Fighting the Margin of Error

The Mile-High Project

Al Bello/Getty Images Paulie Malignaggi

The Taming of Paulie Malignaggi

Boxing's great gadfly sells out. Is that so bad?

Does it matter that so many of the most memorable moments of the Brooklyn welterweight Paulie Malignaggi’s career have been tangential to what the boxer has done in the ring? Sure, most reasonable fans will concede that Malignaggi is a skillful and crafty fighter, with sharp reflexes that he uses to slip incoming punches and score his own counters, an intelligent jab that he pumps out to keep opponents at a safe distance, and the ability to execute a game plan. They will probably also mention that for a boxer who has won championship belts on three separate occasions, he has managed to do so while possessing barely any knockout power.1 That means when Malignaggi wins, he usually does so by defusing the other guy’s offense, by out-pointing him with volume punching, and by controlling the rhythm of a fight — the amorphous concept of “ring generalship.” On Malignaggi’s best nights, victory comes with little dazzle and less drama.

Ahh, but Malignaggi knows drama, and he has always found ways to generate it without the potential thrill of a 10-count. During his first title run, Malignaggi enlivened bouts through pure outlandishness. He clowned in the ring against overmatched opponents; his array of boots and trunks and robes hinted at a taste for sequins and tassels and oddly layered skirts that wouldn’t seem all that out of place in the Haus of Gaga; and his hairstyles have run a gamut unlike any other in a sport where hideous coiffures are so common that one blog created a semiannual award for “the worst haircut in boxing.” Throughout his almost 13-year professional career, we’ve seen Malignaggi go from Pauly D blowout to spiked, frosted tips (like a bleached-orange Sonic the Hedgehog) to a peach-fuzz baldie decorated with constellations of shaved-in swirls and designs that would make Metta World Peace proud. The undisputed high point of Malignaggi’s follicular Odyssey came in 2008, when he fought Lovemore Ndou2 with a head full of braided extensions that made him look like the Italian American love child of Milli Vanilli and Medusa. (Halfway through the fight, Malignaggi’s trainers had to chop off the snarled weave, which was impairing his vision, so Paulie could eke out a split decision.) More recently, when he has entered the ring with simple cornrows or a red-tinged faux-hawk, it has been interpreted as a sign of Malignaggi’s mature, veteran stature in boxing.

Paulie Malignaggi

If the fashion statements have been the garnish and the fighting the side dish in Malignaggi’s career, then his post-fight interviews have been the main course. He first flashed his honesty and emotion in defeat. In 2006, after losing a vicious 12-round decision to Miguel Cotto, Malignaggi was crestfallen and gracious in his interview. Despite a broken orbital bone that had the right side of his face bulging as if he had a cantaloupe stuffed inside his cheek, Malignaggi almost seemed sweet. He laughed about the size of his swelling, then shook his head and said: “Hey man, I’m so disappointed. I wanted to win so bad.” It was plainspoken, but the resignation in his voice carried something very poignant. It made you want to see him win some other time. (And he did, albeit against lesser champions than Cotto.) Two years later, after another punishing loss, this time when his trainer threw in the towel in the 11th round against Ricky Hatton, Malignaggi’s pride was so hurt that he seemed to have trouble looking Larry Merchant in the eye during their interview, and he kept repeating, “I’m better than being stopped.”

Over the years, Malignaggi swapped personas, always searching for an angle that might turn him into a star, the kind of draw boxing insiders call an “A-side.” These are the fighters whose presence on a bout sheet sells tickets and attracts viewers, and not coincidentally it’s these fighters who attract the most powerful promoters, who earn the biggest purses, and who tend to get favorable treatment from judges when fights go to scorecards. Floyd Mayweather is the A-side against any opponent, Manny Pacquiao is the A-side against pretty much anyone except Floyd, and so on down the line. To make himself a bankable attraction, Malignaggi tried playing a classic villain — the cocky, trash-talking, slick boxer. Then, during the height of Jersey Shore mania, Malignaggi played up the guido culture angle (not a huge stretch for him) and inspired the writer Hamilton Nolan to describe him as “the Situation with a more offensive haircut.” These characters, combined with Malignaggi’s skilled boxing, did improve his station in the sport. He fought for titles and managed to win one; he appeared on HBO. But when Paulie got the big fights, like those against Cotto and Hatton, he was the B-side — the opponent brought in to put up a game effort and then lose.

