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16 SEPTEMBER 2014

 




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Hatton-Malignaggi: The End of a Dream


Malignaggi vs. Hatton: HoganPhotos.com
Malignaggi vs. Hatton: HoganPhotos.com

By Thomas Hauser

In today’s era of devalued titles, it’s not enough to be a “champion.” To be fully recognized and make big money, a fighter has to be a star.

On November 22nd, Paulie Malignaggi fought Ricky Hatton at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Entering the ring, Paulie knew that the hopes and dreams and hard work of twenty-eight years would be distilled into a handful of three-minute segments. Everything in his life had led up to this moment. Everything in his future would be influenced by it.

“If I fail in boxing, what do I do?” Paulie had wondered aloud earlier this year.

When Malignaggi turned pro and signed with Lou DiBella in 2001, he was clear about his goals. “I’m not just going to be a champion,” he told his promoter. “I’m going to the Hall of Fame.”

It was more than talk. Paulie genuinely believes in himself. He’s a gifted boxer with a good work ethic who seems to sense everything as it unfolds in the ring. His Achilles heel is a lack of power; five knockouts in 27 career fights. He also has a fragile right hand that has been broken multiple times. Larry Merchant calls it “as brittle as uncooked spaghetti.”

All of that has led to a lack of respect for Paulie in some circles. “You see articles about prospects all the time,” he says. “Prospect of the Year; Prospect of the Month. There wasn’t one prospect article written about me. Cuts and broken bones heal. Disrespect doesn’t. It hurts to be written off.”

Malignaggi craves attention and styles himself to get it. He puts a lot of time and effort into his appearance. In his mind, looking good means feeling good which translates into fighting well. But more than seeking attention for his style, Paulie wants recognition for the substance of his work. That led to his challenging Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the 2006 Puerto Rican Day parade.

“It was like fighting the devil in hell,” Malignaggi recalls. In round one, Paulie suffered a bad cut from a head butt. In round two, he was knocked down. He left the ring that night with the first loss of his career and broken bones in his face that took six months to heal. But he’d fought valiantly, went the distance, and won four rounds (five on one judge’s scorecard). That was important from a marketing point of view and also as a matter of pride.

“I came up short,” Malignaggi said afterward. “But having gone through the experience and knowing it didn’t break me tells me that I can walk through the fire again. There’s no price that I won’t pay to achieve my goals.”

Fifty-three weeks later, Paulie shut out Lovemore N’dou with a masterful performance over twelve one-sided rounds to claim the IBF 140-pound crown. He successfully defended his title against Herman Ngoudjo and won a contractually-mandated rematch against N’dou. But by his own admission, he looked ordinary each time.

The second N’dou fight was notable for an act of monumental stupidity. Paulie came into the ring wearing long braided hair extensions which were tied and theoretically secured behind his head. But he’d never sparred with them to see what might happen during a fight. Why trainer Buddy McGirt allowed him to enter the ring under those circumstances is a mystery.

The hair extensions came loose in round one. Despite repeated efforts by Malignaggi’s corner to tape them, they obscured his vision throughout the fight. Finally, after round eight, cutman Danny Milano took a scissors and cut them off, making it the first time in boxing history that a combatant had been given a haircut between rounds of a world championship bout.

“I love Paulie,” Lou DiBella said afterward. “But sometimes he’s an idiot.”

Worse, during round six of the fight, Paulie broke a knuckle on his right hand, necessitating the fourth surgery on his hand in less than six years.

Prior to facing Malignaggi, Hatton had a career record of 44 wins with 31 knockouts against a single loss. Until 2005, Ricky had been widely thought of as a “protected” fighter. Then he stopped Kostya Tszyu in eleven rounds to annex the IBF junior-welterweight crown. Victories over Carlos Maussa, Luis Collazo, Juan Urango, and Jose Luis Castillo solidified his claim to being a legitimate world champion.

