Naazim Richardson (who has worked with Bernard Hopkins for years) observes, “Fights between elite fighters aren’t won in training camp. Fights at the highest level are won on lifestyle. People make a joke out of Hatton blowing up, gaining forty, fifty pounds between fights. And then they say, ‘Look how hard he works when he’s training.’ But think about how much better he’d be if he stayed in shape all year long.”
Hatton made light of the situation. On a teleconference call after training camp began, he told the media, “I’ve been stepping out at five-thirty in the morning to run for five miles, which is a big change from the usual routine of getting in at five-thirty in the morning after a night on the town.”
But in recent fights, Hatton has tended to fade in the championship rounds. Collazo, Mayweather, and Lazcano all hurt him late. And conditioning became even more of an issue when nutritionist and conditioning coach Kerry Kayes quit Team Hatton in protest over Graham’s dismissal.
Thus the question: What had a hedonistic lifestyle coupled with the aggressive practice of a brutal sport taken out of Hatton? Would Hatton-Malignaggi be the fight when Ricky was suddenly too old to do what he does well?
Hatton is thirty; Malignaggi is twenty-eight. But because of Ricky’s lifestyle, he was thought of as a much older fighter. The feeling in Malignaggi’s camp was that Hatton was ripe for the taking.
Paulie likes to get to the arena early when he fights and give himself time to settle in. He wouldn’t be in the ring until 8:00 PM, but he arrived at his dressing room at five o’clock sharp preparatory to his battle against Hatton.
Team Malignaggi was with him. Trainer Buddy McGirt, assistant trainer Orlando Carrasquillo, cutman Danny Milano, Umberto Malignaggi (Paulie’s brother), Pete Sferazza (a close friend), attorney John Hornewer, and Anthony Catanzaro (who mentors Paulie outside the ring).
While the others engaged in quiet conversation, Paulie sat on a chair and listened to music through a pair of headphones. It was impossible to know what doubts and fears he harbored. Perhaps Paulie wasn’t even sure what lurked beneath the surface as a consequence of his experiences in the ring; particularly the beating he’d suffered against Cotto. But one thing was certain. Paulie knew the taste of defeat. Its sour residue had been in his mouth for two years. He never wanted to taste it again.
Over the next few hours, Malignaggi stretched, put on his shoes and trunks, had his hands taped, shadow-boxed, and listened to referee Kenny Bayless’s pre-fight instructions.
Lou DiBella came in and wished Paulie well. “He’s ready,” DiBella opined. “Before Cotto, Paulie had his game face on but it was the ego and arrogance of youth. Now he’s more purposeful and focused. For Cotto, Paulie was a kid. Now he’s a man.”
At seven o’clock, Malignaggi went into an adjacent room with Orlando Carrasquillo to warm up and hit the pads. Buddy McGirt stayed in the main dressing area to watch James Kirkland vs. Brian Vera (HBO’s first televised fight of the evening) on a television monitor.
At 7:15, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Zito entered the dressing room and made their way to Paulie and Carrasquillo.
“You look good, man,” Stallone told Malignaggi. “Better than I ever looked.”
“I’m ready. The plan is to bust him up.”
“Have a good one.”
In less than a minute, Stallone and Zito were gone. For the next half-hour, Paulie alternated between hitting the pads with Carrasquillo and sitting on the arm of a worn paisley-covered sofa with his head down. More than any of the people around him, he was processing the reality of how dangerous and contingent the next hour would be.
As boxing insiders had speculated might be the case, a fighter got old in the ring during Hatton-Malignaggi. But the fighter was Paulie.
Malignaggi had a slight edge in round one as a consequence of his footwork and jab. But he wasn’t particularly effective with either, which was a precursor of things to come. He let Hatton get into a rhythm early and never got into a rhythm of his own.
In round two, Hatton became more aggressive and, with a half-minute left, stunned Paulie with a chopping right hand. Thereafter, Malignaggi seemed to abandon his game plan and waged an almost impatient battle. He fought like a fighter with a puncher’s chance instead of a boxer who’s only road to victory lay in putting together punch after punch to win point after point round after round. And he didn’t have a puncher’s chance because he isn’t a puncher.
Hatton was physically stronger. Paulie’s primary defense was movement. He didn’t have the power to keep Ricky off. When he landed, Hatton simply walked through the punches to get inside. And there seemed to be a disconnect between Paulie and Buddy McGirt in the corner. A trainer doesn’t get his fighter to relax between rounds by shouting, “Relax!”
At times, Malignaggi seemed frozen; unable to punch or get out of the way of Hatton’s punches. Contrary to all expectations, he allowed Ricky to get off first for much of the night.
“My neck felt like it had a stinger,” Paulie said afterward. “Like there was a hundred pounds on it. I couldn’t move the way I usually move. One time, I ducked and it felt like I was stuck. I guess that’s what Ricky does to you. But the referee did a good job. I’ve been in fights where the referee was a spectator. Kenny Bayless did his job right.”
Hatton took advantage of what Bayless gave him. On occasion, he jammed an elbow into Malignaggi’s throat or raked a glove across Paulie’s face. But overall, he fought a clean fight. It was Malignaggi, not Hatton, who initiated most of the holding.
In the middle rounds, Hatton stepped up the pace, going to the body with telling effect. By round nine, Paulie was fighting to survive.
During round ten, Lou DiBella went to Malignaggi’s corner and told McGirt, “He’s not doing anything. Maybe it should be stopped.” McGirt said no. But he did tell Paulie between rounds that, if he kept taking punches without throwing back, he’d stop the fight.
In round eleven, Malignaggi took a hard body shot and DiBella returned to the corner. “If you don’t stop it, I will,” he told the trainer.
Twenty-eight seconds into the stanza, McGirt waved the white towel of surrender. The Comp-U-Box statistics credited Hatton with a 124-to-91 edge in punches landed. The fight was more one-side than that. Each judge gave Malignaggi one round, which was a more accurate measure of the contest.
After the fight, Paulie sat for a long time on the sofa in his dressing room. The back of his robe was pulled up and forward over his head, completely covering his face. Finally, he lowered the robe. There was a distraught look on his face.
“They shouldn’t have stopped the fight,” he said.
“You were getting hit.”
“But I wasn’t taking big shots. I wasn’t hurting that bad. There was less than two rounds left. How bad could it have been? This will bother me forever.”
“You were behind on points, and you weren’t going to knock him out.”
“He wasn’t going to knock me out either. Losing is bad. Having it on my record that I got stopped is worse.”
“No one wanted to see you get hurt.”
“Against Cotto, I got hurt worse. Against Cotto, I could have understood someone stopping it, although I’m glad they didn’t. Tonight; oh, man; no way it should have been stopped.”
The door to the dressing room opened and Ricky Hatton
entered. Paulie rose and the fighters embraced.
“It was a good fight, mate,” Hatton said. “You weren’t that far behind me. Most of the time, you were causing me murder.”
There were more mutual compliments. Then Hatton left.
Paulie kicked a towel that was on the floor. “The most important fight of my life and I didn’t finish. I’m better than being stopped.”
“You didn’t get stopped. Someone else stopped it.”
“Yeah; but that’s not what the record book will say. The record book will say ‘TKO by 11.’ It goes down in history now; Paulie Malignaggi got stopped.”
“You fought a good fight.”
“No, I didn’t. I fought like I was forty years old. I saw openings, but my mind and hands wouldn’t connect.”
“Did your hands give you trouble?”
“My hands are fine. How could I hurt my hands? I didn’t hit him all night.”
As for what comes next; for Ricky Hatton
, the dream lives on. He can expect a historic payday in his next fight; most likely against Oscar De La Hoya, Manny Pacquiao, or Floyd Mayweather Jr.
For Malignaggi, the future is more complicated.
One can argue either way as to whether or not Hatton-Malignaggi should have been stopped. Paulie was losing. He wasn’t going to knock Hatton out. Rounds eleven and twelve are the rounds in which fighters who are behind and fading tend to take the most punishment.
But Paulie has a lot of pride. And a fighter’s mental state is often as important as his physical wellbeing. The belief here, with the advantage of twenty-twenty hindsight, is that, until there was a knockdown, he should have been given the opportunity to finish.
Malignaggi is still a good fighter. In today’s world of multiple champions in each weight division, he could win a title again. Herman Ngoudjo and Juan Urango will fight for the IBF 140-pound belt on January 30, 2009. Paulie has beaten Ngoudjo and, given the opportunity, would be competitive against either man. Ditto for Malignaggi versus Timothy Bradley, Andreas Kotelnik, and the winner of the December 13th fight between Kendall Holt and Ricardo Torres (the other sanctioning body title claimants).
But none of these would be big-money fights. The dream of super-stardom as a fighter and the riches that come with it is all but gone. And more to the point, Paulie says, “If I can’t be the best, I don’t know that I want to fight anymore.”
Putting his career in perspective; Malignaggi has had two world-class performances. When he beat Lovemore N’dou in 2007, he did more than win a belt. He fought with the skill of a true champion. And against Miguel Cotto, Paulie showed a heart as big as any fighter ever. No one can take those performances away from him. Like his loss to Ricky Hatton
, they’re part of boxing history.
But Hatton-Malignaggi was the third fight in a row that Paulie fell short of his own expectations. Now he’s facing the hard reality that fighters who rely on quickness and speed peak early. His prime years are nearing an end. His career is analogous to that of a baseball or football player who’s good enough to start on a team that wins the World Series or Super Bowl. That player might not make it to the Hall of Fame, but he has earned his championship ring.
Thus, three thoughts to close on:
You can’t be in boxing if you’re not willing to risk having your heart broken.
No matter how badly a fighter wants it, his opponent wants it too.
As a fighter, Paulie Malignaggi has exceeded everyone’s expectations but his own. Thomas Hauser
can be reached by email at email@example.com