NEW YORK – He had been bloodied early and battered late, and his swollen jaw was starting to look as if he’d just tried to ingest a softball, but Paulie Malignaggi was still talking.

Those who assumed that Miguel Cotto would prove too strong for the brash Brooklyn boxer were proven correct in the end, but the naysayers who had predicted that Saturday night’s fight would look like Sylvester chasing Tweety around a ring for twelve rounds were off the mark.

Cotto won a unanimous decision to retain his WBO junior welterweight title in the main event of Bob Arum’s Madison Square Garden card, but he had to work harder than expected to earn it. Malignaggi, for his part, earned some props for his boxing skills and admiration for his bravery.

Paulie’s oft-injured right hand held up for 12 rounds. The same, alas, could not be said for his face.

In fact, Malignaggi fought well when he could stay on his feet, but he made three trips to the canvas (only one of them was officially deemed a knockdown), and while Paulie was able to penetrate the Puerto Rican champion’s defense to land quick, precise, three-punch combinations all night long, the punches Cotto was able to land in return were far more lethal, both in intent and in effect.

The Garden show preceded Sunday's Puerto Rican Day Parade, and sent Cotto’s fans home happy. There were 14,365 on hand at the Garden. We’d guess that at least 10,000 of them were there to support Cotto. (Judging from the noise level, the rest must have been there for John Duddy.)

At the bout’s conclusion, Malignaggi had in an uncharacteristic display of humility walked across the ring to Cotto’s corner and apologized for some of the trash-talking he’d done in the run-up to the fight.

“No hard feelings,” said Paulie.

“Don’t worry,” replied Cotto. “It was part of your job.”

A clash of heads in the first round had opened up a two-inch gash over Malignaggi’s right eye, and the wound was plainly unsettling to the Brooklyn youngster.

“It’s the first time I’d ever been cut,” said Malignaggi. “The blood was getting in my eye. I had trouble adjusting.”

What happened next bothered him even more. Early in the second, both boxers threw left hooks. Malignaggi’s missed, but Cotto’s didn’t, and Malignaggi went down.

Although he had dug himself into a deep hole by losing the first four rounds, Malignaggi was able to control the action over the middle rounds, and won each of the ensuing six rounds on at least one scorecard. Cotto was able to reassert himself, and won the final two rounds to remove the issue from doubt, and by the bout’s conclusion Malignaggi’s face was looking as if it had been run over by a cement paver.

Cotto won by scores of 116-111 twice (Glenn Feldman and Peter Trematerra) and 115-112 (Don Trella). (The SweetScience also had it 116-111 for the champion.)

Even as the ringside doctors were examining Malignaggi, referee Steve Smoger (who is a lawyer by trade, but has seen enough of these things to offer an informed medical opinion), said “I think we’re looking at an orbital fracture here, as well as a possible broken jaw. [Malignaggi] fought in great pain for the last several rounds.”

“He’s the hardest puncher I’ve ever faced,” said Malignaggi after experiencing his first professional loss.

Cotto remained unbeaten at 27-0. Malignaggi, now 21-1, was taken to a New York hospital for X-rays shortly afterward. A broken orbit bone seems likely, but Malignaggi said he didn’t think the jaw was broken.

Promoter Lou DiBella said he planned to give Malignaggi the next six months off either way.

Should the jaw prove to be broken and need to be wired shut, of course, it could lead to an enforced code of silence that would keep Malignaggi from doing what he does best for a while.

John Duddy, on the other hand, had done what he does best even before he laced the gloves on Saturday night.

That would be selling tickets.

When negotiations commenced to add the popular Irishman to Garden card, Arum had offered a $75,000 purse. Duddy’s representatives had countered by offering to fight for a $10,000 guarantee – plus 50% of whatever ticket sales they generated.

A quarter of a million dollars’ worth of tickets later, Duddy wound up making over $135,000 for his night’s work.

Duddy said he knew he wasn’t going to have to look very hard to find Freddie Cuevas in their co-featured bout.

“I knew he was going to be right in front of me the whole time, so I didn’t start out as ferocious as I usually do,” said Duddy.

Instead, he simply methodically wore down the Chicago veteran, battering him until Cuevas decided to pack it in at the end of the seventh.

Duddy had bloodied Cuevas’ nose in the third and a good right uppercut in the fifth didn’t do much for Fredo’s beak, either, but an onslaught of stiff jabs punctuated by another uppercut busted him wide open in the seventh. By the end of the round Cuevas’ face looked like raw meat, and as he walked back to the corner he appeared to be giving his corner the ‘No Mas’ sign.

For official consumption it was announced that referee Arthur Mercante Jr. had stopped the bout on the advice of Cuevas manager Alfonso Ortiz, but if it wasn’t Fredo’s idea he plainly didn’t disagree.

“I caught him with some great shots, but even though they wobbled him he stood right there,” said Duddy.

Duddy’s legion of vocal supporters had arrived hoping for another quick kayo. In his last outing, the Irishman had dispatched Shelby Pudwill inside a round, but Duddy said after this one, “I thought I was more impressive in this fight than in the last one.”

