That feeling lasted until Paulie arrived at the post-fight party and wasn’t allowed in because he was underage.
“Two guys stopped me at the door,” he recalls. “They were nice about it but they were like, ‘Sorry, you’re not 21.’ Finally, Dave Itskowitch (who worked for promoter Lou DiBella at the time) got there and convinced them to let me in.”
“I’ve got so many memories of that weekend,” Paulie continues. “I remember checking in at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Battery Park the day before the fight. In my whole life, I’d never had anything more than a single room in a hotel. At Embassy Suites, I had a bedroom and small living room, which I thought was the coolest thing in the world. Petey [Sferrazza, Malignaggi’s longtime friend] and I picked up two round card girls who were checking in at the same time. We saw them a few times afterward but nothing came of it. On the day of the fight, I went for a walk after lunch and passed the World Trade Center. I thought about going up to the top to see the view. Then I said to myself, ‘No; I’m fighting tonight. I should go back to the hotel and get some rest. I’ll come back another time. The Twin Towers will always be here.’ And you know what happened. Two months later, the Twin Towers were gone.”
The preceding paragraphs could serve as a metaphor for Paulie Malignaggi’s journey through boxing: Win…Get barred at the door…Keep fighting…Win some more…Dreams crumble…Don’t give up…Time moves on.
Paulie isn’t one of the kids anymore. He has been fighting professionally for 11 years and will be 32 years old in November.
Malignaggi has style. What he doesn’t have is a one-punch equalizer. His record shows seven knockouts in 36 pro fights. That means he builds his victories by avoiding firefights and adding up the points round by round by round.
Steve Kim writes, “It can be argued very easily that Malignaggi’s personality is more entertaining than most of his prizefights. Not only does he have the gift of jab but the gift of gab.”
Other observers have been less kind.
“It’s frustrating to give so much of myself in so many ways,” Paulie says. “And then people who have never boxed a round in their life sit there and criticize me, like they’re giving me a grade in school. Boxing isn’t a report card. Boxing is life and death.”
On June 10, 2006, after winning his first 21 fights, Malignaggi went into the lion’s den to face a prime Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden on the eve of New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade.
Anthony Catanzaro (Paulie’s business advisor and friend), recalls, “In the dressing room before the fight, we could hear the roars and we knew it was not our crowd. Those people didn’t just want Cotto to win. They wanted Paulie’s blood.”
They got it.
Malignaggi fought valiantly, winning four out of 12 rounds on two of the judges’ scorecards and five on the third. But he suffered a brutal beating in the process.
“I was in the hospital afterward with a fractured orbital bone,” Paulie says of that fight. “I had surgery on my face. People watch a fight and, when it’s over, they turn off the TV and go to bed. The next day, they’re out doing whatever they want to do. My whole life changed after that fight. I spent the whole summer recuperating.”
A lot of people wrote off Malignaggi after he lost to Cotto. Not many fighters come back from a beating like that and are as good as they were before.
“Sometimes you get humbled and come back stronger,” Paulie says.
One year later, on June 16, 2007, Malignaggi crafted a 12-round shutout against Lovemore Ndou to capture the IBF 140-pound crown. It was his shining moment in boxing. Thereafter, he had two successful title defenses before being stopped by Ricky Hatton in the 11th round. His record now shows four losses, each of them to a world champion (Cotto, Hatton, Juan Diaz and Amir Khan).
On three occasions, Paulie’s career has been sidetracked by a broken hand. He has permanent nerve damage in his face, a residue of the Cotto fight.
“Pain is temporary,” he says. “Pride is forever.”
Through it all, Malignaggi has kept fighting.
“Boxing is like a drug or a bad girlfriend,” he told Tom Gerbasi two years ago. “Sometimes you get hooked and you realize that maybe it’s a problem. But at the same time, the high you get off it is so good that you just keep coming back. There’s nothing like the roar of the crowd in the middle of that violent atmosphere and being in a fight. It’s a getaway from reality and there’s nothing like the rush of adrenalin.”
On April 29, 2012, Paulie traveled to Ukraine and dethroned WBA 147-pound titleholder Vyacheslav Senchenko in the ninth round. Anyone who thinks that boxing’s belts don’t matter should think again. Beating Senchenko didn’t make Malignaggi more marketable. But beating Senchenko for the WBA welterweight title did.
