In a sport with an infinite number of participants, there is bound to be some overlap when it comes to nicknames.
The fictional ‘Rocky’ Balboa may the most famous to answer to that name, but the sport has yielded a windfall of champions, contenders and lesser competitors bearing the same. Off the top of my head, there is heavyweight legend Rocky Marciano, of course, and also middleweight champion Rocky Graziano. Marciano’s birth name was Rocco and Graziano actually used his middle name. Rocky Lin, a straw-weight title challenger answered to the name. Flyweight challenger Rocky Fuentes’ birth name is actually just that. Former champ Rocky Lockridge adopted the name over using Ricky. Rocky Fielding, also a belt-holder, is actually named Michael. Rocky Juarez, who tried for five world titles, is actually named Ricardo. This list could go on and don’t even get me rolling about the nickname “Sugar”.
Looking over my walls of boxing memorabilia, I saw another repetitive moniker, albeit less so.
In today’s game a couple of little-known young bucks Zahid Hussain and Mark Schleibs liken themselves as the “Magic Man”. Hussain, a product of the domestic scene in the United Kingdom, has competed at featherweight since 2014 against the safest of opposition and built a 16-1 (2) résumé. Schleibs, an Australian bantamweight/featherweight, has shown slightly more promise at 12-0 (8), but neither has shown much magic in the ring, thus far.
However, very recently and going back a few decades, boxing fans have cheered for several fighters, all world champions, who referred to themselves as the “Magic Man”.
- Paulie Malignaggi – 36-8 (7)
Brooklyn’s Paulie Malignaggi, a belt-holder at 140 and 147lbs, is a “Magic Man”. The light-hitting, but well-crafted technician held a notable presence in the boxing scene for roughly a decade. Following a brave performance against Miguel Cotto in 2006, Malignaggi began working his magic using handspeed and flashy combinations to add better and better names to his dossier. Never as elusive as he needed to be, Malignaggi suffered defeat to some of the most elite fighters of his time. However, his crystal balls were never in doubt!
Paulie won a super-lightweight belt against Lovemore Ndou on points in 2007 about a year after the Cotto loss. The following year, he added title defences over Herman Ngoudjo and Ndou in the rematch. He was stopped in round 11 to surrender his title to Ricky Hatton. However, soon after Malignaggi split a pair of bouts with Juan Diaz, but the consensus from fans was that Paulie should have walked away the victor in both. Amir Khan put in one of his career-best performances in stopping Malignaggi in eleven rounds of their title contest in 2010.
Malignaggi grew into the welterweight division with a string of credible victories before adding a world title strap stopping Vyacheslav Senchenko in nine rounds in 2012. He worked hard to keep it against Pablo Cesar Cano by split decision, but lost it in 2013 in another split, to Adrien Broner. That decision was shy of being controversial, but it certainly has its critics, including yours truly.
Malignaggi’s final years sprouted mixed results as he lost to those he was expected to, but beat a couple of good names in pick ‘em contests. He bested Zab Judah to get back in the win column following his most recent title loss. However, young guns Shawn Porter and Danny Garcia negotiated him inside of the distance in back-to-back losses. Gabriel Bracero was riding a career-best victory when Paulie used up the remains of his magic to hand him a decision loss. An impotent Malignaggi ended his career following a stoppage defeat to Sam Eggington, a fighter he would have boxed circles around a year or two earlier.
- Antonio Tarver – 31-6-1 (22)
Antonio Tarver’s career, from light-heavyweight to heavyweight, overlapped with Malignaggi’s. Like Paulie, the well-spoken Tarver used his outside-of-the-ring smarts to forge a successful, though shorter-lived, career commentating on bouts. This “Magic Man” also possessed excellent boxing skills, but added considerably greater power to his arsenal, which would lead him to scoring one of the most significant KOs in boxing history. Tarver, from Tampa, Florida, would amass a record of 7-5-1 against world champions throughout his career.
Tarver started his professional career in 1997 following a late start to boxing which he punctuated with a 1996 Olympic bronze medal. Tarver’s rise included useful victories over Jose Luis Herrera, Rocky Gannon – there it is again! – and Ernest Mateen. However, he slipped up against Connecticut’s Eric Harding in losing a title eliminator by comfortable decision in 2000.