More significantly from an economic point of view, Hatton is the most popular fighter in England, with rabid fans who will follow him anywhere on the globe.

In December 2007, Ricky reached for the stars. He signed to fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. But when fight night came, he was forced to battle both boxing’s pound-for-pound king and the one-sided refereeing of Joe Cortez. Mayweather knocked him out in the tenth round.

“I’d rather give credit to Floyd than blame the referee,” Hatton said afterward. “But this is not just me feeling sorry for myself and finding something to complain about. I thought I could have won the fight. Yet it got to the point where I thought, ‘I’m scared of hitting him in case I get warned.’ Floyd would be turning his back and I’d be saying, ‘Where do you want me to hit him when he’s doing that?’”

The silver lining (actually, it was platinum) was that Hatton’s contract for the Mayweather bout called for him to receive US$6,000,000 plus British television rights. Initially, those rights were thought to be worth about $3,000,000. But despite the fact that the fight was on British television at the ungodly hour of 4:00 AM, there were well over one million UK pay-per-view buys. That sweetened Ricky’s take by more than $20,000,000.

Still, Hatton took the loss hard. “I don’t want my last fight to be me on my back getting counted out,” he said afterward. “I wouldn’t be much of a champion if I gave up after my first-ever defeat, would I?”

He returned to the ring with a unanimous twelve-round decision over Juan Lazcano. Training for that fight, Hatton was hindered by a persistent chest infection. Be that as it may; Lazcano hurt him late and Ricky looked exceedingly vulnerable.

Hatton-Malignaggi followed. Ricky has always wanted to fight as the headline attraction at Madison Square Garden. This seemed like an ideal opportunity to do it, since Paulie is from New York. But Golden Boy (Hatton’s promoter) thought that the bout would be more profitably contested in Las Vegas. Thus, it purchased Malignaggi’s services from DiBella Entertainment for $1,700,000. Paulie’s purse was $1,200,000.

The fighters would be facing off after two consecutive less-than-stellar performances by each of them.

“After the Mayweather fight, I was down in the dumps,” Hatton acknowledged. “Then, after Lazcano, I started asking myself, ‘Am I past it? Have I seen better days? Have I had too many hard fights?’ I thought about quitting a couple of times. The warning signs were there. I’ve had two fights in which I didn’t produce a vintage Ricky Hatton performance. I’m a sensible lad and you need to be honest with yourself in this sport. I should beat Paulie. If I don’t beat him, I’ll have to start looking at things a little closer.”

Malignaggi had a similar view. “I’m a perfectionist when it comes to boxing,” he said. “And my last two performances were unacceptable. I should be criticized for them. They weren’t anything like what I did to win the championship. They were a lot less than what I can do.”

And like Hatton, Malignaggi had doubts about his future. Paulie isn’t a kid anymore. His body has filled out and his boyish face has given way to the visage of a man. “I don’t feel like I’ll last much longer,” he said after his second win over N’dou. “I keep breaking my hand and there are other problems on the physical side. I know I’ll have arthritis and maybe worse later in life. The question is, ‘How much worse will things be if I keep fighting and what risks am I willing to take?’”

But there was a major difference between Malignaggi and Hatton. Ricky had been to the mountaintop and beyond. Paulie had yet to visit the promised land.

“Every year, I start out hoping that this will be the year I make it big,” Paulie said after the contracts for Hatton-Malignaggi were signed. “So far, it hasn’t happened. The Cotto fight could have done it, but I came up short. Beating Ricky Hatton can get me to where I want to be. Ricky has a lot on the line too. He’s fighting to stay on top. But this fight can get me recognized as the best junior-welterweight in the world. This fight can make me a star.”

Hatton-Malignaggi would be Paulie’s first fight in Las Vegas and his second high-profile bout on a world stage (Cotto being the first). To get it, he had to relinquish his IBF title rather than fight a rematch against Herman Ngoudjo, who’d returned to the “mandatory-challenger” slot after losing to Paulie in a mandatory challenge earlier this year.

