On Friday, I sat on the steps of Borough Hall in Brooklyn and watched as a 6-foot-tall plastic Corona bottle slowly deflated, keeled over, and ultimately collapsed onto the weigh-in stage. A DJ was blasting all the hip-hop songs you might have heard at an Amherst frat party back in 1995. Beyond a set of police barricades, a crowd of about 300 had shown up to watch six men strip down to their underwear and step up onto a scale. The sad fate of the bottle went unnoticed by a nearby Corona ring girl who texted idly, but not by a bunch of dudes from Cincinnati who yelled out boner-related jokes to the deflating bottle and the half-naked woman who sat behind it.
I had met many of these Cincinnati dudes back in February when I flew to Colorado Springs to spend a few days inside Adrien Broner’s training camp. Full disclosure: I tend to like almost all the boxers I meet, and although my report on Broner included some less-than-flattering details about the way he treated his sparring partners and the canned, oftentimes forced way he talked to the press, I still came away impressed by Broner’s intelligence, his work ethic, and the stability of his cornermen, most notably trainer Mike Stafford. Since February, the public Broner has done all sorts of crap that has made me reconsider: He got arrested in Miami for allegedly biting a hotel security guard. He had a recorded, onstage incident with a stripper (sorry for the euphemisms here, but it’s really, really NSFW). He recorded a YouTube video in which he flushed 20-dollar bills down a toilet. And he produced his own online reality show, About Billions: The Life of Adrien Broner, which might possibly be the worst selfie film since Señor Spielbergo’s A Burns for All Seasons.1
These antics probably boosted Broner’s overall name recognition (especially on the shock-and-awe website WorldStarHipHop.com), but they did little to quell the growing concern that the self-professed “future of boxing” might end up torpedoing his own promising career. As the promotion for his fight against Paulie Malignaggi revved itself up, Broner’s public persona kept getting dumber. He and Malignaggi engaged in a “hilarious” back-and-forth about a woman whom they both claimed to have known intimately. The particulars of this spat are too offensive and stupid to commit to print — just know both fighters found it appropriate to promote a fight with claims of domestic violence and sexual degradation, and the networks and promotional companies that tacitly condoned it should be ashamed. I don’t care if a room of boxing writers chuckled and tweeted excitedly every time Broner or Malignaggi talked about “Jessica.” You shouldn’t always cater to the snickering dickhead with the macho complex, and if there’s one thing that I’ve truly disliked about these past two years covering the sport, it’s that boxing almost always caters to the snickering dickhead.
It’s a sin for a boxer to look desperate. In the ring, Adrien Broner still looks indestructible, unflappable. Outside the ring, he has turned himself into the 10-cent sideshow at boxing’s five-dollar carnival.
And yet, here I was sitting on the steps of Borough Hall on a beautiful Friday in Brooklyn, one of those summer days when all you really want to do is tear through the streets of the city in Annie Hall’s Volkswagen convertible, and although I had come to New York to cover the fight, the real reason I was sitting through the weigh-in was because I wanted to catch a firsthand look at Adrien Broner’s new 147-pound body. Broner’s last fight had been at 135 pounds, and although no fight fans really thought he’d have much trouble with Malignaggi, most were curious about what the extra 12 pounds would look like.
Boxing could be its own subgenre of erotica written by guys who spend their Friday afternoons assessing the fat content of the bared, statuesque men who stand on the stage. Boxing tends to sidestep these social absurdities with a glibness rooted in the sport’s ties to the brawny version of American history. Phrases like “he fights like a Mexican” resist taboo because modern boxing always exists in some relation to its own past. No fighter really stands by himself — at best, he is an amalgam of all the similar fighters who came before him. This might be true, to varying degrees, in all sports, but there are no analytics in boxing writing, nor are there long discussions about standings. Title belts and championships are largely irrelevant. All that matters, then, is how a fighter stacks up against the past, and because the past is heavily racialized, the present gets translated through old, sometimes discomforting language. Even Joyce Carol Oates, boxing’s politest advocate, writes at length about the differences between Puerto Rican, Mexican, black, and white fighters.
Barclays Center’s movement to bring boxing back to Brooklyn also has its roots in the past. The organizing bodies that run the promotions for the fights never tell you anything too specific about the history of fights within the borough. Instead, they rely on the assumption that at some point in this once hardscrabble place, a bunch of guys with handlebar mustaches beat one another to a pulp, Stag at Sharkey’s–style. For the most part, the evocation of the past has nothing to do with the historical vagaries that propagate throughout the new, hipper Brooklyn — the weigh-in for Broner-Malignaggi might have taken place just a few blocks from BookCourt, Cobble Hill’s famed bookstore, and several bars where the “keeps” wear handlebar mustaches and suspenders, but the respective target audiences for all these old things could not be more wildly different.
Anyway. After the usual fanfare, Broner stepped onto the stage wearing a half-ton of gold chains and stripped off his shirt and confirmed what so many had assumed — the Adrien Broner show is dumb and open to pretty much every version of old-sportswriter hectoring, but Broner, the boxer, looked like a fucking superhero.
