Tuesday, June 12, 2007


The first time I laid eyes on Paulie “The Magic Man” Malignaggi was in Atlantic City on a cool November night nearly five years ago. It was the night before Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward took a second turn tearing the pages from each other’s book.

I was waiting in line at Bally’s to see a fight card that featured future lightweight champ Juan Diaz against Arthur Cruz and Malignaggi blew by me with a small entourage wearing enough bling to light up the Jersey shore.

The first thing that struck me was that he didn’t look much like a fighter. He looked far too dainty and frail and I figured him for a pretender and not a contender. To me, he seemed more concerned with his appearance and place in line than just about anything else.

He was wearing his customary headband, both of his ears were pierced, his eyebrows were impeccably plucked and he was wearing a pair of sunglasses at night. His hair was standing straight up and varnished with enough hairspray and gel to make Homer Formby proud.

Malignaggi was 11-0 (4) KO’s at the time and the next night he would have a fight of his own on the Gatti vs. Ward undercard. It was Malignaggi’s 22nd birthday and he fought a spitfire and a helluva tough customer named Paul Delgado and Malignaggi struggled to win an eight round split decision. Watching him in the fight against Delgado who was 5-1-1 (2) KO’s, I pretty much made up my mind that this Malignaggi kid just didn’t have it. I scored the fight a draw.

Although he was flashy, fast and mildly entertaining, I just didn’t see how he was going to hack it in what the great fight writer Hugh McIllvaney called “The Hardest Game”.

Paulie Malignaggi reminded me of a poor man’s version of Hector Camacho and for the better part of the next four years I kept track of his progress but he never excited me too much. There were the horrible hand problems that he had, and for me, it all came back to the first impression that I had of him that this was a kid that just wasn’t built for the fight racket. He was a little too fragile.

My mind was made up.

The years ticked by and it seemed like Paulie Malignaggi just wasn’t ever going to get his big break and make the leap from a brash, undefeated kid to a respected, big-time prizefighter. I watched with little interest as he fought on small cards in places like Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, Jimmy’s Bronx Café and at Harrah’s in Laughlin, Nevada.

His promoter from the beginning has been Lou DiBella and while I figured Lou had done an admirable job with the kid I just didn’t see that he had championship material on his hands. While Malignaggi certainly had skills, I was always left questioning his heart and guts for the fight game largely based on that first impression that I had of him from that night in Atlantic City.

Then in June of 2006, Malignaggi was matched against Miguel Cotto, the tough as nails Puerto Rican destroyer. The fight took place at Madison Square Garden in New York and it was for Cotto’s WBO Jr. Welterweight title. I figured Cotto would murder the kid and that Malignaggi’s backers were finally going to cash out on him by throwing him in way over his head in a title fight with Cotto.

Early on it looked like Cotto was going to make short work of Malignaggi and he had him down on the deck in the second round. Everything I ever believed about Paulie Malignaggi was coming true before my eyes and I figured it wouldn’t be long before he was knocked out of the fight - and likely out of boxing.

Then something magical happened.

The “Magic Man” pulled a rabbit out of his hat and said “abracadabra”. Paulie Malignaggi battled back against Cotto. He showed as much heart and guts as I have ever seen any fighter ever display. The kid had a broken cheekbone, his face was grotesquely swollen but he stood in there with Cotto, in the lion’s den, and he made the fight closer than anybody ever thought he could. He went punch-for-punch and stood in there when he could have quit at any time.

On that night, Paulie “The Magic Man” Malignaggi magically changed my mind.

I don’t often root for a fighter to win. But on Saturday night when Paulie Malignaggi gets his second title shot against IBF Jr. Welterweight titlist Lovemore N’dou at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, I’ll be watching and a part of me will be hoping that he wins.

Despite appearances, this kid’s a fighter through and through, and if you give Paulie Malignaggi a chance to work his magic – he might just change your mind too.

June 2007

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