On October 20th, Paulie’s journey through the “Sweet Science” brought him back to Brooklyn. The site was the Barclays Center, the recently-opened state-of-the-art arena that’s home to the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. His opponent was Pablo Cesar Cano of Mexico, 25-2-1 (20).
On August 5, 1931, “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom (nicknamed for his lack of punching power – 19 knockouts in 298 pro fights) defended his light heavyweight title by outpointing Jimmy Slattery at Ebbets Field. Until the October 20th card at Barclays, Rosenbloom-Slattery held the distinction of being the last world championship fight in Brooklyn.
That said, Brooklyn has a rich boxing tradition.
Barclays, Golden Boy (which promoted the October 20th show) and Showtime (which televised it) were quick to point out that there had been 37 previous world title fights in Brooklyn. Heavyweight champions Floyd Patterson, Michael Moorer, Mike Tyson, Shannon Briggs and Riddick Bowe were born in the borough. James J. Jeffries knocked out Bob Fitzsimmons at the Coney Island Athletic Club in 1899 to seize the heavyweight crown. John L. Sullivan, Joe Gans, Sugar Ray Robinson, Benny Leonard, Harry Greb, Tony Canzoneri, Sandy Saddler, Jake LaMotta, Abe Attell, Terry McGovern, Battling Nelson and Tommy Loughran all fought in Brooklyn.
The October 20th card was advertised as featuring four “world championship” fights, enabling each of the four major sanctioning bodies to collect a sanctioning fee. In addition to Malignaggi vs. Cano, there was Danny Garcia vs. Erik Morales (for Garcia’s WBC/WBA 140-pound titles), Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam vs. Peter Quillin (for N’Jikam’s WBO 160-pound title) and Randall Bailey vs. Devon Alexander (for Bailey’s IBF 147-pound title).
Also, the “A” side of the undercard was heavy with Brooklyn fighters. That included Danny Jacobs (now making a heroic comeback from cancer), Luis Collazo (a former world champion who’d been plagued by lifestyle issues while compiling a 5-and-4 record over the previous seven years) Dmitriy Salita (a nice man who has been marketed largely on the basis of his being an Orthodox Jew), Eddie Gomez (a talented but untested prospect from the Bronx) and Boyd Melson (a 31-year-old West Point graduate who’s as good as he’s going to get).
Malignaggi-Cano shaped up as the most competitive championship bout of the night. Ultimately, it became a non-title contest when Pablo failed to make weight, tipping the scales at 147.8 pounds. There was talk of cancelation but Cano agreed to give $50,000 of his $150,000 purse to Malignaggi (raising Paulie’s stake to $400,000) and was required to weigh in again at 9:30 on Saturday morning at no more than 157 pounds.
The main event, Garcia vs. Morales, should have been canceled.
There was a time when Morales could beat the best. No more. He has now had 11 fights in the past seven-and-a-half years and lost seven of them. At the August 30th kick-off press conference at the Marriott Hotel in Brooklyn, “El Terrible” looked terrible. His face was puffy and he was clearly overweight. Not just overweight for a fighter. Overweight. At the final pre-fight press conference, he looked old, tired and beaten up. The betting odds ran as high as 10-to-1 against him.
Worse, two days before the fight, word leaked out that Morales had tested positive for Clenbuterol. Twice.
The powers that be tried to put a good face on things. The fact that this was the first fight card at Barclays Center gave it a certain buzz. At the final, pre-fight press conference, Oscar De la Hoya told the assembled media that tickets were selling like hotcakes and people had to act fast to get them while supplies lasted. Earlier in the day, Barclays had posted an announcement on its website stating that the first 250 Brooklyn residents with valid IDs who went to the box office between 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on Thursday or Friday would be given four complimentary tickets.
Giving away tickets for a fight is a pretty good indication that demand is lukewarm. Giving away four tickets per person is a pretty good indication that demand is frigid.
Paulie voiced confidence throughout the proceedings.
“I know what it’s like to be young and motivated and have your whole future ahead of you,” he said of his opponent. “I was 23 years old one time too. When you’re young and the dream is in front of you, you can taste it every time you get in the ring. But Cano’s future on Saturday night won’t be what he wants it to be.”
