When the bell rang for round, Malignaggi started well against Broner. Moving, jabbing, and counter-intuitively going to the body, he won four of the first five stanzas on most scorecards. But while he was able to frustrate Broner, he couldn’t hurt him (“hurt” being a relative term in boxing). In the middle rounds, the momentum shifted. Paulie tired a bit and Adrien began stalking his foe. From that point on, Broner landed the harder punches and more of them. But he was inactive at times. And when he landed, Paulie handled his power without serious incident.
Judge Tom Miller scored the bout 115-113 in Malignaggi’s favor. Glenn Feldman (115-113) and Tom Schreck (117-111) gave the nod to Broner.
Inside Portobello’s, Paulie sat at one of the Formica-topped tables spread around the black terrazzo tile floor. There was a bruise beneath his right eye and a welt on the right side of his neck. Otherwise, he was unmarked, although the palm of his right hand was swollen.
“I hurt it when I hit him on the elbow,” Paulie said. “There’s some tissue damage but it didn’t affect the fight.”
The red stripe that had adorned his hair on fight night was gone. He was casually dressed with six days growth of beard on his face.
“Last Saturday was the first time in my career that I didn’t shave on the day of a fight,” Paulie noted. “I shaved three days before the fight. Then I decided to leave it at that, so it would get in Broner’s head that he was fighting a grown man.”
“How much do you weigh now?”
“One-sixty-three, maybe 164 pounds. But I’m in good shape.” Paulie lifted up his shirt to show his abs. “I’ll put on a few more pounds, but I’m not one of those guys who balloons up after a fight.”
Malignaggi is 32 years old now. He has earned everything he has gotten from boxing. Like most fighters, he has earned it the hard way.
Paulie turned pro in 2001 after a decorated amateur career that saw him win a national amateur championship at 132 pounds. He won his first 21 pro fights, rebounded from a brutal loss to Miguel Cotto, and, in 2007, pitched a 12-round shutout against Lovemore N’dou to capture the IBF 140-pound crown. After two successful title defenses, he was dethroned by Ricky Hatton. Forty-one months afterward, Malignaggi traveled to Ukraine and stopped Vyacheslav Senchenko to annex the WBA 147-pound belt. A narrow points win over Pablo Cesar Cano on the first-ever fight card at Barclays Center followed.
In early 2013, Team Malignaggi began negotiations with Golden Boy Promotions (his current promoter) for a title defense against Shane Mosley. Paulie didn’t have a win over a Hall of Fame fighter on his résumé. The Mosley fight could have changed that.
“It’s a coin flip,” Naazim Richardson (Mosley’s former trainer) said of the proposed match-up. “Either guy could win and it would be a good win for either guy.”
But the fight fell through. Malignaggi’s promotional contract with Golden Boy called for him to receive a guaranteed purse against a percentage of certain adjusted revenue streams from each fight. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer wanted to limit Paulie’s payment for Malignaggi-Mosley to a flat (albeit generous) purse. Team Malignaggi objected. Rather than try to work through the issue, Schaefer terminated negotiations. He had another opponent in mind.
The essence of boxing in its purest form is truth. Stripped of phony belts, corrupt officiating, and other maladies, it’s the most honest of all sports. But in recent years, a tidal wave of hype has washed over the “Sweet Science.”
Enter Adrien Broner.
Broner is a talented young fighter, who won his first 26 fights and had stopped 16 of his last 17 opponents. During that time, he’d been anointed by the powers that be as the next great fighter in boxing. His résumé was thin, but the manner in which he’d devastated a series of carefully-chosen foes was impressive.
Broner’s chosen nickname is “The Problem.” Outside the ring, that certainly has been the case. As an adolescent, Adrien was often on the wrong side of the law. “I did everything,” he told reporters earlier this year. “You name it, I did it. I owned a couple of guns in my day.”
He was also incarcerated for beating up someone and leaving the victim in critical condition.
“I got into some trouble, some big trouble,” Adrien admitted at a media sitdown last November. “They tried to give me some football numbers, you know, receiver-like numbers, like 85 years. I was in for about a year and two months. The first day out, I went to the gym, and they all said I looked better than before I left.”