“It’s total stupidity that I have to give up my title,” Paulie said of the situation. “I worked hard to win it, and I’ve never heard of a champion being required to fight the same boxer as a mandatory twice in the same year. But I’ll do what I have to do to get to where I want to be.”

In Las Vegas, Malignaggi was within reach of what he wanted. His face was on room keys at the MGM Grand. The world press was there. “Think of Paulie as John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever,” Larry Merchant suggested. “He’s a kid from Brooklyn who’s dancing his way into the big time.”

Malignaggi was long on confidence. “When I fought Cotto,” he proclaimed, “I was excited but it was naïve excitement. Now I’ve been there. And don’t compare Hatton with Cotto, because they’re not on the same level. Ricky is an average fighter. In England, he was pampered against club-fighter opponents. He’s been very ordinary over here. I think he’s regressed, or maybe he was never that good to begin with.”

“Hatton has flaws that I can take advantage of,” Paulie continued. “They’re always there. I’ve seen them all through his career. When you’re fast, you can hit anybody. I’m fast, and Ricky isn’t a good defensive fighter. My A-game is better than Ricky Hatton’s A-game. It’s going to be a very frustrating night for Ricky. He’ll be catching a lot.”

“Paulie thinks he’s a good talker,” Hatton said in response. “But he tends to come out with a lot of bull. You’re not going to see Ricky Hatton doing the Ali Shuffle. But you will see more head movement and a few other things that I know how to do and haven’t done as often as I should lately. And you’ll also see what I always do; constant pressure and body punching.”

In truth, the Hatton camp felt that Paulie was made for Ricky. The 12-to-5 odds in their man’s favor supported that view. Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis (one of British boxing’s greatest standard-bearers) was in accord, saying, “Malignaggi will have to hit Hatton hard to keep him off, and Hatton’s head is like a brick wall. So most likely, either Paulie won’t hit Ricky hard or he’ll hurt his hands.”

But In Paulie’s mind, he wasn’t the underdog. If Hatton planned to pressure him, he intended to frustrate his foe.

“Speed kills,” said Lou DiBella. “And speed particularly kills Ricky. It’s not punchers that give Ricky trouble; it’s speed. Look at his fights against Floyd Mayweather Jr and Luis Collazo.”

There was also a question as to whether Hatton could work effectively under the aegis of his new trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr. In late-July, Billy Graham (who’d trained Ricky for every one of his professional fights) was fired. In announcing the move, Ray Hatton (Ricky’s father) said, “There has been no falling out. It’s Billy’s decision that he’s retiring. He has found it harder and harder physically to look after Richard. He has been having to have pain-killing injections in his hands and his elbows before every pad session, and that was doing him no good at all. When the injections wore off, Billy would be in agony.”

Graham responded by saying that he’d been fired and that the move (“a huge blow”) was instigated by Ray as part of an effort to deprive him of his fair share of monies from past fights.

That brought Ricky into the fray with the declaration, “Billy thinks other people conspired for him to leave, but I’m the boss and make the final decision. How do I know how hard or correctly I’m punching when Billy cannot feel his hands when we’re on the pads? I don’t want to hear from my trainer, who’s taking so much medication to ease the pain, ’Don’t worry, Rick, I’ll get through this training session.’ If he thinks anything of me, he’ll have a good look in the mirror and admit ’I’m falling to bits; I’m physically done.’”

There was a school of thought that Hatton would miss Graham both in the gym and in his corner on fight night. And more significantly, there was the issue of Ricky’s lifestyle. If Malignaggi’s underlying weakness was his hands, Hatton’s was perceived to be the abuse of his body between fights.

Ricky is a drinker; a heavy drinker. Some think that, ultimately, his drinking will cause him more harm than the blows he takes in the ring. He’s also a ravenous eater and typically gains forty to fifty pounds between fights.

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 thauser@rcn.com


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