In August 2009, Malignaggi played the opponent role3 for rising Mexican American star Juan Diaz. The bout was seen as a kind of get-well match for Diaz, a busy, nonstop brawler who had recently suffered the first knockout loss of his career against Juan Manuel Marquez. Fighting in Diaz’s hometown, the light-punching Malignaggi came in as the underdog and outboxed the favorite. HBO’s unofficial judge, Harold Lederman, along with many boxing fans, believed Paulie won a close fight with his movement and his jab. Then the scores came in — a unanimous decision for Diaz, including one scorecard that had Malignaggi winning only two rounds.

In the moments that followed, Paulie discovered the star character he’d been searching for, and it was basically himself: a quintessential New York smartass who would say exactly what he felt like saying, at all times. When Max Kellerman entered the ring for a post-fight interview and asked, “What are your thoughts?” Malignaggi launched into an apoplectic harangue, railing not only against the decision but the entire sport.

I’m telling you, this state never gives a fair shake to anybody coming to this state to fight hometown fighters. It never happens. All the way back to Pernell Whitaker–Chavez, it never happens …

Boxing is full of shit, man! I used to love this sport. I cannot stand doing this. The only reason I do this is ’cause it gives me a good payday. Boxing is full of shit. Every fucking fight …

I’m just an opponent after losing the fight. Juan can go call out the winner of Marquez and Mayweather, or the winner of another big fight. I don’t have that luxury ’cause I got robbed so I’m on the short end of the stick. So I gotta sit back and hope I get used as an opponent in somebody’s hometown again. This is the bullshit I gotta go through.

This was it. Malignaggi was to become the voice of frustrated fans (it turned out to be high-pitched and extremely agitated, and it sounded a little like Joe Pesci). He was to become boxing’s gadfly. And he was right: Boxing is full of shit. Full of promoters and managers who prevent good fights from being made because they don’t want to risk a loss for their boxers. Full of judges who submit awful, inexplicable scorecards and then get assigned to other important bouts. Full of fighters who win by bogus decisions and suspect stoppages and then announce that they’d rather move on with their careers than grant a rematch. Paulie might have no choice but to suffer his sport’s injustices, but he refused to be quiet about them, and more and more fans started to love him for it.4

Flash forward to Malignaggi’s fight Saturday night at Barclays Center. A lot had changed. He was the hometown fighter. Of course, so was his opponent, Zab Judah, as this fight had been billed the “Battle for Brooklyn.” It was Paulie’s Bensonhurst versus Zab’s Brownsville, Paulie’s Biggie entrance music versus Zab’s Biggie entrance music,5 but the big distinction was that Malignaggi was the A-side in a main event on a major Showtime or HBO card.

While some of the circumstances may have been novel, the fight followed a predictable Malignaggi script. Paulie controlled the action through all 12 rounds. He disrupted Judah’s rhythm with head movement, in-and-out feints, and a jab that seemed to always catch Judah just as he was stepping in to begin his assault. As is often the case during Malignaggi bouts, Paulie’s outfit contributed as much intrigue as the punches thrown. In the second round, Malignaggi’s black-with-white-fringe skirt began to get twisted around his waist. Before long, it had rotated a full 90 degrees, so that the two slits that had been at Malignaggi’s hips were now above his crotch and his ass, exposing a gray athletic diaper underneath a bright-red protective codpiece, all held in place by a set of garters. His cornermen reoriented the skirt after Round 4 and it remained in place for the rest of the fight.