At last count, the 23-year-old Broner had five children by four different women. In March of this year, a video surfaced that purported to show him at an adult club, administering oral sex to a stripper onstage.
“I’m not a villain,” Broner says. “I’m just being me. I don’t care where I am; I’m going to be me. I’m going to do what I do. I know it can rub off on some people the wrong way. ‘This guy is too cocky or he’s too arrogant or this or that.’ But once you get to know Adrien Broner, people just fall in love with me.”
Broner’s rise to prominence was nurtured by HBO. Last July, he weighed in three-and-a-half pounds over the 130-pound limit for a title defense against Vicente Escobedo, refused thereafter to try to make weight, and tipped the scales at 148 pounds at 6:00 p.m. on fight night. At the post-fight press conference, after stopping Escobedo in five rounds, he told reporters, “[HBO] really ought to change [its] logo to my face.”
Seven months later, Broner defeated an overmatched Gavin Rees and told the media, “I’m a legal bank robber. I just robbed the bank tonight. As long as HBO keeps paying me to fight these lightweights, I ain’t never been on the farm but I’m milking the cow real good.”
After the Rees fight, Broner moved to Showtime with the rest of the Golden Boy roster. But his self-reverence remained: “I’m trying to be the best boxer who ever laced on a pair of gloves. That’s my goal...I’ll make any fight look easy…The difference between me and other fighters is, they do what they can; I do what I want…You can’t really do nothing for power. You’re either born with it or you aren’t. It’s just something that God blessed me with. I’m God’s gift to boxing.”
The promotion of Malignaggi-Broner was largely about Broner.
“I knew going in that it was going to be that way,” Paulie says. “It was all about him getting another belt. Even though I was the champion, the first contract Golden Boy gave me to sign had Broner going to the ring last and being introduced last. I wouldn’t sign it.”
Broner was a prohibitive favorite with the odds running as high as 15-to-one. He has speed, reflexes, skill, and power. Malignaggi never had power and, it was thought, no longer had the speed and reflexes to implement his skills. One was hard-pressed to find a knowledgeable boxing insider without a stake in the promotion who thought that the fight would be competitive. Indeed, in a March 2013 poll of matchmakers and other industry experts, Paulie (despite having a belt) failed to finish in the top 10 in the welterweight rankings.
“Broner changes men, professional fighting men, from aggressors to targets,” Bart Barry wrote.
Adam Berlin was more expansive, extolling, “Broner has it all. He’s a boxer and a puncher. He can fight outside and inside. He’s a master of ring geography. He’s acutely aware of his opponent’s condition, sensing fear and fatigue and hurt. And he possesses the kind of cold killer instinct that’s far more effective than its hotter-tempered versions. There is a rare breed of men born to box, who are so in control inside the ring, so at home in harm’s way, they seem un-hurtable. Broner comes to inflict pain. Watch him between rounds and you’ll forget about his clownish pre-and post-fight antics. As with all artists, we should judge Broner on his work. And when he’s working, he’s the opposite of frivolity. Sitting on his stool, waiting for the bell to ring, Broner’s body language spells intensity. Hard-eyed, hard-mouthed, he leans forward, ready to spring, his gaze a dangerous warning.”
There were fears that Malignaggi-Broner would be like Floyd Mayweather versus Arturo Gatti. “He’s bringing pillows to this fight,” Broner said. “I’m bringing bricks.”
“A lot of people who care about me didn’t want me to take the fight,” Paulie acknowledged. “They’re rooting for me, but they don’t give me a chance.”
It was left for writer David Greisman to pen words of caution.
“Broner’s speed, power and overall ability have allowed him to be regarded as the proverbial cream of the crop,” Greisman wrote. “However, he has yet to actually earn the recognition of being not just one of several titleholders but a true champion. His final five fights at 130 were a disputed decision over Daniel Ponce De Leon, a gimme knockout over Jason Litzau, a gimme knockout over Vicente Rodriguez that gave him a vacant world title at age 22, an impressive win over prospect Eloy Perez, and a stoppage of Vicente Escobedo in a bout that saw Broner come in more than three pounds over the weight limit. Broner has done well since at lightweight, dominating Antonio DeMarco, a fighter who was considered to be one of the best in the division, then dispatching Gavin Rees with an emphatic conclusion earlier this year. There are other claimants in these divisions, though. Broner could easily be the betting favorite in matches against each of them. Alas, fights are not resolved on paper. You cannot become king without pulling someone else off, or away from, the throne.”
Meanwhile, Malignaggi wasn’t just showing up for a payday against Broner. He believed in himself. All good fighters do. In the weeks leading up to the fight, he voiced the view that he would emerge victorious:
* “Broner has talent. But at the end of the day, what have we seen from Adrien Broner? We’ve seen a lot of handpicked opponents. We could have all been 26-and-0 against that level of opposition. There are better opponents on ESPN.”
* “He’s a good little fighter. He’s got some skills. I just don’t think he’s big enough. He’ll be giving up physical strength and get pushed around and muscled around by a bigger guy, which is me. His trainer said Adrien spars with middleweights so he can handle me. I don’t care who he spars with. I spar in the gym. I don’t spar on fight night. There are weight classes in boxing for a reason.”
* “People assume he’s faster than me. One of the ignorant comments I’ve seen is that Amir Khan’s speed bothered me, so Adrien Broner’s speed is going to 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. I like the fight. I like the fight a lot.”
* I’m not convinced of his power. He’s going to see how overrated his power is. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m going to knock him out with one punch, but he’s going to feel a lot of punishment. He won’t know what to do when he’s in a tough fight. He may just tell himself it’s not worth it and quit.”
Malignaggi had more to gain from the fight than Broner. If Adrien won, the reaction would be “So what?” If Paulie won, it would constitute the big win that had eluded him against Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton, and Amir Khan. But before long, any attempt at intelligent analysis of the fight was drowned out by a wave of trash-talking.
This was the second Golden Boy promotion in a row at Barclays Center (the first being Danny Garcia vs. Zab Judah) that devolved into what writer Jimmy Tobin correctly labeled “a tasteless and offensive promotion.” Trash-talking might energize a fighter’s core supporters, but it turns off casual sports fans and potential corporate sponsors.
The ugliness began in mid-March before the fight was signed when Broner proclaimed, “I’ll fight that mother**ker in the closet. Tell ‘Paulette’ it’s his time of the month and I understand he’s going through some things. He’s going to get f**ked up. I don’t care if it’s at the Barclays Center. I don’t care if it’s at the barbecue. Anybody that Adrien Broner fights is easy money. I don’t care who it is. ‘Paulette,’ pull your f**king skirt up.”
That led Malignaggi to counter, “I don’t know what kind of bedroom life Adrien Broner has. But with him calling me ‘Paulette’ and wanting to fight in a closet, I don’t go that way. Nothing against him if he does, but my personal preference is women. If he’s going to start calling men ‘Paulette’ and starts talking about fighting in the closet with them, it’s not my cup of tea. There won’t be any role-playing where he calls me ‘Paulette’ and we both go in the closet. He has to find another Paulette. I’m into role-playing, but I role play with females in the bedroom and not with dudes in the closet. I don’t know how Adrien and his boys get down in Cincinnati, but me and my boys in Brooklyn don’t get down like that.”
Thereafter, Malignaggi said Broner looked like “an ugly ninja turtle” and called him a “sissy,” a “punk,” and “retarded.” Broner responded that Paulie was “like a female who wears his feelings on his sleeve.”
If Golden Boy had donated a dollar to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation each time either fighter said, “I’m gonna f**k you up and beat the sh*t out of you,” breast cancer might soon be cured.
But there was worse. On May 4th, Golden Boy held a kick-off press conference for Malignaggi-Broner at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Floyd Mayweather versus Robert Guerrero was to be contested at the hotel-casino that evening, so the media was there in full force.
