll of matchmakers and other industry experts, Paulie (despite having a belt) failed to finish in the top 10 in the welterweight rankings.
“Broner changes men, professional fighting men, from aggressors to targets,” Bart Barry wrote.
Adam Berlin was more expansive, extolling, “Broner has it all. He’s a boxer and a puncher. He can fight outside and inside. He’s a master of ring geography. He’s acutely aware of his opponent’s condition, sensing fear and fatigue and hurt. And he possesses the kind of cold killer instinct that’s far more effective than its hotter-tempered versions. There is a rare breed of men born to box, who are so in control inside the ring, so at home in harm’s way, they seem un-hurtable. Broner comes to inflict pain. Watch him between rounds and you’ll forget about his clownish pre-and post-fight antics. As with all artists, we should judge Broner on his work. And when he’s working, he’s the opposite of frivolity. Sitting on his stool, waiting for the bell to ring, Broner’s body language spells intensity. Hard-eyed, hard-mouthed, he leans forward, ready to spring, his gaze a dangerous warning.”
There were fears that Malignaggi-Broner would be like Floyd Mayweather versus Arturo Gatti. “He’s bringing pillows to this fight,” Broner said. “I’m bringing bricks.”
“A lot of people who care about me didn’t want me to take the fight,” Paulie acknowledged. “They’re rooting for me, but they don’t give me a chance.”
It was left for writer David Greisman to pen words of caution.
“Broner’s speed, power and overall ability have allowed him to be regarded as the proverbial cream of the crop,” Greisman wrote. “However, he has yet to actually earn the recognition of being not just one of several titleholders but a true champion. His final five fights at 130 were a disputed decision over Daniel Ponce De Leon, a gimme knockout over Jason Litzau, a gimme knockout over Vicente Rodriguez that gave him a vacant world title at age 22, an impressive win over prospect Eloy Perez, and a stoppage of Vicente Escobedo in a bout that saw Broner come in more than three pounds over the weight limit. Broner has done well since at lightweight, dominating Antonio DeMarco, a fighter who was considered to be one of the best in the division, then dispatching Gavin Rees with an emphatic conclusion earlier this year. There are other claimants in these divisions, though. Broner could easily be the betting favorite in matches against each of them. Alas, fights are not resolved on paper. You cannot become king without pulling someone else off, or away from, the throne.”
Meanwhile, Malignaggi wasn’t just showing up for a payday against Broner. He believed in himself. All good fighters do. In the weeks leading up to the fight, he voiced the view that he would emerge victorious:
* “Broner has talent. But at the end of the day, what have we seen from Adrien Broner? We’ve seen a lot of handpicked opponents. We could have all been 26-and-0 against that level of opposition. There are better opponents on ESPN.”
* “He’s a good little fighter. He’s got some skills. I just don’t think he’s big enough. He’ll be giving up physical strength and get pushed around and muscled around by a bigger guy, which is me. His trainer said Adrien spars with middleweights so he can handle me. I don’t care who he spars with. I spar in the gym. I don’t spar on fight night. There are weight classes in boxing for a reason.”
* “People assume he’s faster than me. One of the ignorant comments I’ve seen is that Amir Khan’s speed bothered me, so Adrien Broner’s speed is going to kill me. Amir Khan is faster than Adrien Broner and his speed is used in a different way. He throws punches in bunches. Adrien Broner is more of a pick-your-shots kind of guy. I like the fight. I like the fight a lot.”
* I’m not convinced of his power. He’s going to see how overrated his power is. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m going to knock him out with one punch, but he’s going to feel a lot of punishment. He won’t know what to do when he’s in a tough fight. He may just tell himself it’s not worth it and quit.”
Malignaggi had more to gain from the fight than Broner. If Adrien won, the reaction would be “So what?” If Paulie won, it would constitute the big win that had eluded him against Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton, and Amir Khan. But before long, any attempt at intelligent analysis of the fight was drowned out by a wave of trash-talking.
This was the second Golden Boy promotion in a row at Barclays Center (the first being Danny Garcia vs. Zab Judah) that devolved into what writer Jimmy Tobin correctly labeled “a tasteless and offensive promotion.” Trash-talking might energize a fighter’s core supporters, but it turns off casual sports fans and potential corporate sponsors.
The ugliness began in mid-March before the fight was signed when Broner proclaimed, “I’ll fight that mother**ker in the closet. Tell ‘Paulette’ it’s his time of the month and I understand he’s going through some things. He’s going to get f**ked up. I don’t care if it’s at the Barclays Center. I don’t care if it’s at the barbecue. Anybody that Adrien Broner fights is easy money. I don’t care who it is. ‘Paulette,’ pull your f**king skirt up.”
That led Malignaggi to counter, “I don’t know what kind of bedroom life Adrien Broner has. But with him calling me ‘Paulette’ and wanting to fight in a closet, I don’t go that way. Nothing against him if he does, but my personal preference is women. If he’s going to start calling men ‘Paulette’ and starts talking about fighting in the closet with them, it’s not my cup of tea. There won’t be any role-playing where he calls me ‘Paulette’ and we both go in the closet. He has to find another Paulette. I’m into role-playing, but I role play with females in the bedroom and not with dudes in the closet. I don’t know how Adrien and his boys get down in Cincinnati, but me and my boys in Brooklyn don’t get down like that.”
Thereafter, Malignaggi said Broner looked like “an ugly ninja turtle” and called him a “sissy,” a “punk,” and “retarded.” Broner responded that Paulie was “like a female who wears his feelings on his sleeve.”
If Golden Boy had donated a dollar to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation each time either fighter said, “I’m gonna f**k you up and beat the sh*t out of you,” breast cancer might soon be cured.
But there was worse. On May 4th, Golden Boy held a kick-off press conference for Malignaggi-Broner at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Floyd Mayweather versus Robert Guerrero was to be contested at the hotel-casino that evening, so the media was there in full force.