By Thomas Hauser: On July 7, 2001, Paulie Malignaggi made his pro debut at Keyspan Park in Brooklyn. Even then, he had a mouth. Two days before the fight, he told Tom Gerbasi, “I’m boxing’s next superstar. Paulie Malignaggi is going to make it up the ladder quickly. I’m going to win multiple titles. I’m going to explode on the scene. I’m looking to make a big splash. And once you see me, I’m going to be here for a while.”
Paulie’s opponent that night was Thadeus Parker. It was Parker’s first and last fight as a pro.
“I was real nervous before the fight,” Malignaggi remembers. “Then, in the ring when the referee was giving us instructions, I looked into Parker’s eyes and saw that he didn’t want to be there either. I stopped him in the first round, which, let’s be honest, hasn’t happened for me too many times. After that, I showered and walked around the stadium feeling like a celebrity.”
That feeling lasted until Paulie arrived at the post-fight party and wasn’t allowed in because he was underage.
“Two guys stopped me at the door,” he recalls. “They were nice about it but they were like, ‘Sorry; you’re not twenty-one.’ Finally, Dave Itskowitch [who worked for promoter Lou DiBella at the time] got there and convinced them to let me in.”
“I’ve got so many memories of that weekend,” Paulie continues. “I remember checking in at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Battery Park the day before the fight. In my whole life, I’d never had anything more than a single room in a hotel. At Embassy Suites, I had a bedroom and small living room, which I thought was the coolest thing in the world. Petey [longtime friend Pete Sferazza] and I picked up two roundcard girls who were checking in at the same time. We saw them a few times afterward, but nothing came of it. On the day of the fight, I went for a walk after lunch and passed the World Trade Center. I thought about going up to the top to see the view. Then I said to myself, ‘No; I’m fighting tonight. I should go back to the hotel and get some rest. I’ll come back another time. The Twin Towers will always be here.’ And you know what happened. Two months later, the Twin Towers were gone.”
The preceding paragraphs could serve as a metaphor for Paulie Malignaggi’s journey through boxing: Win . . . Get barred at the door . . . Keep fighting . . . Win some more . . . Dreams crumble . . . Don’t give up . . .Time moves on.
Paulie isn’t one of the kids anymore. He has been fighting professionally for eleven years and will be thirty-two years old in November.
Malignaggi has style. What he doesn’t have is a one-punch equalizer. His record shows seven knockouts in 36 pro fights. That means he builds his victories by avoiding firefights and adding up the points round-by-round-by-round.
Steve Kim writes, “It can be argued very easily that Malignaggi’s personality is more entertaining than most of his prizefights. Not only does he have the gift of jab but the gift of gab.”
Other observers have been less kind.
“It’s frustrating to give so much of myself in so many ways,” Paulie says. “And then people who have never boxed a round in their life sit there and criticize me, like they’re giving me a grade in school. Boxing isn’t a report card. Boxing is life and death.”
On June 10, 2006, after winning his first twenty-one fights, Malignaggi went into the lion’s den to face a prime Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden on the eve of New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Anthony Catanzaro (Paulie’s business advisor and friend), recalls, “In the dressing room before the fight, we could hear the roars. And we knew it was not our crowd. Those people didn’t just want Cotto to win. They wanted Paulie’s blood.”
They got it.
Malignaggi fought valiantly, winning four out of twelve rounds on two of the judges’ scorecards and five on the third. But he suffered a brutal beating in the process.
“I was in the hospital afterward with a fractured orbital bone,” Paulie says of that fight. “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.”
A lot of people wrote Malignaggi off after he lost to Cotto. Not many fighters come back from a beating like that and are as good as they were before.
“Sometimes you get humbled and come back stronger,” Paulie says.
One year later, on June 16, 2007, Malignaggi crafted a twelve-round shutout against Lovemore Ndou to capture the IBF 140-pound crown. It was his shining moment in boxing. Thereafter, he had two successful title defenses before being stopped by Ricky Hatton in the eleventh round. His record now shows four losses, each of them to a world champion (Cotto, Hatton, Juan Diaz, and Amir Khan).
On three occasions, Paulie’s career has been sidetracked by a broken hand. He has permanent nerve damage in his face, a residue of the Cotto fight.
“Pain is temporary,” he says. “Pride is forever.”
Through it all, Malignaggi has kept fighting.
“Boxing is like a drug or a bad girlfriend,” he told Tom Gerbasi two years ago. “Sometimes you get hooked and you realize that maybe it’s a problem. But at the same time, the high you get off it is so good that you just keep coming back. There’s nothing like the roar of the crowd in the middle of that violent atmosphere and being in a fight. It’s a getaway from reality and there’s nothing like the rush of adrenalin.”
On April 29, 2012, Paulie traveled to Ukraine and dethroned WBA 147-pound titleholder Vyacheslav Senchenko in the ninth-round. Anyone who thinks that boxing’s belts don’t matter should think again. Beating Senchenko didn’t make Malignaggi more marketable. But beating Senchenko for the WBA welterweight title did.