“I’m going to bring a guest [to the Malignaggi fight] who is one of my closest friends now,” Broner told the media. “Jessica, or ‘Jess’ as [Malignaggi] used to call her. She’s my sweetheart right now. And she told me some things. Last week, she came to my hotel room. She was depressed because [Team Malignaggi] sent threatening messages and stuff like that. They were threatening to do this and threatening to do that. She was crying and I told her to take a drink because that brings the truth out. I’m like, ‘Just chill; calm down. I’m willing to talk you through this.’ She says, ‘Well, he hit me.’ She said - and I don’t know how true this is, I’m just repeating what I was told - she said [to Paulie] ‘Why don’t you knock anybody out?’ And he got mad and said, ‘I got five knockouts. F**k you! What do you mean, I don’t knock anybody out?’ She said, ‘Maybe you should do more push-ups.’ She said, ‘Maybe God didn’t bless you with power.’ That struck a match and he [hit her] right across the chin, flush. She said it was one of the best left hooks he ever threw. To make a long story short, they broke up. Paulie wasn’t hitting it hard enough, and now she’s with a heavy hitter.”
In response, Paulie exploded.
“Here’s the difference between me and Adrien,” he told reporters. “We both got money, but I’m good-looking. There are girls who are close to you and girls that we call ‘weekend p*ssy.’ Jessica was ‘weekend p*ssy. That means Jessica could f**k anybody she wants. And when I got time on the weekends, I could do whatever I wanted to do and she loved it. She loved getting hit [while role-playing] when we slept together. As a matter of fact, Adrien, if you f**ked her, you already know that. ‘Weekend p*ssy’ is exactly that. The only ‘weekend p*ssy’ Adrien gets is the kind he pays for. He doesn’t understand what it’s like to be good-looking and get regular p*ssy and the ‘weekend p*ssy’ and you don’t pay for none of it. It just comes to you. That’s my life. If I wasn’t boxing, I would still be getting laid.”
Jessica (who goes by the name “Jessica Corazon”) surfaced throughout the promotion. In an interview with FightHype.com, she claimed to have had an intense seven-month relationship with Paulie and declared, “I’m not a slut. I’m not a whore. I’m a really girly-girl. I’m far from a groupie. I modeled for Maxim. I have my own attention. This is not for attention. Adrien is an amazing person. I love Adrien. Anything that Adrien and his team has to do regarding this fight, I’m gonna make sure I’m there. There might be a fight before the fight. I’m not sure. I can’t wait to sit there and watch Adrien kick his ass.”
On June 20th, Jessica appeared at the final-pre-fight press conference at Barclays Center. Sensing trouble, Richard Schaefer made a plea for civility between the fighters.
“I want them to focus on the fight, not girlfriends or ex-girlfriends,” the promoter said.
When it was Broner’s turn to speak, he began by telling the media, “I didn’t come here to talk trash.”
Then he talked trash with an emphasis on Jessica, who told the media, “I’m just here to support Adrien.”
Jessica, it should be noted, looked like a woman who wanted to be represented by Gloria Allred in a lawsuit for something against someone in the not-too-distant future. She also looked like a woman who would share a bed with Malignaggi and Broner (but not at the same time, one assumes). Perhaps she will be Adrien’s next “baby momma.”
When it was Paulie’s turn to speak, he told the media, “This is how the creation of Adrien Broner happened. They put everything that’s wrong with boxing in one room, did everything that’s wrong with boxing in that room, and gave birth to Adrien Broner. This guy is nothing, and on Saturday night, I’m going to prove how nothing he is.”
Paulie could outtalk Broner. The question was, could he outfight him?
* * *
After lunchtime, the crowd at Portobello’s thins out. The restaurant is usually quiet from then until mid-afternoon, when students from nearby Stuyvesant High School come in. Paulie sat with his back to the front door. Patrons didn’t recognize him as they passed by from behind. But if they sat facing in his direction, there was a connection for some of them.
A young man came over to say hello and wish Malignaggi well. A woman with a toddler in a stroller smiled in his direction. Paulie had a welcoming word for everyone who approached him.
Malignaggi-Broner was still on his mind.
“I know that trash-talking is part of boxing,” Paulie said. “I can’t criticize someone for talking trash because I do it myself. There are times when it motivates me, and promoters like it because it helps sell the fight. That says something about where boxing is today, that we need that sort of thing to sell tickets. But it is what it is.”
