By Thomas Gerbasi
In the darkest hole, you'd be well advised
Not to plan my funeral before the body dies
The last time I dug that Alice in Chains lyric out was in January of 2002. The occasion? The UFC lightweight title fight between champion Jens Pulver and unbeaten phenom BJ Penn. For those who don’t follow mixed martial arts, let’s just say that the conventional wisdom at the time was that the gritty champion from Iowa was good, but that Penn was on a whole different level. The way fans and pundits saw the bout, Pulver didn’t even need to show up and take any physical abuse on fight night. He could just send the championship belt to Penn in Hawaii.
"I just can't believe it," Pulver told me before the fight. "I'm dumbfounded. At the same time I'm glad. If they think he's that unbeatable and unstoppable, then more power to him. I felt that making me a 3-1 underdog just showed a big-time disrespect to me. But I get to prove more people wrong. I ain't losing this fight. He can train all he wants, it doesn't matter. I think he's a great fighter, he's skilled, he's explosive, and I like the guy. He's always been respectful to me and I've always been respectful to him. I'm battling a fighter in front of me, respect issues, the fans, my career, and things inside my own head. He just happens to be the person that's got to receive the punishment that I'm going to be dishing out because of it."
And there would be a fight, one that went according to predictions for Penn, nicknamed “The Prodigy,” in the first two rounds. Pulver, almost finished late in that second round, walked dejectedly back to his corner. Then he looked across the Octagon and his eyes immediately shot to one of Penn’s cornermen.
“Somebody in his corner, one of his little entourage, was jumping up and down and doing the cut throat (gesture) at me,” said Pulver. “And I looked right at him and I was like ‘are you kidding me?’ So because of that guy, I said ‘no way’ and he never got another takedown. That was the thing that I needed in my head. If I get beat, I get beat, but I ain’t going out like this.”
Pulver won the next three rounds and the fight to retain his title. Penn would return to the winner’s circle and become one of only two men in UFC history to win titles in two weight classes, even beating the first man to defeating him in a 2007 rematch. But the night of January 11, 2002 will always belong to Pulver.
As I recall this story to WBA welterweight champion Paulie Malignaggi, the parallels between the Pulver-Penn bout and his own fight with unbeaten Adrien Broner this Saturday at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center are uncanny. Both Malignaggi and Pulver are seen as boxers who have gotten the most out of themselves over the course of their careers, beating the odds in the process. Both entered a pivotal fight as significant underdogs to gifted opponents, yet both have dismissed such opinions as the opening bell approaches. And though Pulver’s pre-fight demeanor was a seething, slow boil, Malignaggi, as is his custom, has not minced words when it comes to the “experts” predicting his demise.
“I used to think that experts were really experts,” he said. “I was young and sometimes I would look at the opinions of people who had come before me and had been probably writing about boxing or commenting about boxing before I was even born, and I used to think they really were experts and that their opinions would have to count for something. And when I would get criticized, I would think ‘what am I not seeing that they’re seeing? What’s my missing link here? Am I really not as good as I think I am and how I see myself in the gym?’ And then as my career unfolded over the years and you gain experience and gain some knowledge of life and of boxing, of course I started to see that had I listened to all these people throughout my career, I never would have made any money and I never would have had a boxing career.”
In a lot of ways he’s right.
Always a popular figure on the New York fight scene, Malignaggi was written off by many as early as his 2006 loss to Miguel Cotto, a memorable 12 rounder which should have had people singing his praises for his toughness and resilience instead of chopping him down. Malignaggi would go on to win the junior welterweight crown, but a loss to Ricky Hatton in 2008, coupled with the idea that his brittle hands would never take him to the next level, got him redlined again in the eyes of the boxing world. Seemingly the final straw was his one-sided loss to Amir Khan in 2010, but with a move to 147 pounds, he gained new life, winning three straight before stopping then-unbeaten Vyacheslav Senchenko in Senchenko’s home country of Ukraine to win the WBA welterweight crown.
A razor-thin and disputed victory over Pablo Cesar Cano last October brought out the doomsayers once again though, and as he prepares to meet the talented and hard-hitting Broner, few give him a chance of winning, though that’s never stopped him from lacing the gloves on and fighting anyway.
“I’m very used to being the underdog, so it doesn’t surprise me,” said the 32-year-old. “I don’t know why people feel I’m such an underdog, and everybody has their reasoning, but the thing that makes it not bother me is that the body of work throughout my career has shown that I’ve been considered the underdog every time and I’ve come out of it every time or have at least come out of it enough to have made a career for myself. So whatever reason they have for making me such a big underdog, it doesn’t matter because I don’t respect that opinion. I can’t respect that opinion.”
And why should he? If he listened to popular opinion, he would never have made it this far, and if you’ve covered his career for any length of time, you’ll know that he has been written off more times than perhaps any fighter of this era. At this point, everything should be gravy for Malignaggi, but he isn’t content with giving a good effort in his hometown arena against a kid seemingly destined for big things in the sport. He has to give that effort and win, and he can’t back down.
While in the midst of that process though, the lead-up to the fight has gotten ugly, with pre-fight press conferences degenerating into tirades from both sides unsuitable for mixed company. Malignaggi admits as much, saying that he and Broner have “already crossed” the line of pre-fight gamesmanship.
“I think I got drawn into this gutter trash conversation and all that stuff,” he said. “I’m a 32-year-old man. I’m not a 23-year-old kid anymore. If this was me ten years ago, I would have probably already beat the s**t out of him at one of the press conferences. I understand that I work for Showtime (as a color commentator) and I have to try to keep it professional, but I’m also a 32-year-old man, so even if I didn’t have that kind of job, I’ve got to try to act mature and act my age too. And it’s very difficult. Nobody likes to get pressed by a young punk, but the good thing about boxing is you get to settle it with your fists eventually.”
Will Malignaggi’s fists be enough to hold off Broner though? Cincinnati’s “Problem” is 26-0 with 22 KOs, he’s won world titles at 130 and 135 pounds, and outside of a controversial decision win against Daniel Ponce De Leon in 2011, no one has come close to testing the 23-year-old. And even though he’s moving up two weight classes to challenge Malignaggi at 147 pounds, most believe that the “Magic Man” has neither the pop or the legs to hold Broner off. Not surprisingly, Malignaggi has a different take on his challenger’s move to welterweight.
“He’s a little guy, he’s shorter than me,” he said of Broner. “He’s making the same jump in weight class that I made in 12 years as a pro. I turned pro at 135 and I’m only at 147 now. He’s making that same jump overnight essentially and it’s gonna take its toll. There are a lot of physical gifts he’s giving up to me. People assume he’s faster than me; I don’t see him as being that fast. One of the ignorant comments I’ve seen is that Amir Khan’s speed bothered me so Adrien Broner’s speed is gonna kill me. Amir Khan is faster than Adrien Broner and his speed is used in a different way. He throws punches in bunches. Adrien Broner is more of a pick your shots kind of guy. So it’s a totally different kind of speed anyway.”
So what is Broner giving up on Saturday night?
“He gives up punching power, he gives up physical strength where in 12 rounds you’re going to be pushed around and muscled around by a bigger guy and that’s gonna wear you down,” Malignaggi explains. “He’s getting pushed around and then beaten up by a guy who weighs more than what he’s used to. I’ve got two knockouts in five fights at welterweight and most of my guys end up looking like they went through a windmill. Adrien Broner will look like he went through a blender when I’m done with him. So there are a lot of things people don’t understand about moving up in weight and going up against a guy who’s naturally bigger.”
All of this will be shown to be either true or not once the bell rings this weekend. What can’t be disputed is that if Malignaggi’s speed and legs are in order, he will be presenting a style to Broner that he has never seen before. Run down the list of Broner’s opposition since making the leap to the world-class level, and each foe was essentially tailor-made for him. And outside of the Ponce De Leon fight, Broner hasn’t been in a dogfight where he’s fighting to keep not just his “0” but his health intact. Malignaggi has been there. He hasn’t always won those fights, but he’s never stopped trying to win either. Can Malignaggi take him to those dark places, and if he does, how will Broner respond?
“There’s a lot of similarities between this undefeated fighter that I’m fighting (Broner) and the last undefeated fighter I fought, which was Senchenko,” said Malignaggi. “I had a guy who was talented but unproven, a guy who actually had a better amateur career than Broner; he was an Olympian for Ukraine. And he was a guy who had a world title. He was undefeated but hadn’t really stepped up to a higher level. I knew I was going to be the best opponent he ever fought and I questioned his character as to when he got to deep waters, how he would react. Would he panic and drown or would he be able to stay afloat and swim in those deep waters? I questioned all that because when you haven’t been there, you can’t know for sure, especially when you go there with a guy who’s been there before. All those things made me confident going into the Senchenko fight and they’re all similar intangibles to what Broner is bringing to the table as well. That guy (Senchenko) got stopped. I had a good training camp for him. I had a good training camp for Broner, so we’ll see what happens.”
That’s all he can do. The work is done, the talk is (almost) over, and it’s up to him to silence the critics once more. They way they see it, this fight is over before it even starts. It almost takes the pressure off for Paulie Malignaggi. Now all he has to do is fight. If he loses, well, he was supposed to. If he wins, well, that’s the kind of stuff you tell your grandkids about, and he knows it.
“This is my moment,” he said, pausing to reflect on what this fight really means to him, letting go of all the trash talk and the desire to say ‘I told you so’ to the world. “This is why I continue to box. Coming into my hometown as a world champion defending my world championship in front of a packed arena against a guy that people think is the next big thing. These are the kind of opportunities you dream of when you’re a kid and you put on that first pair of boxing gloves and you’re hitting the bag and you’re just in awe of the big fighters training alongside you like I was when I was in Gleason’s Gym at 16 years old. You’re just in awe of everything and taking in the whole atmosphere. This is why I continue to fight, this is why I was boxing to begin with and I intend to make it my best moment, a career moment, a trademark moment. I’m gonna look back at this fight with a smile on my face when my career’s over.”