Malignaggi’s victory was helped along by the 36-year-old Judah, who looked listless and rarely managed to throw his once-dangerous counter left hand (the one notable exception being a left that knocked down Malignaggi, but didn’t seem to hurt him, in Round 2). It was hard to understand Judah’s inactivity — why he mostly just allowed Malignaggi to dance in and out of range and pepper him with jabs. Fifteen seconds or more would go by with Judah barely attempting a punch, and you’d start wondering if this was some kind of work stoppage, as if he were protesting something by not fighting. It felt like boxing’s version of when Kobe Bryant responds to the criticism that he shoots too much by passing up shots for a half and letting the Lakers flounder to prove his point. Whatever the reason, Judah helped make it an easy night for Malignaggi, who came to fight as he pretty much always does and cruised to a unanimous decision.

Malignaggi was understandably feeling pretty good afterward. “This is an emotional win for me,” he said. “This big win puts me in the right spot to fight in this division for lots of money.” But a funny thing has happened to Malignaggi as his career has taken off over the past year and a half. He has become less believable in his role as boxing’s loose-lipped insurgent, the fighter who speaks unvarnished truth to power. In 2010, he left Lou DiBella, his longtime promoter, and signed with Golden Boy, one of the sport’s big-two promotional outfits. Last year, Showtime added Malignaggi to its broadcast team, where he quickly established himself as one of the sport’s funniest, most astute analysts, but the hire also cemented him as an official voice of the boxing establishment. In October 2012, Malignaggi won a split-decision victory over Pablo Cesar Cano at the first boxing event held in the newly opened Barclays Center. It was a close fight that many observers felt Cano won — a role reversal of Malignaggi’s 2009 loss to Dias — only now that Paulie was the hometown fighter, he declined to cry foul on the entire sport of boxing.

In June of this year, after losing a split decision to Adrien Broner at Barclays, Malignaggi was back to his old tricks. “Boxing is always full of shit,” he told Jim Gray after the scorecards were announced. “It’s always the politically more connected fighter [who] gets the close decisions, and this was no different.” And it’s true: Broner was the heralded prospect who earned a bigger purse than Malignaggi, and Paulie played the B-side even though he brought a welterweight title into the bout and it was held in Brooklyn. But the flames of boxing righteousness proved harder to stoke this time because most ringside observers viewed the fight as a clear win for Broner. Malignaggi fought well and succeeded in damaging Broner’s stock as a potential heir to Floyd Mayweather’s pound-for-pound throne, but his high punch output that night seemed less effective than Broner’s defense and his accurate counterpunches and potshots.

At the postfight press conference, Malignaggi found himself complaining that old boxing saws about favoring the champion and the hometown fighter on the scorecards didn’t apply to him. “I could have at least got a draw,” he said. “I don’t think he did enough to win the title.”

Wait a minute: You’ve gotta take the belt from the champion. If you’re in somebody’s hometown you’ve gotta win by a little bit more. Isn’t this precisely the kind of bullshit Malignaggi would rail against under different circumstances? I’m sure he possesses a healthy respect for boxing tradition, but I’m also quite certain Malignaggi would never hesitate to express the belief that he got robbed, regardless of who held the belt or where the fight took place.

Paulie Malignaggi punches Zab Judah

The coup de grace on Malignaggi’s maverick credibility came in the run-up to the Judah fight, when he announced that he had joined the fold of boxing power broker Al Haymon, who serves as an adviser to many of the most powerful fighters, including Mayweather and Broner. Haymon is a former concert executive who got into boxing and ended up becoming one of the most influential movers on the business side of the sport. He avoids the press and tries not to be photographed. He is known for guiding and protecting his fighters’ careers, for negotiating the best paydays on their behalf, often while demanding they face non-threatening opponents. Haymon and his way of doing business were among the sticking points in HBO’s March decision to stop working with Golden Boy, which promotes most of Haymon’s fighters. “He’s an Al Haymon guy” has become boxing shorthand for a fighter who has been put on the fast track to stardom — matched easily, given premium cable TV dates, and hyped by the media. To his fighters, Haymon is the best thing that could have happened to their careers. To his business rivals and some boxing observers, he’s everything that’s wrong with the sport.

And just like you can’t play for the New York Yankees and serve as the voice of small-market MLB teams, there’s no way to be an Al Haymon guy and serve as the voice of boxing’s disgruntled masses. Malignaggi went from being the flag-bearer for doing what’s right in his notoriously crooked sport to being part of the problem — and it was a great career move.