“I didn’t mind Broner’s shtick about how great a fighter he says he is,” Paulie continued. “If he wants to say that I’m a bum and tell people how he’s going to beat the sh*t out of me, I have no problem with that. It comes with the territory. But when you bring my private personal life into it and tell lies about me, that’s going too far. Maybe Broner is such a lowlife that he doesn’t care what people think about him and his family. But I care.
“Let me set the record straight about Jessica. I met her in a nightclub and we had sex together. That part of her story is true. If I had it to do over again, knowing what I know now, would I go to bed with her? No way! But most guys at one time or another sleep with a woman they wouldn’t bring home to their mother. As far as I was concerned, it was a good time with no strings attached. And I thought she felt the same way. Then she started putting pictures of her and me up on social media like it was a serious dating relationship, so I dropped her. After that, she starts texting me that she has morning sickness and she’s pregnant. That was a horrible time for me. Jessica was sending me sonogram pictures of the baby that turned out to be phony. I asked her for the name and phone number of her doctor, and she wouldn’t give it to me. I knew by then that I didn’t like this woman. But I also knew that, if a child was born, that child was blameless and I had a responsibility to see that the child was provided for financially and had the opportunity to grow up happy.
“Then, toward the end of March, three months after Jessica supposedly got pregnant, a friend of hers called and told me, ‘Jessica has decided to have an abortion. We need you to send her some money for it.’ I said, ‘I won’t send you money. But I’ll take Jessica to the abortion clinic myself to make sure that she’s okay and I’ll pay for everything on the spot.’ That was a no-go, at which point I knew the whole thing was a hustle. After that, I cut her off.”
Paulie took a smart phone out of his pocket and scrolled through a series of text messages. The last one, dated April 12, 2013, was from Jessica and read, “All I want to do is have sex with you. I really need you.”
“She tried to keep the relationship going,” Paulie said as he resumed his recounting of events. “But I wanted nothing to do with her. Finally, this woman was out of my life. You have no idea how much pain her supposed pregnancy caused me. And then Broner brings her back into my life again.”
“I shouldn’t have called her ‘weekend p*ssy.’ I got mad. What I should have said was that this is a woman who’s a very bad representative of what women can be. But after everything I’d gone through, it ticked me off when Broner and this woman made my private personal life public and did it in such a dishonest way.”
Anthony Catanzaro came over to join Paulie at the table. The conversation turned to the fight.
“Broner is a good fighter,” Paulie said. “He has speed. He’s hard to hit clean in the head, but he’s open for body shots. He throws sharp punches, but he doesn’t hit that hard. His punching power is way overrated. After the fight, I heard people saying, ‘Oh, Broner was hitting Paulie much harder than Paulie was hitting Broner.’ That’s not true. I’m not a big puncher, but I’ve been hit by big punchers. Trust me. I know when a guy can punch. But people had this preconception that Broner is a big puncher and they viewed the fight that way. I’ve been in the ring with much better fighters than Broner. Fighters who hit harder, fighters who are faster and technically better. The problem I had here was that my legs don’t last now the way they used to. That was the difference between the first half of the fight and the second half.”
“And the referee was incompetent,” Catanzaro interjected. “I’ve never criticized a referee for one of Paulie’s fights before. But Benjy Esteves had a very bad night. This isn’t MMA. Kidney punches are illegal. Stuffing a forearm into your opponent’s throat is illegal. Hitting on the break is illegal. Trying to knee an opponent in the face and groin is illegal. When a fighter deliberately knees his opponent, the referee should take a point away. What is it that Benjy Esteves doesn’t understand about that?”
“It’s one thing if the referee is not cognizant of a foul,” Catanzaro continued. “If he doesn’t see it, he doesn’t see it. It’s a whole different thing when the referee sees foul after foul and doesn’t enforce the rules. You can say that one point wouldn’t have made a difference in who won on the judges’ scorecards. But if the referee had taken a point away, it would have forced Broner to fight a clean fight or risk disqualification. And if Broner has to fight within the rules, maybe it ends differently.”
