By Thomas Gerbasi
Paulie Malignaggi may wear a Los Angeles Lakers jersey these days as he lives and trains in the City of Angels, but there’s no mistaking that he still carries Bensonhurst, Brooklyn with him everywhere he goes.
“I’m a New Yorker at heart,” he said. “I’m from Brooklyn, I still represent Brooklyn, and I even bought a Laker jersey, but it’s a Ron Artest jersey because he’s from New York, so I still keep the New York flavor rolling, even out west.”
Malignaggi laughs. It may be an odd pairing, the “Magic Man” and the west coast, but he’s not a stranger in a strange land. In fact, he sounds happy in his new digs, where he works with trainer Eric Brown at the renowned Wild Card Gym.
Strangely enough, the Wild Card could be the closest he can get to replicating the feel of his early years in Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, where any given visit would be filled with sparring sessions pitting champions against champions, prospects against prospects, and hosts of visiting dignitaries of the sweet science who made the trip to Front Street just to get world-class work.
Things change though, and they certainly did for Malignaggi. A former junior welterweight world champion, he hit a crossroads in 2010 after a May loss to Amir Khan. Some said he was done. At times, as thousands of thoughts raced through his head, Malignaggi agreed.
“I really questioned what was gonna happen in my career after the Khan fight,” he said. “I wasn’t sure exactly what to pin it on. You always look for something to pin it on and you never want to say you’re finished when you get beat. And I was almost pinning it on the fact that maybe I’m done. But it was so much of a struggle to make weight that I thought that it may be that because I’m older and can’t cut weight the way I used to. So I thought I would try things out at welterweight.”
Who was going to lead him on the road back though? He knew that if he was going to start fresh, he had to make a clean break with the past. So he bought out his promotional contract from DiBella Entertainment, and soon after, he was getting interest from LA-based Golden Boy Promotions. Malignaggi went out west, negotiated a deal, and then began training with Brown at the Wild Card.
That’s the Reader’s Digest version. For a little deeper look, consider that Golden Boy signed a deal with Brooklyn’s Barclay’s Center to put on 12 shows a year in the venue beginning in 2012. Obviously they would like to have some NY talent to put on display, and Malignaggi certainly fits the bill. But that wasn’t the initial conclusion reached by fight fans and insiders when the signing was announced. Instead, it was believed that Malignaggi was the perfect big-name foil for the Saul Alvarezes and Victor Ortizes of the GBP stable.
“You start hearing rumblings about ‘oh, they just signed Malignaggi, they’re using him as fodder for one of the younger guys,’ but in actuality, when we sat down and negotiated and talked about it, the main reason Golden Boy signed me is that they’ve got this huge Barclay’s Arena deal going on and they need New York, especially Brooklyn, talent that are gonna sell and carry those fights when that time comes,” he said. “Everybody eventually does fight the young up and comers and that’s how boxing is. You get to a certain age and if you still want to fight at the top level, the guys are young, and it’s a young man’s sport. But that doesn’t mean they signed me to do that. I think the main reason they signed me was for this Barclay’s Arena deal and it not only made me feel that I was signing with the best promoter in the game, but that I had a relative level of importance as well.”
Not everyone was convinced, especially not in the Wild Card, where you don’t just show up with a big rep and expect to waltz into the thick of things. But Malignaggi, for all his flash and mouth, is a fighter, so proving himself was no issue at all.
“My first few sparring sessions, literally the whole gym would shut down and watch me spar,” he said. “I think they were just curious to see if I was real. They have so many world-class fighters here that I don’t think they were shutting down because it was a treat to have Paulie Malignaggi in the gym, but I think they were curious to see if I was real or if I was just a product of hype. And if you can hang in this gym, you know you’re real. There was just that curiosity about me, but now everybody realizes that I can fight and I’m for real.”
In December, Malignaggi had his Golden Boy and welterweight debut and he made a statement with it, stopping Michael Lozada in the sixth round. It was his first KO win since he halted Kevin Watts in 2003, and while he didn’t suddenly turn into a knockout artist, it was a confidence booster and a good fight to lead him into his next battle, a Saturday bout against Jose Miguel Cotto on the “Action Heroes” Pay-Per-View card in Las Vegas.
On paper, it’s a solid matchup for Malignaggi, and in terms of sizzle, there’s the marketing angle of the Brooklynite squaring off against the brother of the first man to beat him, Miguel Angel Cotto.
In the aftermath of Malignaggi’s 12 round decision loss to Cotto at Madison Square Garden in 2006, all he could talk about was another shot at the Boricua bomber, and you got the impression that it would be a defeat that would haunt him forever. So, the chance to get a little payback on his nemesis’ brother would be a welcome idea, right? Not necessarily, as five years of ups, downs, and everything in between has allowed Malignaggi to let his first loss go. So on Saturday, it’s nothing personal, just business.
“When I fought (Miguel) Cotto I was a lot younger and I was just mad about the loss and wanted to get him back,” he said. “Looking back all these years later, who would have known that he was probably the best fighter I fought in my career; I just happened to fight him first out of all the world-class fighters I ended up fighting. I guess for the fans, Malignaggi gets a chance at getting revenge on the Cotto family, but I don’t really look at it like that. I look at Jose Cotto as a steppingstone on my way back to a title shot and big fights in general. I don’t look at him as anything more than that. The Miguel Cotto fight is so far away at this point and there have been so many fights since and so much has happened, not only inside the ring, but outside, that my mentality towards boxing has changed so much since that fight. It’s not about the Cotto name and fighting one of the Cottos anymore; I’m fighting Jose Cotto, it’s my job to beat him, and I’m very grateful that Golden Boy gave me this opportunity and believed in me. I want to win for a lot of reasons, mostly for myself, but also to thank Golden Boy for the trust and the confidence they had in me to sign me.”
If Malignaggi wins on Saturday, that’s two in a row in a comeback some deemed unlikely. Plus, he’s only 30 years old and still has some bullets left in the chamber so he may wind up in another title fight sooner rather than later, and there’s always the Barclay’s Arena deal next year. All of a sudden, things are looking bright again for Malignaggi, and while his career hasn’t exactly panned out the way he expected it to when he turned pro in 2001, he’s not in a bad place now, and everything that happens from here on out will be gravy.
“I don’t take things for granted anymore,” he said. “I thought I was gonna be the next Oscar De La Hoya ten years ago. I thought I had an incredible package to work with, but that didn’t turn out. I made a comfortable living for myself regardless, and I appreciate anything that comes my way now and I also understand that it’s not as easy as maybe I thought it might be. But there are guys out there, great fighters with great talent, who just can’t catch a break. Maybe I’ve had to kick the door down sometimes and make my own opportunities when people didn’t want to give them to me, but one way or another, I’m grateful and I’m very happy.”