By Thomas Gerbasi
Left for boxing’s version of dead after a May 2010 loss to Amir Khan, Paulie Malignaggi could have walked off into the proverbial sunset as a cautionary tale, a prime example of what could have been if he had a little power, better hands, and even better luck.
But then a funny thing happened to the 30-year old from Brooklyn. He moved out west, found a new trainer in Eric Brown, a new weight class at 147 pounds, was signed by Golden Boy Promotions, and after wins over Michael Lozada and Jose Miguel Cotto, the “Magic Man” is a player again, practically reborn in a sport that celebrates resurrections even more than the first coming. You might even say that after some dark times, Malignaggi is happy again. That doesn’t mean he’s forgiven the sport completely though.
“It feels good to be a part of something like this, and yes, maybe some of the bad taste is out of my mouth because I’m with the team I have now,” said Malignaggi, who now lives in Los Angeles. “But having been a part of this business for such a long time, I know what goes on. I’m in a happy situation now, but overall, boxing is what it is. Even things that have nothing to do with me, like bad decisions every weekend or something messed up going on, there are things out there that are way out of your control.”
So it’s safe to say that he’s not going to be sticking around until 46 like the man who headlines the STAPLES Center card Malignaggi faces Orlando Lora on this Saturday, Bernard Hopkins?
“Absolutely not,” he deadpans. “I’m not even going to be doing this when I’m 36.”
After covering Malignaggi for over a decade, it may be the shortest answer I’ve ever received from him, but that shows how the love of his life turned into something less than that over the years. And it wasn’t just the bad hands or the misfires in big fights; it’s the idea that everything he planned for himself in the sport didn’t pan out the way he wanted it to.
Here’s the lowdown on Paulie Malignaggi, who has received no shortage of abuse from a segment of the boxing fanbase because of his flash and his mouth. And that’s understandable. But when you look at him and doubt his sincerity, that’s where these critics are far off. Malignaggi began fighting because it was a way out from what was going to turn out to be a dead end existence. And since it was his savior, he loved it like nothing else and it was never a money thing. The kid from Bensonhurst had found his niche and he wasn’t just going to do this for a paycheck. He wanted to be great. He talked about it from his first pro fight against Thadeus Parker in 2001 and throughout the ups and downs.
Eventually though, the downs outweighed the ups, he got a taste of the business side of the sport that didn’t sit well with him, and after losses in fights against Miguel Cotto and Ricky Hatton, he started to believe that the greatness he had forecast for himself wasn’t going to be. So I asked him if the Hall of Fame was something he still thought about.
“I don’t even bring it up, and I don’t really give it much thought anymore,” he said quietly. “I don’t think I even have the time. I don’t intend to be in this sport that much longer and I think to build up this Hall of Fame myth, I would need more time and I would need my prime years to stay with me. I don’t feel like I’ve passed my prime years. For a second I thought they were past me, but once I got back in the gym after the Khan loss and came out here and didn’t have as many struggles with weight and all that, I really feel like I’m still in my prime years, just at the end of them. I think I still have the ability to accomplish something. I wouldn’t be fighting if I didn’t believe I could be world champion again.”
Again, it’s never been about the paycheck for Malignaggi, even though money’s important, especially if boxing is the way you pay the bills. And in the great scheme of things, is it out of the realm of possibility that he puts together a few good wins, gets a title shot, wins a belt, and then gets put in the mix for a big fight again? Absolutely not, especially with the promotional muscle of Golden Boy behind him.
But he’s not going to look that far ahead. For him, everything in the future – title shots, spearheading GBP’s upcoming shows in Brooklyn, etc – rides on Saturday night against the 28-1-1 Lora, a 2000 Mexican Olympian who is the type of straight ahead, pressure fighter that Malignaggi should be able to box circles around. And he knows it. But he also knows that just winning isn’t enough, especially in front of a Pay-Per-View audience.
“I feel like I’ve got to beat him a certain way,” said Malignaggi. “I can’t have an average win over a guy like this; I’ve got to beat him and look very good doing it. And I tell myself that this guy has fought as high as junior middleweight, so he may be a little bigger than me and that may cause a little bit of danger, so I still have to remain sharp, focused and on point. If I do all that, I dominate him, and that’s the plan anyway. I can’t go into a fight against an Orlando Lora and have it be a close fight or a competitive fight. I have to dominate and keep showing people that the level I’m at is only a world-class level, and I’m above the Orlando Loras of the world. Not saying that he’s a terrible fighter, but he’s 28-1 and he hasn’t stepped up yet. He’s 30 years old and his ceiling is probably not at the world-class level. So this is his step-up and I’m here to show him that he’s not at this level.”
