It began in Brooklyn and it ended in Brooklyn.
Fourteen years ago, on a perfect summer night, a young man named Paulie Malignaggi made his professional boxing debut at Coney Island’s KeySpan Park with a first-round knockout of Thadeus Parker. Like all young fighters, Malignaggi harbored dreams of glory. Some of those dreams came true; others didn’t. On August 1 at Barclays Center (an arena that didn’t exist when Paulie turned pro), those dreams came to an end.
Malignaggi fought the odds throughout his career and had championship runs at 140 and 147 pounds. Unlike most “name” fighters today, he really would fight anyone. His final ring record – at least, one hopes it’s final – shows 33 wins and 7 losses. His biggest fights (against Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton, Amir Khan, Adrien Broner, Shawn Porter, and Danny Garcia) ended in defeat. But pivotal victories over Zab Judah, Vyacheslav Senchenko, Juan Diaz, and Lovemore N’dou brightened the mix.
Through it all, Paulie spoke his mind and did it his way. “I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t dip his toe into the pool,” he says. “I’ll jump in to see if it’s cold.”
Part of his appeal was that he wore his emotions on his sleeve. In and out of the ring, he appeared vulnerable.
“When you win in front of millions of people,” Paulie noted, “it’s an incredible high. And when you lose in front of millions of people, it hurts. But in the end, it’s not about the number of people watching. It’s about youself. I cried after every loss I had as an amateur. And I cried after I lost to Miguel Cotto and Ricky Hatton. Then I stopped crying after losses, but they still hurt.”
As Paulie aged, the term “elder statesman” didn’t quite fit. Rafe Bartholomew put his finger on one of the reasons why when he wrote, “Malignaggi’s hairstyles have run a gamut unlike any other in a sport where hideous coiffures are common. We’ve seen Malignaggi go from Pauly D blowout to spiked frosted tips to a peach-fuzz baldie decorated with constellations of shaved-in swirls. The undisputed high point of Malignaggi’s follicular odyssey came when he fought Lovemore Ndou with a head full of braided extensions that made him look like the Italian-American love child of Milli Vanilli and Medusa. When he entered the ring with simple cornrows or a red-tinged faux-hawk, it was interpreted as a sign of mature veteran stature.”
But Paulie kept on being Paulie.
“The media doesn’t know crap about boxing,” he told veteran writer Ron Borges. “There are a few exceptions. But they watch every week and don’t know what they’re doing. If I spent that much time watching something and wrote and said what they do I’d feel very ignorant. I’d feel stupid.”
By that time, Paulie had joined the media as a commentator for Showtime Boxing and was carving out a niche for himself as one of the best in the business.
On April 19, 2014, Malignaggi suffered what many people, including himself, thought was a career-ending fourth-round knockout loss at the hands of Shawn Porter.
“I was hurt pretty bad,” Paulie acknowledges. “Porter went off like a grenade. I went from the ropes to the canvas to the hospital. I’d never been hurt like that before.”
Thereafter, David Greisman wrote, “Paulie woke up every morning with nausea. It seemed as if he needed to shake cobwebs out of his head before his day could begin. Even then, there would be bad headaches that came unexpectedly. He would sit ringside during broadcasts, see a heated exchange between fighters, and think, ‘I’m glad I’m not there.’”
“I never said officially that I was retiring,” Paulie noted earlier this year. “But I told the people I was close to that I thought I was done.”
Then, to the dismay of family and friends, Malignaggi announced that he was fighting again; a tune-up fight against untested Danny O’Connor. In a series of interviews, Paulie explained his thinking:
* “At first, I didn’t want to fight again. I would see these fights from close range [as a commentator], see the violence, some crazy exchanges. ‘Man, better these guys than me. I’m done.’ Then little by little, as I started feeling better, I would focus on the crowd reaction, the adrenaline these fighters are feeling. I was starting to slowly change my thinking. It was starting to slowly become more like, ‘I got to feel this again; I got to feel that rush again. It’s something missing in my life. If you’re not living a certain way, you’re basically dead anyway.”