The ironic part is that the Paulie Malignaggi Straight Talk Express seems to have been partly responsible for Haymon’s decision to begin working with the fighter. Although the Broner-Malignaggi promotion earlier this year was best known for the fighters’ misogynistic jousting over a woman both fighters claimed to have slept with,6 it was also notable for several critical comments Malignaggi made about Al Haymon. “Mr. Al Haymon is taking good care of Adrien Broner,” Paulie said at a pre-fight press conference. “They got everybody that’s wrong with boxing together in one room, they did everything that’s wrong with boxing in that room, and gave birth to Adrien Broner … Instead of praying to God every night he prays to Al Haymon every night for making him the creation that he is.” Then, after the fight, a heated Malignaggi accused one of the judges of being “in Al Haymon’s pocket.” Paulie recanted the comment minutes later at another press conference, but only after he’d named Haymon during a broadcast that drew 1.3 million viewers.

First, let’s pause to admire Malignaggi’s insane, reckless honesty. Even though it was hard to accept his gripes about not getting a decision or draw against Broner, he could still spit hot fire. One can imagine that a man who prefers to operate behind the scenes, who makes a concerted effort to keep his name out of the press, did not appreciate being called out on live television. Haymon is, by many accounts, the most powerful man in boxing, and Malignaggi was putting him on blast. This was like stepping into The Wire‘s fictional streets of Baltimore and saying, “You tell that boy, he ain’t man enough to come down to the streets with Paulie.”

And Malignaggi’s rant did seem to get Haymon’s attention, although Haymon’s response seemed to draw more inspiration from David Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual than Marlo Stanfield’s “My name is my name!” speech. Haymon didn’t try to blacklist the fighter who was spreading crazy-candid half-truths about him; he didn’t hire a couple of hit men to put Malignaggi in a vacant. He had his people call Paulie and offer him a business opportunity. Haymon identified his problem and co-opted it. And Malignaggi, like any fighter would, jumped at the opportunity to work with Haymon. “He’s a guy who’s very powerful in the sport; I’m a guy who’s very outspoken,” Malignaggi said after the deal became public. “I think both of us weren’t benefiting from being enemies.”

Malignaggi further explained his relationship with Haymon in another interview: “It means I can make more money and I can have bigger fights. When you’re with Team Haymon, it makes things easier … It seems like his fighters get treated the way they should, and a lot of times other fighters don’t.”

About a month before Malignaggi joined Team Haymon, an interviewer in Los Angeles asked if he’d consider signing with the power broker. “I’m too much of a man to do that,” Paulie answered.

It wouldn’t be unfair to accuse Malignaggi of selling out, but it would be missing the point. This is boxing, a business in which the operating principle often seems to be that if the networks, managers, promoters, and fighters all actively try to screw each other, then each party will probably emerge with a fair share of the money the sport generates. It’s a world in which a treasured maxim about honesty is this bit of Bob Arum Zen: “Yesterday I was lying; today I’m telling the truth.”

And if anyone deserves to be given a pass for the craven pursuit of financial gains, it should be boxers. Their profession involves risking their lives for every payday, and it pretty much guarantees they will suffer brain injuries over the course of their careers. Even a quick, defensive-minded fighter like Malignaggi has absorbed his share of alarming, scary punishment. He would be doing himself a grave disservice by not putting himself in the position to make the most money, in the biggest fights, with (whenever possible) the least risk.

That’s star treatment. That’s what fighters dream about when they turn pro. So let’s feel happy for Malignaggi, who through some unpredictable calculus of snapping his jab, moving his feet, and running his mouth has finally been summoned to join the sport’s true upper echelon. He’ll still be Paulie, and he’ll still be one of the funniest and most engaging talkers around. But maybe it’s time for the disgruntled masses to start searching for a new fearless, fast-talking leader, because boxing will always need a gadfly.

This column has been updated to correct a reference to Juan Diaz’s first career loss. His first loss came to Nate Campbell. His first knockout loss was against Juan Manuel Marquez.

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