As for fighting in Brooklyn, Paulie declared, “Every fighter wants to have a big fight in his hometown. All this talk about Brooklyn is good marketing but it’s also heartfelt. When I was a kid, I used to dream about fighting at Madison Square Garden but that’s because there wasn’t a showcase arena in Brooklyn. Now that they’ve got Barclays Center, this is where I want to be.”
Still, the experience was bittersweet. The October 20th fight posters featured photos of Garcia and Morales, not Malignaggi. In Paulie’s fights against Cotto, Hatton and Khan (his biggest previous outings), he’d been the “B” side of the promotion. This time, he wasn’t even in the main event.
* * *
Malignaggi arrived at his dressing room on fight night at 7:10 p.m. Trainer Eric Brown, Anthony Catanzaro, Umberto Malignaggi (Paulie’s brother) and Pete Sferrazza were with him. Over the next few hours, Steve Bash (Paulie’s attorney), Zach Wohlman (a sparring partner and friend) and Victor Perrone (another friend) would join him.
The room was 12-feet squared with a mirrored wall and Formica counter that extended the full length of the enclosure. There were a half-dozen chairs and no lockers.
Paulie put on his boxing shoes and began shadow-boxing in front of the mirror. An earpiece ran from an iPod in his warm-up jacket to his ear. Hip-hop, Lloyd Banks, “Shock the World.” After shadow-boxing for several minutes, he sat on the floor with his back to the wall and started doing stretching exercises.
Golden Boy publicist Monica Sears entered and checked out Paulie’s hair.
“I thought you said you were going to have a red streak.”
“Next time,” he told her. “If they cut down the interviews and all the other promotional stuff I have to do, I’ll have time to do my hair.”
At 7:55, Eric Brown began wrapping Paulie’s hands. Normally, that would come later in the evening but Brown also trains Peter Quillin, who’d be fighting Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam in the second Showtime fight of the night. Paulie was in the third. The meant adjusting normal routines and, for Eric, moving back and forth between dressing rooms.
“I know how much pressure there is when you fight for the title for the first time,” Malignaggi had told the trainer earlier in the week. “Do what you have to do with Peter. I’ve been here before. I know what I have to do. Peter needs all the support he can get.”
At 8:15, the first Showtimebout began, Randall Bailey vs. Devon Alexander. Bailey, the beltholder, was so disrespected that his name had been listed after Alexander’s in pre-fight promotional material. He was a 6-to-1 underdog.
Paulie watched the action on a large flat-screen television mounted on the wall.
“Randall doesn’t want to jab,” Paulie told Umberto. “Randall doesn’t want to throw combinations. All Randall wants to do is to land that one big right hand. But Randall doesn’t have legs. Devon will box him smart.”
The fight was painfully slow with Alexander avoiding exchanges whenever possible en route to a unanimous decision triumph. Bailey set a CompuBox record for futility, landing only 45 punches in 12 rounds.
At 9:15, Eddie Claudio (who would be refereeing N’Jikam vs. Quillin appeared on the screen.
“Eddie refereed my first amateur fight in the Golden Gloves,” Paulie noted. “That was a long time ago.”
N’Jikam-Quillin began. It was styled as a “championship” fight, although each man has found it hard to crack the top 10 in some middleweight rankings.
Paulie shadow-boxed on-and-off. When he sat, it was in relative isolation with the iPod running to his ear.
N’Jikam had more heart than skill. Quillin knocked him down six times to prevail on each judge’s scorecard.
In back-to-back fights, two belts had changed hands.
Eric Brown returned. At 10:15, he and Paulie began working the pads.
“You’re the champ,” the trainer exhorted. “Make him understand that. Make him swallow that jab. Make him gag on that jab. It’s your night, baby. You’re at home now. Go out and show Brooklyn what they’ve been missing.”
When Paulie entered the ring, he conjured up images of the season’s first Christmas tree. A red-white-and-green robe, red-and-white shoes with green laces; red-white-and-green tassels and red-white-and-green trunks with red-white-and-green fringe (a lot of it).
Round one was a strategic feeling-out stanza. In round two, Malignaggi opened up a cut on Cano’s left eyebrow and appeared to be where he wanted to be.
But at age 31, Paulie isn’t as slick as he once was. When he was young, he had fast hands, quick reflexes, good legs, a great boxing brain and heart. Now he has slower hands, diminished reflexes, aging legs, a great boxing brain and heart.
