By Thomas Gerbasi
It doesn’t seem like yesterday, but it also doesn’t feel like it was over 11 years since a fresh-faced kid from Bensonhurst named Paulie Malignaggi first stepped foot into a boxing ring as a professional back in July of 2001.
The opponent that night at KeySpan Park in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn was Thaddeus Parker, whom the 20-year-old Malignaggi stopped in the first round. Since then, the “Magic Man” has outlasted Parker, who according to boxrec.com never fought again, KeySpan Park, which is now called MCU Park, and the legion of doubters who figured that the kid with the big mouth was just a flash in the pan destined to flame out fast in the dog eat dog world of boxing.
They didn’t know the pitbull in the heart of Malignaggi though, that behind the flash and the mouth was a real fighter. He knew though, and he wasn’t shy when it came to telling the world who he was and where he was going.
"I'm Boxing's next superstar," Malignaggi told me two days before his pro debut. "Paulie Malignaggi is going to make it up the ladder quickly and I'm going to win multiple titles. That's my goal. I'm going to explode on the scene Saturday night. I'm looking to make a big splash, and once you see me, I'm going to be here for a while. I'm here to stay. They let the tiger out of the cage now that I'm pro."
Malignaggi wasn’t lying. He made it up the ladder, won two world titles at 140 and 147 pounds, and whether you love him or hate him, he made a big splash and he’s lasted longer than most in the hardest game.
After hearing the words from his 20-year-old self read back to him, the now 31-year-old Malignaggi chuckled, and I asked if there were times when he wondered if those goals weren’t going to happen.
“There were a lot of times where you start to learn that a lot of things are out of your control as far as what is gonna happen,” he said. “When I turned pro, I knew I had a lot of ability and I knew I was very talented. I had only spent four years in the amateurs, yet I finished ranked number one in the country in my weight class. So I knew it takes a talented individual to pull something like that off because most of the kids at that age had been boxing since they were young kids. I had only been boxing since I was 16 and I had surpassed most of them. So I knew I had the talent, along with that chip on my shoulder. I had come from a hard background, and I needed to be successful no matter what I did and I felt like this was the thing. I was very good at what I was doing and I felt like I was always gonna continue to learn so the sky was really the limit for me.”
On Saturday, a road that has had plenty of detours along the way finally reaches a promised land of sorts when Malignaggi defends his WBA welterweight title against Pablo Cesar Cano in the borough where he was born and where he made his pro debut – Brooklyn. As the co-main event on Golden Boy Promotions’ first event at the new Barclays Center, Malignaggi has come full circle, and as much as he doesn’t want to lose sight of the most important part of this weekend – winning the fight – he has to admit that this fight has something more attached to it than most.
“It is a big deal,” he said, before talking about the obstacles he’s had to overcome to get here. “First it was a lot of hand injuries. Then it was problems dealing with the politics of the sport and seeing that it’s not just about talent and working hard in the ring. So a lot of things make you come up with doubts and they start seeping into your mind and you wonder if it’s gonna really work out. I know I’m good enough, but there are so many other intangibles that need to be right for a boxing career to be successful.”
He made it through to the other side though. After going 21-0 to start his career, Malignaggi made a courageous stand against Miguel Cotto in their 2006 title fight before losing a 12 round decision. Two fights later, Malignaggi had the IBF 140-pound crown in his possession, and he defended it twice before dropping it to Ricky Hatton in 2008.
Written off by the boxing world, Malignaggi would go 2-2 in his next four, but only his 2010 defeat to Amir Khan was legit, as his 2009 decision loss to Juan Diaz (later avenged) was one of the worst of that year. Regardless, no one figured that the New Yorker would be able to make it up the mountain again, but rejuvenated by a move to Los Angeles to train with Eric Brown and after signing with Golden Boy Promotions, the unlikely comeback began to gain steam.
By April, Malignaggi was 3-0 in his new weight class at 147 pounds, and he capped things off with a fourth win – a ninth round TKO of unbeaten Vyacheslav Senchenko that earned him the WBA crown. And he traveled to Ukraine to do it. Satisfying? Yes. Did it silence all his detractors? Not all of them, but at this point, Malignaggi has become almost immune to negative talk, though he hears it all.
“I think you need a lot of character to overcome a lot of the negativity, and I think it takes thick skin as well because bad things can happen to you in your boxing career,” he said. “You can take some tough losses like I have, and then on top of that you’re gonna deal with a lot of the naysayers and a lot of the experts and the Monday Morning Quarterbacks, and they’ll be like ‘aw, we knew he was never that good to begin with,’ and all that stuff. I can remember signing with Golden Boy two years ago and everyone thinking ‘this little bum is just gonna be an opponent to Victor Ortiz,’ or ‘way to go Malignaggi, welcome to journeyman land.’ And I can remember seeing those comments made by people underneath the articles or said in general by people in the boxing world, and you really have to have the thick skin and wherewithal to let that brush off your shoulders. I think you learn that with experience.”