Duddy improved to 17-0 with the win (Cuevas is now 25-9-1), and the promotional free agent already finds himself entertaining offers for his next outing. Duddy may appear on the August 12 Rahman-Maskaev card in Las Vegas, and Irish Ropes has a ‘hold’ on a September 29 date at the Garden Theatre, where the piece de resistance could well turn out to be a fight for the Irish middleweight title against the newly-recrowned Dubliner Jim Rock.

As it turned out, Bebe Winans’ stirring rendition of the Notre Dame Fight Song lasted longer than Tommy Z’s pro debut.

Fighting Irish football captain Tommy Zbikowski made short work of his Ohio opponent Robert Bell, finishing him off in just 49 seconds.

Half a minute into the fight, Zbikowski caught Bell with a good left hook and followed it with two right hands that drove him to a knee. Bell arose, only to have Zbikowski land a roundhouse right that nearly took his head off. Bell spun around 180 degrees and was reaching out for the ring ropes when referee Arthur Mercante caught him from behind and took him into protective custody.       

“I worked real hard for the last six or seven weeks,” said Zbikowski, who trained with Angelo Dundee in Florida for his maiden voyage. “I worked real hard to prove to everyone I can fight, that I’m not just a football player.”

Although Bobby Pacquaio’s trainer, Freddie Roach, was otherwise occupied (training Bobby’s more celebrated brother Manny for his upcoming fight against Oscar Larios), the Filipino junior lightweight followed instructions to a tee in posting a fourth-round knockout of 38-year-old former featherweight champion Kevin Kelley.

“We knew we were facing an older fighter, so the game plan was to soften him up to the body for three rounds and then go for his chin,” said manager Mike Koncz.

At the beginning of the third Pacquaio dropped Kelley with a short left hook. Although the aging warrior made it up from that one, he didn’t survive the left to the body with which Pacquaio felled him midway through the fourth. With Kelley writing on the canvas, he was counted out by referee Steve Willis at 1:28 of the round.

Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (26-0), the son of the great Mexican legend, kept his undefeated record intact with a second-round TKO of overmatched Kansas Aaron Drake (10-2).

Another Puerto Rican, Juan Manuel Lopez, got the audience going as he pitched a shutout in outpointing previously undefeated Mexican Sergio Mendez. Lopez is now 12-0, Mendez 5-1.

Brownsville light-heavyweight Curtis Stevens (13-0) scored a sixth-round TKO over Tennessean Eric Howard (11-12-1), while in the lone woman’s bout on the card, Canadian Nori Kariya improved to 4-1-1 with a third-round TKO of Kerri Hill (0-4).

Two other prelims ended in first-round TKO’s: New Yorker Peter (Kid Chocolate) Quillen won his fifth in as many pro outings when he stopped Eddie O’Neal (9-12-1), and Brooklynite Luis Sanchez (2-1-1) stopped Ray Gonzalez (1-1), with the end coming at the conclusion of the first.

Coney Islander Washington Hago (3-2) edged Bobby Campbell (1-1) of Bethpage, NY on a close majority decision. Two judges (John McKaie and Ron McNair) scored it 38-37 for Hago, while the third, Robin Taylor, had Campbell in front by the same margin.

A scheduled bout between Connecticut heavyweight Tony Grano and Harold Rodriguez of Taunton, Mass. was scrapped when Rodriguez failed to appear at the weigh-in.

JUNE 10. 2006

JUNIOR WELTERWEIGHTS: Miguel Cotto, 138¼, Caugas, Puerto Rico dec. Paulie Malignaggi, 138¼, Brooklyn, NY (12) (Retains WBO title)

HEAVYWEIGHTS: Tommy Zbikowski, 214, Chicago TKO’d Robert Bell, 227¾, Akron, Ohio (1)

LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHTS: Curtis Stevens, 174½, Brooklyn, NY TKO’d Eric Howard, 175, Crosville, Tenn. (6)

SUPER MIDDLEWEIGHTS: Peter Quillin, 162½, New York KO’d Eddie O’Neal, 166, Lawton, Okla. (1)

MIDDLEWEIGHTS: John Duddy, 158½, Derry, Northern Ireland TKO’d Freddie Cuevas, 157, Chicago (7) (Retains WBC Continental Americas title)

JUNIOR MIDDLEWEIGHTS: Luis Sanchez, 150, Brooklyn, NY TKO’d Ray Gonzalez, Seaford, NY (1)

WELTERWEIGHTS: Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., 146½, Culiacan, Mexico TKO’d Aaron Drake, 143, Kansas City, Kans. (2)

JUNIOR LIGHTWEIGHTS: Bobby Pacquaio, 129½, General Santos City, Philippines TKO’d Kevin Kelley, 128, Flushing, NY (4) (Retains WBC Continental Americas title)

Washington Hago, 131, Coney Island, dec. NY Bobby Campbell, 128, Bethpage, NY (4)

JUNIOR FEATHERWEIGHTS: Juan Manuel Lopez, 121, Rio Piedras, P.R. dec. Sergio Mendez, 120½, Mexico City, Mexico (6)

BANTAMWEIGHTS:  Nori Kariya, 117, Toronto, Canada TKO’d Kerri Hill, 118, Little Rock, Ark. (3)