To an even mix of cheers and boos, Adrien “The Problem” Broner, dressed from head to toe in sparkly gold, walked to the ring with the rapper French Montana. Malignaggi tried to one-up Broner’s admittedly fantastic entrance by draping a skull bandanna over his mouth and wearing a robe decked out in the colors of the Italian flag. Like the fight that would follow, Malignaggi’s entrance received high marks for effort, but the overall effect looked like what might happen if the world’s jankiest Dia de los Muertos celebration dry-humped the Feast of San Gennaro. Prefight odds had Malignaggi between a 10:1 and 20:1 underdog, fairly staggering numbers that were reflected by the lack of Malignaggi supporters in the crowd. If Bensonhurst, the neighborhood in Brooklyn where Malignaggi grew up, had shown up for their favorite son, they certainly were staying quiet about it.
When the opening bell rang, Broner walked forward in his straight-legged stance, dipping his shoulders back and forth in a calm, determined rhythm. Malignaggi, who fights with a wild, crazed look on his face, moved in and out of range and fired off approximately 5,000 punches, 4,999 of which landed on Broner’s arms. The rhythm of the fight quickly established itself — Malignaggi tried really, really hard while Broner smiled, shook his head a bunch, and blocked or evaded all of Paulie’s assaults. When he felt like it, Broner would unleash a hook or a straight right and Paulie’s head would go snapping back and the crowd would ooh and ahh. Paulie would then mockingly stick his tongue out at Broner and fly in for another wild assault. If this description sounds a bit bored to you, it’s because for the first five or six rounds, the fight was kind of boring. Back when I spent time with the Broner camp in February, Levi Smith, Broner’s longtime cut man, told me that when Broner got mad, he never went for the knockout. “He’d rather just bust the guy up for a few rounds and then knock him out later,” Smith explained.
For the first six rounds, Broner really did seem like he was toying with Malignaggi. In the third, he grabbed Paulie by the back of the head and kicked him somewhere near the nether regions. At the end of the fifth, after a tie-up, Broner executed a perfect dragon punch from Street Fighter II. The knockout seemed inevitable — that once Broner got tired of fucking around and busting up Paulie’s face, he would go about the easy business of knocking him out. But then the sixth went by with still no knockout. Then the seventh and eighth. Paulie rallied late in the fight, although it was still hard to give him any rounds because Broner kept tagging him with big shots. By the time the decision came down — Broner by split decision — Paulie had won over much of the crowd. He wasn’t winning rounds or hurting Broner, but he was at least losing rounds less brutally.
Hopeless fights require a great deal of good faith to enjoy — the viewer must place himself directly in the head of the underdog and feel, perhaps dumbly, the flickering of his will to win against impossible odds. I admit that this is a pretty grandiose statement. I also admit that I, at times, am guilty of this silly transference. Most recently, I recall watching a cranially destroyed Amir Khan stumbling around the ring after being floored by Danny Garcia. What was keeping him up? Why was he willing to take more punishment? I concluded, without any evidence, of course, that Khan must be digging down into a deep well of useless determination, something I call the “why the fuck not?” reserve. (The phrase was created from my admiration for poets who continue to devote their lives to perfecting an art form that is about as dead as boxing because why the fuck not?)
There were times on Saturday night when I thought Malignaggi was bordering on a “why the fuck not?” performance, but I cannot join in with those boxing fans and writers who rewarded Malignaggi on the scorecards for his frantic activity, nor can I understand why Malignaggi decided to go on yet another “boxing is bullshit” rant after the decision was announced. 117-111 in favor of Broner seemed like a perfectly fine score. I guess I could chalk up 115-113 Broner to the hometown advantage. But how a judge thought Paulie Malignaggi won that fight is absolutely beyond my comprehension. I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste more than anything, but there’s nothing I hate more than watching a fighter punch wildly and without much purpose at his opponent. It was ugly when Oscar De La Hoya did it against Floyd Mayweather, and it was ugly again on Saturday night when Paulie Malignaggi tried to “bring the fight” to Broner. I do understand why some people might have seen something a shade more gallant in Malignaggi’s efforts, or why the mounting frustration with Broner might have pushed some scorecards in Paulie’s favor. By the 10th, Bensonhurst woke up. The crowd, which till then had been split pretty evenly between Broner and Malignaggi supporters, began chanting “Paulie! Paulie!” Empowered by the crowd, Malignaggi rallied, threw himself at Broner, punched him in the arms a bunch, and then got caught with a series of beautiful countershots.
It should be noted here that I went to Brooklyn fully convinced that Adrien Broner was the future of boxing. And yet most of these descriptions of the fight have been about what Paulie Malignaggi did in the ring. Again, I do not think the fight was particularly close. But I do think Malignaggi should be given credit for a courageous effort that brought up some very real questions about Adrien Broner and just how ready he might be to take over the sport. At the weigh-in, Broner looked every bit the ripped 147-pounder, but despite the beauty and accuracy of his punches, only a few massive body shots really seemed to hurt Malignaggi, who, in his last fight, nearly got cleaned out by the unheralded Pablo Cesar Cano. In Colorado Springs, I watched Broner fight for 45 minutes straight and raved about his stamina. On Saturday night, pushed into the 11th and 12th rounds for the first time in his career, Broner faded and let Malignaggi steal both the crowd and one baffled judge. This was far from his best night, and although he still displayed the skills — the defense, the ring intelligence, the punch accuracy, and the hand speed — that got us all excited in the first place, Broner did not close the show. Which means we’ll probably have to watch him fight a couple more shot legends and light punchers before this particular self-appointed future of boxing truly arrives.
This story has been updated to correct an error: Broner won by split decision, not by majority decision as initially stated..