* “I’d love to win another world title. One more world title would be nice. Sometimes, I think about it and I say ‘one more year.’ And then I think about, if at the end of the year I’m on the verge of getting a big fight, I’m not going to stop. You don’t know when for sure.”
And the ultimate excuse:
* “Before the Porter fight, I hadn’t looked bad. I had one bad night.”
Malignaggi-O’Connor was cancelled when Paulie suffered a cut in training. Then Paulie was offered and accepted an August 1 fight against a far more formidable opponent: Danny Garcia.
“Everybody has asked me, ‘Why would you do this?’ Malignaggi told Tom Gerbasi. “’It’s not like you need money. It’s not like you’re starving.’ But in life, there are other things that make you feel fulfilled besides money. Money’s good; trust me. But you can’t buy happiness and you can’t buy that sense of fulfillment. You fight to be on this grand stage. You do all the hard work through the years. You fight in these little club shows early in your career. You’re fighting in gymnasiums as an amateur. And you do it all so you can be on these huge stages one day. That’s what you dream of. And the bigger the stage, the bigger the rush.”
“That elite level,” Paulie told The Players Tribune. “When you get declared the winner at the end, it’s God-like. It’s hard to describe. It hooks you. It’s addicting, knowing that only a small percentage of people in this world will ever get to feel that kind of adrenaline, and you’re one of them. You crave it. It’s like a drug.”
“A boxer knows it’s time to hang ‘em up when he fears getting hurt in the ring more than he fears losing,” Paulie continued. “If you’re afraid of getting hurt, you have no place in between those ropes. If you’re afraid to fail and you’re afraid to lose and you’ll lay your body on the line and do everything humanly possible to beat the man in front of you, you still got it.”
But that’s nonsense. Judged by that standard, Muhammad Ali didn’t fight too long. Ali always had the will to win. Brain damage shows up over time.
In the days leading up to Garcia-Malignaggi, Danny was a 6-to-1 betting favorite. Fighting mostly at 140 pounds, he’d fashioned a 30-and-0 (17 KOs) record highlighted by a fourth-round knockout of Amir Khan and decisions over Lucas Matthysse and Lamont Peterson.
Paulie hadn’t fought in almost sixteen months and had won one fight since a disputed split-decision triumph over Pablo Cesar Cano in 2012. His reflexes had slowed. His legs were no longer what they once were. The fresh young face and optimism of youth were gone.
“I know people are saying this is my last fight, that I’m just taking a payday,” Paulie noted during a media conference call. “But you know what? You can’t take people’s opinions in the ring with you. I keep reading, ‘This is Paulie’s swan song. It’s his last fight.’ We’ll see.”
“I don’t know how many more great performances I have left in me,” Paulie added at the final pre-fight press conference. “I know I’ll have one on Saturday night. I’ve put my body and mind through so much for this fight. I’ve been so focussed. I’m so sharp. People say I don’t hit hard, but I hit hard enough to break Danny’s nose. And if I break Danny’s nose, he has a problem. On Saturday night, you’ll see the best Paulie Malignaggi that I can be.”
And there was a special motivating factor for Malignaggi.
“So much hinges on Saturday night,” Paulie confessed. “A win could put me in the conversation for the Hall of Fame. I made a list of goals that I wanted to achieve when I started boxing, and I’ve been checking things off ever since. National amateur champion. Yes. Olympian. No. World champion. Yes. Financial security. Yes. Hall of Fame. That was my biggest longterm goal. If I win on Saturday night, that hope stays alive.”
Boxing at the world-class level is a game of centiseconds and fractions of an inch. On fight night, those numbers favored Garcia.
Danny was the aggressor throughout. One arguably could have given rounds two, five, and seven to Malignaggi. There were times when he was able to frustrate Garcia and neutralize Danny’s attack with movement, jabs, and a handful of body shots. But for the most part, Garcia was in charge. And when Paulie made him miss, he didn’t make him pay.