That experience can be painful at times, especially when the one part of the whole equation where Malignaggi found peace – the actual sport – began to get tainted by politics and negativity.
“Boxing keeps you sane in a lot of ways,” he said. “At least for me it does. When you’re doing something constructive like that with yourself, you’re not thinking about anything negative. And so I felt like having negativity within boxing, which was the thing that was keeping the negative thoughts out of my head, was really bothersome. I had to have a strong focus to get myself back together.”
Now he’s back on top, and in position for some even bigger fights in 2013 should he defeat the one man that’s been lost in the whole ‘Paulie is back in Brooklyn’ hype: Mexico’s Cano.
“I’m getting more questions about Ricky Hatton than about Pablo Cesar Cano,” laughed Malignaggi, referring to the comebacking British star. But the champion isn’t looking past his young challenger.
“I see a young kid who’s hungry, who in a lot of ways has similarities to myself when I was that age,” he said of Cano, who is moving up to 147 pounds for the first time this weekend. “Maybe he’s not as much of a hotshot, but he’s very hungry to win a world championship and he’s worked very hard to get to this point in his career. He took the last world title fight on short notice (a 2011 stoppage loss to Erik Morales), and this is one he’s getting with a full training camp, so I expect his motivation at an extra high level. I also think he’s a pretty good fighter. He’s a good body puncher and his hand positioning is always very good. If offense is coming his way or he has to be a little defensive, he’s never putting himself out of position to not be able to punch back. So he keeps you on your Ps and Qs. From that perspective, he’s got some maturity past his years, but I’ve dealt with all styles and seen all styles, so I think my experience carries me through, but it’s not a fight that I overlook.”
Simply put, he can’t overlook Cano, and every fight he’s had since losing to Khan in 2010 has been a must win because one loss at this point could be crippling to a comeback many didn’t think would succeed. Of course, none had more pressure attached to it than the Senchenko fight, but with a win on Saturday, Malignaggi could put himself in line for a rematch with Hatton sometime next year, provided the “Hitman” gets by Senchenko himself in November. And if that’s not motivating, nothing is, because if Malignaggi has an admirable trait atop all others, it’s that he doesn’t take losing well. For years, he hung on to the loss to Cotto, and when it comes to Hatton, he says “I never let go of Hatton.”
“With Ricky Hatton I feel like I lost to a guy who I’m better than, and I feel like it’s the only time in my career that I lost to a fighter that I should have no business losing to,” said Malignaggi, who was trained by Buddy McGirt at the time, a union the New Yorker believes was doomed from the start. “Even Juan Diaz, where I felt like I won the fight, at least I came out of the ring thinking that he wasn’t a bad fighter. I didn’t come out of the ring feeling Ricky Hatton was very good, and that’s what was painful to me. It was that I was even worse. And it really, really bites you. When you feel like that and you’re as much of a competitor as me, it’s something that’s hard to let go of.
“Personally, I respect Ricky Hatton,” he continues. “As a man, as an individual, I respect him, I think he’s done a lot for boxing and he’s gotta be respected. But I don’t respect his fighting ability at all. I don’t think anything he did won him the fight against me in 2008. I don’t think anything (then trainer Floyd) Mayweather Sr. did for him won the fight for him in 2008. I think it was all an internal problem with me and Buddy. And I do think Buddy can be a good trainer for certain fighters; I just think he was completely and absolutely all wrong for me. It was a shame, it was a disappointment, and I will tell you, on November 22, 2008, I would have lost to a six round undercard fighter because by that point, the demolition job on my style had been totally done.”
Nearly four years later, it’s nice to see Malignaggi has moved on from the loss to Manchester’s finest.
He laughs, but while any loss is serious business to him, that one still leaves a bad taste in his mouth.
“I never got forgiven for that fight. Not that I should be, but in the time since that loss, there’s been a certain stigma about Paulie Malignaggi and my career. Any time people mention top fighters, they want to leave me out, even as a world champion. And I notice that with a lot of writers and a lot of fans.”
Neither group will step through the ropes on Saturday night in front of a crowd filled with family and friends appreciative of what Malignaggi has accomplished in the ring over the last 11 years though. And knowing that he does have that support is enough for him. But shhh, he’s not celebrating just yet.
“I don’t look at it as a celebration until after the fight,” he said of his return to Brooklyn. “I’m gonna enjoy the experience, but in all sincerity, when you leave the locker room and you go into the ring and they ring the bell and you fight, I don’t think you should be thinking about where you’re fighting anymore. Those things should come into your mind before that in the weeks leading up to the fight, but the moment you leave the locker room, it shouldn’t matter because that walk to the ring happens all over the world. It shouldn’t be any different for you mentally. You should be full focused on the fight at that point, no matter where it is.”