Tarver rebounded well though. He put together an excellent run which included victories over Reggie Johnson, Harding and Montell Griffin, which gave him two belts vacated by Roy Jones Jr, who would be his next stop. Tarver gave the recently shrunken heavyweight titlist a close call in losing a just majority decision. Tarver famously asked Jones, “Any excuses tonight?” in the ring moments before their rematch. Tarver left no room for any as he leveled the seemingly invincible Jones in two rounds in 2003.
Tarver arrived in the spotlight of the world boxing scene, but immediately suffered a setback by split decision against a resurgent Glencoffe Johnson, who also managed a stoppage of Jones in the meantime. Tarver evened the score by unanimously outpointed Johnson in the rematch. Tarver ended his rivalry with Jones by winning a unanimous decision in their third meeting. To the surprise of many, middleweight Bernard Hopkins schooled Tarver to steal his title. Amid all of this, Tarver took time away from the ring to play Mason Dixon in 2005’s Rocky Balboa!
Tarver would wear a belt again following his decision victory over Clinton Woods in 2008 after inconsistent performances against Elvir Muriqi and Danny Santiago. They next generation arrived though and Connecticut’s Chad Dawson twice outpointed Tarver to establish supremacy at light-heavyweight.
Tarver’s late work surprised many, but also stirred controversy due to failed drug tests. Even still, Tarver outboxed Nagy Aguilera at heavyweight and broke down a cruiserweight version of Danny Green. The still capable Jonathon Banks fell to Tarver in seven rounds again at heavyweight. Antonio had to settle for a draw against one of history’s best cruiserweights in Steve Cunningham, but if one fighter looked the victor in that contest, it was Tarver. With seemingly a little magic left in the wand, Tarver ended his career amid some controversy in 2015.
- Marlon Starling – 45-6-1 (27)
Marlon Starling brought great pride back to Connecticut boxing during the 1980s as he captured world championship belts at welterweight on two occasions. This “Magic Man” was also technically gifted with a solid punch in the ring.
Starling built up a typically thin New England resume prior to suffering his first defeat to eventual pound-for-pound king Donald Curry in 1982. Curry took a split decision and the two met again in 1984. This time Starling came up shorter, losing a clear unanimous decision over 15 rounds for two-thirds of the welterweight crown. Starling’s pump was primed now and the Hartford-based fighter soon defeated the likes of Lupe Aquino, Floyd Mayweather Sr and Simon Brown. He had split a pair of fights with Pedro Vilella by 1987.
This run positioned Starling for the biggest fight of his career as he took on 1984 Olympic champion, Mark Breland. In a stunning performance, Starling stirred up some magic for a late-rounds rally to stop Breland in the 11th and win the WBA welter belt. The following year, Starling seemed unlucky to be handed only a draw with Breland in their rematch. Starling’s match with Thomas Molinares in 1988 rates among the bizarre as it saw the champion KOd with a punch after the bell to lose his belt. The punch was later deemed unintentional and the KO was ultimately ruled a No Contest by the commission, but Starling remained title-less.
Starling would rebound from this unfortunate circumstance and dominated WBC king Lloyd Honeyghan before stopping him in nine rounds to become a two-time world champion. He would defend once in 1989 with a victory over Young Kil Jung. Starling rose to middleweight to take on the challenge of champion Michael Nunn, but lost by majority decision. In his final bout, Starling returned to welterweight to lose narrowly and debatably to Maurice Blocker in 1990.
The careers of these three boxers produced copious magical moments. Both Starling and Tarver possess Hall of Fame credentials though many would argue that point. Malignaggi may be able to get himself in, helped by his continued work behind the mic, but is a long-shot to say the least. If it came down to flashy smiles alone, these guys would have been pound-for-pound kings. In terms of rating them against the other, Malignaggi is a clear third. Tarver boasts the single most emphatic victory, but lacked consistency and lands second by my tally. That leaves Starling in the top spot and another Connecticut fighter edging Tarver, unofficially. When I hear the name “Magic Man”, my mind conjures images of Marlon Starling above all others.