As for the decision…
“Scoring is subjective,” Paulie acknowledged. “It was a close fight. When [ring announcer]Jimmy Lennon [Jr.] said it was a split decision, I knew the first two scores he read were going different ways. And as he’s reading, things are going through my mind. The New York judge [Schreck] is the one who’s left. I’m from New York. I’m the champion. Then I hear 117-111. I knew the fight was closer than that, so I knew there was something wrong with Schreck’s score. And I figured, Broner is the one with connections. If there’s something wrong with Schreck’s score, I’m the one who’s getting screwed.”
Then Broner proclaimed, “I beat Paulie. I lifted his belt and his girl.”
That set Malignaggi (who moments before had told Showtime interviewer Jim Gray that the decision could have gone either way) off on a diatribe about Schreck’s scorecard.
“There’s always a little animosity between the fighters before a fight,” Paulie said, sitting in Portobello’s. “You’re getting ready to punch each other in the face. But for the most part, things are respectful. And after the fight is over, you’re cool with each other. I thought it would be that way with Broner. After the final bell, I went over to tell him it had been a good fight. And you know what happened after that.”
“The thing that eats away at me the most is that, if you change one round on one judge’s scorecard, I keep my title on a draw. Glenn Feldman had it 115-113 for Broner. If I do a little more in one round and Feldman gives me that round, I’m still the champion. Then Broner wants a rematch and I’m in line to make a million-and-a-half, maybe two million dollars.”
“It’s hard to beat someone that the people who control the sport are calling the next face of boxing.”
But Broner’s coronation might never come. Before the fight, he was being hailed as “the next Floyd Mayweather.” Now comparisons with Zab Judah are in the air. That’s not bad, but it isn’t great either.
Don Turner knows a thing or two about boxing. Fifty-three years ago, he was a sparring partner for Sugar Ray Robinson. Later, he trained Larry Holmes and Evander Holyfield, earning recognition from the Boxing Writers Association of America as the 1996 “Trainer of the Year.”
“I told you before the fight that Broner was overrated,” Turner reminded this writer the day after Malignaggi-Broner. “He has the potential to be a great fighter, but he’ll never live up to his potential because he’s an out-of-control a**hole. You have all these people around him, who do what he wants them to do and tell him what he wants to hear instead of telling him the truth. That’s one of the biggest problems now with boxing. When there’s money involved, nobody wants to tell the truth to anybody about anything.”
Before fighting Malignaggi, Broner talked the talk. But when it came time to walk the walk, he stumbled a bit. Adrien isn’t Superman. The odds are that he’ll be carefully protected in the choice of an opponent for his next fight.
Malignaggi won’t have that luxury, nor does he want it. Sitting in Portobello’s, he ruminated, “I’d love a rematch, but I know Broner won’t give it to me. Other offers will come my way. I’ll look them over. But to be honest with you, I was sick of the boxing business before this fight. The way boxing is today, talent is secondary to connections in the fights you get, the purses you’re paid, the officiating of your fights. That’s been thrown in my face for years.
“I’m not as good as I used to be,” Paulie continued. “I was at my best four-to-eight years ago. I’m a smarter fighter now than I was then and maybe a little stronger. But I was sharper when I was young and my legs were better. The young Paulie Malignaggi would have beaten the fighter I am today by, let’s say, 116-112.”
Three years ago, after Malignaggi lost to Amir Khan, it was suggested he retire from boxing. There were a lot of reasons for his decision to keep fighting. One of them, voiced at the time, was, “Boxing is my getaway from stress. The stress of life, all the personal bullsh*t. I let it all out in boxing. For that reason alone, if nothing else, I’ve got to keep boxing.”
Does he still feel that way?
“It’s a mixed bag,” Paulie says. “I still let a lot of things out in boxing. But in some ways, boxing is now the main stress. I never had any love for the business. Now I’m losing my love for the training and, to a degree, even for the competition. It might just be that I needed this kick in the ass to get out.”
Paulie Malignaggi will never be the superstar he so desperately wanted to be. But he’s a professional fighter who has honored the craft of prizefighting.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (Thomas Hauser on Sports: Remembering the Journey) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.
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