Malignaggi was cut above the right eye in round three and beneath it in round six, a round in which he tired noticeably. By round eight, Garcia was landing right hands to the body and hooks up top with abandon. The assault continued in round nine with Paulie fighting simply to survive. Two minutes and 22 seconds into the stanza, referee Arthur Mercante appropriately stopped the bout.
After the fight, Paulie sat on a chair in his dressing room with his head bowed. There was a large discolored lump on the right side of his forehead. Blood seeped from an ugly gash beneath his right eye and there was a second cut above it. The left side of his body looked like raw beef.
Dr. Avery Browne of the New York State Athletic Commission came into the room for a post-fight physical.
“How do you feel?”
“I’ve been better,” Paulie said. “But I’m all right.”
“Do you have a headache?”
“Yeah. But it’s not as bad as after the last fight.”
Dr. Browne administered the normal post-fight tests with a few extra questions for good measure.
“Who’s the president?”
“Come on,” Paulie answered. “Obama. Do you want me to say Batman?”
“You’ll need stitches,” Dr. Browne told him.
“I’m getting used to it.”
“I’m giving you a forty-five-day suspension.”
“How about forty-five years?” Paulie suggested.
The doctor left.
A period of silence followed. It wasn’t just that Paulie had lost the fight. By any rational standard, his career as a fighter was over.
Tom Hoover (the newly-installed chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission) entered to check on Paulie’s condition.
“It was a good stoppage,” Paulie told him. “The doctors were great. Thank you.”
Dr. Tony Perkins (a plastic surgeon in private practice) was the next arrival.
Paulie lay down on a vanity table that ran the length of the dressing room beneath a mirrored wall.
Dr. Perkins began to work. While the stitching was in progress, Al Haymon came in and walked over to Paulie.
“I don’t have it any more,” Paulie said.
Haymon leaned over and whispered words of assurance in Paulie’s ear.
“You’re okay. You’re in the family.”
An hour earlier, Haymon had visited Sergio Mora’s dressing room and spoken the same words to Mora, who’d been unable to continue after breaking his ankle in the second round of a fight against Danny Jacobs.
Dr. Perkins finished his work. Five stitches above Paulie’s right eye and ten stitches beneath it.
Paulie looked at the people gathered around him. His brother, Umberto; longtime friend and business advisor, Anthony Catanzaro; Pete Sferazza, another friend; Bobby Ermankhah, CEO of Azad, which markets a Magic-Man watch.
“My jab wasn’t working the way I wanted it to,” Paulie said. “There were moments when it seemed like I was taking control, and then Danny took it back . . . I’m not as fast as I used to be. And my legs aren’t as good. I adjusted my style the last few years to compensate, but it wasn’t enough tonight . . . I can still beat a lot of guys, but I want to be more than the pesky crafty guy who comes up short in big fights . . . I’m not an elite fighter anymore.”
“Do you want to do the blood now?” a USADA collection agent asked.
“Yeah. Let’s get it out of the way.”
A year ago, there was a moment that spoke volumes about Paulie Malignaggi’s psyche. On May 31, 2014, Carl Froch scored a dramatic one-punch knockout of George Groves in front of 80,000 roaring fans at Wembly Stadium in London.
“Right now,” Paulie told a television audience that was listening to his commentary, “I wish I was Carl Froch.”
Paulie never had his Carl Froch moment. But he has been to the mountaintop.
Several months ago, reflecting back on his championship victories and also his fights against Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton, and others, Paulie told David Greisman, “When my career is over, years from now, whether I’ve won or lost these big fights, at least I’ll be able to say I was in the ring with those guys. When people talk about great fighters, I got to share a night with those guys in front of a big crowd, and it was really cool. Whether I won the fight or lost the fight, I had some cool experiences.”
Paulie is a smart guy. Fighting again would be stupid.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book – Thomas Hauser on Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press.