If it sounds like hints of his old swagger are coming back, that would be accurate. And it may have everything to do with his change of scenery and his new training situation. Down in the dumps after his split with Buddy McGirt and then after his one-sided loss to Khan, the first time Malignaggi saw himself in a fight with someone who was faster than he was, the Brooklynite – and even many of his longtime supporters – thought that perhaps his time at the top was done. But with Brown steering the ship and Malignaggi not having to torture himself to get down to 140 pounds, the “Magic” (pardon the pun) began to come back.
“We have worked on a couple things,” said Malignaggi of his work in the Wild Card Gym with Brown. “Maybe people have noticed or not, but the last couple fights my body attack has improved slightly. I’ve gotten some comments about that. And I’ve got a trainer in Eric Brown who has really added that to my style without taking away so much. I’ve had trainers try to add body attacks to my style before, and not to say that I’ve all of a sudden became Julio Cesar Chavez, because I’m not, but the difference this time around is that he hasn’t taken away anything to add the body attack. Eric has designed certain moves for me that can automatically set up shots for me upstairs and downstairs. And it’s little things here and there.”
The most important thing? Malignaggi still wants to learn.
“Boxing is like numbers,” he said. “Every move always has a counter move and there’s a counter move to that and a counter move to that. It never ends. So you can always learn if you’re willing to, and if you have the right teacher, but not everybody’s always willing to and humble enough.”
“I find myself a little more mature in the way I receive information,” he continues. “I’m not gonna tell you I’m not a hot head or that certain things don’t aggravate me like they always do, but I think I have more of an approach that this is my job, so I have a responsibility. In the past, it was just that I loved boxing and loved what I do, and it made me money, but it wasn’t like it was my job. I feel like I have a more mature approach now. When I get up every day, I’ve got to go to work, and just like in any job, if you do well, you get paid better. If you don’t do well, you don’t get paid better.”
This is the same fighter the world said had an oversized ego that couldn’t possibly live up to his boasts? Yeah, it’s the same guy.
“Every man has an ego and every fighter has an ego,” said Malignaggi. “You can’t be a fighter without having an ego. It goes hand in hand. But I think your best bet is to always check your ego at the door, no matter who you are. You’ve got to go in there (the gym) to learn. No matter how good you are or what you’ve accomplished, there’s always something you can do better or pick up better at the gym or improve on. And if you don’t check your ego at the door, your brain will not allow you to soak in that knowledge or become better at something or even be more mature. And that can make or break your career at a certain point.”
Malignaggi’s been to that point more than once, and it was more his hands and his disappointment in his performances that caused the issues, not his ego. Even today, over three years removed from the last time he wore the IBF junior welterweight title belt around his waist, it’s a sore point with him. “I didn’t even enjoy my world title the first time,” he said. “I looked like s**t in every title defense and then I lost the title.”
But he has a second chance. Some would say it’s his third or fourth chance, but regardless of your math, the point is that now may be his last run at a title and getting at least close to where he always expected to be. And luckily, Golden Boy is bringing him back almost like they would groom a hot prospect.
“The opportunity Golden Boy is affording me, they’re bringing me back in fights that are on TV, on major television like HBO Pay-Per-View,” said Malignaggi. “This is still what you would consider a comeback fight, so to speak. Since I’ve been with Golden Boy I haven’t been in a major fight, even though I’ve fought pretty decent competition. And I think the fact that they’re doing this for me, I have the pressure on me to keep winning. In the past, I’ve been in with one monster after another. After the Ricky Hatton fight I had a small tuneup, and then I was back in the Juan Diaz fights, and even if I was on the B-side, I was still in a big fight. So these guys are building me back up, instead of just trying to get me a win and throwing me back to the wolves. And I appreciate that and the only way I can show my gratitude is if I keep on winning for them and showing that they’re not building to nothing but that they’re building to something that may pay off in the end.”
It’s an idea that would have been foreign to Malignaggi after his crushing loss to Khan, but in boxing, occasionally you will get the opportunity to do things over, to leave on your own terms, and control your own destiny. The “Magic Man” from Brooklyn has that shot, and if he needs a little of that hometown chip on his shoulder to get things done this time, so be it.
“Whatever I accomplish from here on out, I take it as a bonus because many people wrote me off and thought I was done,” he said. “But I want to win the title and I want to enjoy being a world champion, and if I win it now, I know I’ll appreciate it and enjoy it.”