On October 20th, Paulie’s journey through the sweet science brought him back to Brooklyn. The site was Barclay’s Center, the recently-opened state-of-the-art arena that’s home to the NBA Brooklyn Nets. His opponent was Pablo Cesar Cano of Mexico (26-1-1 with 20 KOs).
On August 5, 1931, “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom (nicknamed for his lack of punching power – nineteen knockouts in 298 pro fights) defended his light-heavyweight title by outpointing Jimmy Slattery at Ebbetts Field. Until the October 20th card at Barclays, Rosenbloom-Slattery held the distinction of being the last world championship fight in Brooklyn.
That said; Brooklyn has a rich boxing tradition.
Barclays, Golden Boy (which promoted the October 20th show), and Showtime (which televised it) were quick to point out that there had been thirty-seven previous world title fights in Brooklyn. Heavyweight champions Floyd Patterson, Michael Moorer, Mike Tyson, Shannon Briggs, and Riddick Bowe were born in the borough. James J. Jeffries knocked out Bob Fitzsimmons at the Coney Island Athletic Club in 1899 to seize the heavyweight crown. John L. Sullivan, Joe Gans, Sugar Ray Robinson, Benny Leonard, Harry Greb, Tony Canzoneri, Sandy Saddler, Jake LaMotta, Abe Attell, Terry McGovern, Battling Nelson and Tommy Loughran all fought in Brooklyn.
The October 20th card was advertised as featuring four “world championship” fights, which enabled each of the four major sanctioning bodies to collect a sanctioning fee. In addition to Malignaggi-Cano, there was Danny Garcia vs. Erik Morales (WBC-WBA 140 pounds), Hassan N’Dam vs. Peter Quillin (WBO 160 pounds), and Randall Bailey vs. Devon Alexander (IBF 147 pounds).
Also, the “A” side of the undercard was heavy with Brooklyn fighters. That included Danny Jacobs (now making a heroic comeback from cancer); Luis Collazo (a former world champion who’d been plagued by lifestyle issues while compiling a 5-and-4 record over the previous seven years); Dmitriy Salita (a nice man, who has been marketed largely on the basis of his being an Orthodox Jew); Eddie Gomez (a talented but untested prospect from the Bronx); and Boyd Melson (a 31-year-old West Point graduate who’s as good as he’s going to get).
Malignaggi-Cano shaped up as the most competitive championship bout of the night. Ultimately, it became a non-title contest, when Pablo failed to make weight, tipping the scales at 147.8 pounds. There was talk of cancellation. But Cano agreed to give $50,000 of his $150,000 purse to Malignaggi (raising Paulie’s stake to $400,000) and was required to weigh in again at 9:30 on Saturday morning at not more than 157 pounds.
The main event, Garcia vs. Morales, should have been cancelled.
There was a time when Morales could beat the best. No more. He has now had eleven fights in the past seven-and-a-half years and lost seven of them. At the August 30th kick-off press conference at the Marriott Hotel in Brooklyn, El Terrible looked terrible. His face was puffy and he was clearly overweight. Not just overweight for a fighter. Overweight. At the final pre-fight press conference, he looked old, tired, and beaten up. The betting odds ran as high as 10-to-1 against him.
Worse, two days before the fight, word leaked out that Morales had tested positive for clenbuterol. Twice.
The powers that be tried to put a good face on things. The fact that this was the first fight card at Barclays Center gave it a certain buzz. At the final pre-fight press conference, Oscar De La Hoya told the assembled media that tickets were selling like hotcakes and people had to act fast to get them while supplies lasted. Earlier in the day, Barclays had posted an announcement on its website stating that the first 250 Brooklyn residents with valid IDs who went to the box office between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm on Thursday or Friday would be given four complimentary tickets.
Giving away tickets for a fight is a pretty good indication that demand is lukewarm. Giving away four tickets per person is a pretty good indication that demand is frigid.
Paulie voiced confidence throughout the proceedings.
“I know what it’s like to be young and motivated and have your whole future ahead of you,” he said of his opponent. “I was twenty-three years old one time too. When you’re young and the dream is in front of you, you can taste it every time you get in the ring. But Cano’s future on Saturday night won’t be what he wants it to be.”
As for fighting in Brooklyn, Paulie declared, “Every fighter wants to have a big fight in his home town. All this talk about Brooklyn is good marketing, but it’s also heartfelt. When I was a kid, I used to dream about fighting at Madison Square Garden. But that’s because there wasn’t a showcase arena in Brooklyn. Now that they’ve got Barclays Center, this is where I want to be.”
Still, the experience was bittersweet. The October 20th fight posters featured photos of Garcia and Morales, not Malignaggi. In Paulie’s fights against Cotto, Hatton, and Khan (his biggest previous outings), he’d been the “B” side of the promotion. This time, he wasn’t even in the main event.
Malignaggi arrived at his dressing room on fight night at 7:10 pm. Trainer Eric Brown, Anthony Catanzaro, Umberto Malignaggi (Paulie’s brother), and Pete Sferazza were with him. Over the next few hours, Steve Bash (Paulie’s attorney), Zach Wohlman (a sparring partner and friend), and Victor Perrone (another friend) would join him.