For most of the fight, Cano was the aggressor. He landed his share of low blows but he also did damage with legitimate body shots and solid right hands up top. Paulie failed to jab effectively at times, particularly in the second half of the bout. He also got hit more often and with cleaner punches than a fighter of Pablo’s caliber would have hit him with several years ago. And he didn’t make Cano pay when Pablo missed.
By the middle rounds, Malignaggi looked tired. From that point on, he was often in strategic retreat. By round nine, Cano’s body work was taking a toll. In round 11, Pablo threw a right hand. It was the type of punch a young Malignaggi would have seen coming and slipped. This one landed. For only the second time in his career, Paulie went down. He was on his feet quickly. But for many observers, the knockdown sealed the deal.
When it was over, Glenn Feldman scored the contest 118-109 for Cano. Judges Tom Miller and Nelson Vazquez gave Malignaggi the nod by a 114-113 margin.
Bobby Hunter of Fight Score Collector compiled the cards of 29 members of the media who watched the bout. They favored Cano by a 19-to-8 margin with two draws. Of the eight media personnel who thought Malignaggi won, none gave him the nod by more than a single point.
According to CompuBox, Pablo outlanded Paulie 262 to 217 with a 165-to-57 edge in power punches. This writer scored the fight for Cano.
In the dressing room after the fight, Team Malignaggi was unanimous in voicing the view that the decision in Paulie’s favor was well-deserved. But the evening’s work had left its mark. There were ugly welts on Paulie’s upper body. His face was bruised with purple blotches beneath each eye. Dried blood trickled down from a cut beneath his left eye.
Paulie took off his trunks and lay down on his back in a corner of the room. Several minutes later, he sat up and leaned against the wall. Pete Sferrazza put a makeshift ice-pack on top of Paulie’s head and another behind his neck.
“I was tired,” Paulie said. “The body punches f**king hurt me. [Cano] didn’t land the hook much but he went low a lot and his right hand to the body got through somehow.”
“He caught me on the knockdown,” Paulie continued. “In the Cotto fight, as I was going down, I said to myself, ‘Oh, sh*t. I’m going down.’ It was like that here too. The difference is, this time, I felt I was winning the fight. All I had to do was get up and not get knocked out.”
Paulie lay down again, “I need ice on my head but I’ve got the chills.”
Umberto Malignaggi sat beside his brother. The final fight of the evening, Danny Garcia vs. Erik Morales. came on the television screen. Paulie sat up and watched the action.
Morales looked lethargic. There was a roll of flesh around his waist and he fought like a fighter who had come down hard from using Clenbuterol. The outcome of the bout was a foregone conclusion from the first seconds of the opening round. Garcia ended matters with a left hook up top in the fourth stanza.
“Yes!” Paulie shouted as Morales hit the canvas. “F**k that cheater.”
So what’s next for Malignaggi?
He needs a belt now to be marketable at the level he wants to be at. Fortunately, he still has one. His dream fight is a rematch against Ricky Hatton. It wouldn’t be for revenge. Paulie has nothing against Hatton personally but he wants to set the record straight on a fight he acknowledges losing but thinks he could and should have won. And the money would be big.
“I could have looked better,” Paulie says of his performance against Cano. “I know that. Maybe the way I fought will give Ricky confidence and he’ll fight me.”
“I don’t plan on fighting much longer,” Paulie acknowledges. “The reason I’m still fighting is because I have a lot to prove to myself. I feel like I underachieved during my prime years. I’m a two-time world champion but I had so many more goals that I set out for myself. When I turned pro, I told myself that I should reach for the stars. I wanted to accomplish things that are almost impossible to accomplish. With goals like that, you’re bound to be disappointed but those goals are what motivate me.”
“There are certain things I’ll always wish I’d done differently,” Paulie says in closing. “Most people feel that way about their life. But whatever I’ve done is history and I can’t change it now. I have a lot of goals and not enough time to achieve them. But I’m still hungry and I want to achieve as much as I can before my career is over. When I’ve retired, maybe I’ll appreciate what I’ve accomplished more than I do now.”
Most fighters fall short of their dreams. Then again, so does almost everyone else.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (And the New…: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) was published by the University of Arkansas Press.
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