A red tear trickled down Paulie Malignaggi’s cheek in the fourth round Saturday night. I saw it after the first knockdown when he got up to walk it off. The referee was calling out the standing eight, but Paulie ignored him; he was busy making sure his legs still worked.
The welterweight who clubbed him down walked backward to a neutral corner and never took his eyes of Paulie. I never took my eyes of him. He’s a juggernaut, short and wide like an image in a funhouse mirror, shoulders like boulders, no neck. He reminded me of someone I got to know recently, someone from the ferocious forties. They call him Shawn Porter but he was barreling in like a little tiger—like the Little Tiger, Aaron Wade. Left hooks and right hand blasts were ruffling old fight reports scattered around my living room floor.
Wade went barreling through three divisions between 1935 and 1947. He began his career as a welterweight then advanced to middleweight and light heavyweight. Porter has travelled the same path through the traditional weight classes, only in reverse. Their paradigms are also similar. After Wade faced Sugar Ray Robinson, he retired and eventually became a Christian minister. Porter held a prayer meeting in his corner after the slaughter was stopped and was overheard saying “We pray for Paulie’s health in Jesus’s name.”
Paulie was lying nearby bleeding under the ropes. I thought about Willie Pep. Great though he was, Pep too was laid out bleeding after Sandy Saddler got him good. It was October 29, 1948. “I started out feinting as usual to get a feeling for him and he ignored it completely and caught me cold,” Pep said. “I was completely surprised. He knocked me down twice before the fourth round and then he stopped me.”
Porter and Wade. Paulie and Pep. “The Sweet Science,” said A.J. Liebling, “is joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder.”
The science of the Sweet Science is also joined onto the past. We learned early that master boxers like Pep toy with plodding punchers, though swarmers and pressure fighters present real problems. They’re disruptive. The boxer uses pizazz punctuated by jabs to con his opponent into a pace and rhythm designed to sap his spirit. But disruptive fighters don’t buy what’s being sold. The swarmer closes in rapidly and the pressure fighter closes in ominously and if the boxer fails to keep the beast at bay, he suffers little panic attacks. You can see it in that wide-eyed “uh-oh” look.
Pep walked blindly into the worst knockout loss of his career. He had no excuse. “I had won seventy-three fights in a row and I didn’t think any kid named Sandy Saddler was going to beat me,” he said. “I wasn’t even a little worried.”
Paulie walked into his knockout loss with eyes wide open. He doesn’t need an excuse. He simply “bit off more than he could chew again,” said Jeffrey Freeman of KO Digest. In fighting a younger, stronger, stylistic nightmare, he did what few million-dollar fighters would dare to do and he didn’t blink. Even Sugar Ray Robinson blinked when it came to Murderers’ Row. He ran out on written contracts to meet two of them, ducked another one for years, and he did it during his breathtaking prime. Not Paulie. Paulie’s record is a profile in courage.
“You know who I was rewarded with in my first title fight?” he said last June, “Miguel Cotto.” And it hasn’t been much easier since. He’s been what Vegas calls an underdog with fleas. The odds were 12-5 against him when he faced Ricky Hatton, 4-1 when he faced Juan Diaz, and 5-1 when he faced Amir Khan. Vyacheslav Senchenko was undefeated and a 4.5-1 favorite when Paulie stopped him, but the handicappers scoffed and chalked him in as a 15-1 underdog when he face the untested Adrien Broner. Paulie scoffed right back. “This is how the creation of Adrien Broner happened,” he said before their bout. “They got everybody that’s wrong for boxing together in one room, did everything that’s wrong for boxing in that room, and gave birth to Adrien Broner.” The Sweet Science, he told the press, requires more than talent at the upper level. Then he proceeded to prove it over twelve rounds. So then what happens? He signs to meet a fading Zab Judah, is once again declared an underdog, and dominates the rounds with a jab.
In January, Paulie said he was willing to fight Porter, despite the fact that no one else was calling out that beast. “What do you see in Porter that you can capitalize on?” He was asked. “I’m not saying I see any weaknesses,” Paulie said. “You don’t necessarily have to see a weakness in them to want to fight them” [emphasis mine].
When the smoke cleared Saturday night, it looked as if the ceiling fell on him. He may have regretted wanting to fight Porter. Now he’s wondering what to do next. Retire? Face some plodding journeyman, look good, and retire a winner?
If he is not medically cleared to fight again by a responsible authority, then he has no choice but to retire. If he is cleared and there is no increased risk of injury in the aftermath of his knockout, then he has several choices.
The ghost of Willie Pep points at one of them: Fight Porter again.
Pep had two tune-ups after his knockout loss. Paulie can fight a second-rate swarmer close to home and fight him safely: vary the speed, placement, and force of the jab, avoid the inside where Porter’s strength sapped his, avoid mid-range where he is reduced to punchers’ meat, and practice staying just off the perimeter to draw him out and then counter and circle off. “Keep on the go,” was Pep’s recommendation. “Keep him off balance.” If Paulie and especially Paulie’s legs feel good after ten rounds, he can turn his attention toward Porter and lobby for a rematch.
To most citizens and a few tin-belt titlists more interested in celebrity than glory, it might seem crazy. Why would Paulie challenge his stylistic foil a second time? Anyone who has been paying attention knows the answer.
Pep, haunted by Saddler, knew the answer. “We had a rematch,” he said, “and you better believe I was ready for him. Most of the writers were picking Sandy but I was ready for him. I was dead set on beating him no matter what.”
So what happened? “You could look it up,” Pep used to say with a smirk.
If Paulie decides to hang up his gloves, he will go down in boxing history as a profile in courage. If he returns to full capacity and considers avenging the worst knockout loss of his career, he should fight Porter the way Pep fought and beat Saddler —then do better than Pep and retire.
Malignaggi’s statements about Porter recorded 1/31/14 by Tha’ Boxing Voice. Willie Pep’s quotes on Saddler I and II found inWillie Pep Remembers Friday’s Heroes, with Robert Sacchi (1973), p. 14 and Peter Heller’s interview of Pep in In This Corner: 42 World Champions Tell Their Stories (1973), p. 253.
Springs Toledo can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .