ON November 22, 2008, Paulie Malignaggi fought Ricky Hatton at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Entering the ring, Malignaggi knew that the hopes and dreams and hard work of 28 years would be distilled into a handful of three-minute segments. Everything in his life had led up to this moment. Everything in his future would be influenced by it.
Malignaggi had turned pro at age 20 on July 7, 2001. “I had my dreams,” he said later. “Nobody starts boxing to be a club fighter. I thought of boxing as a way to carve my name in history and show people that I was on this planet.”
“I’m not just going to be a champion,” Paulie told his promoter, Lou DiBella, before his first pro fight. “I’m going to the Hall of Fame.”
Later, Malignaggi elaborated on that theme, saying, “My speed discourages everyone I fight. I’ve got hand speed and foot speed, but my best weapon is my brain. I know exactly where I am in the ring at all times. I’m always thinking in there, setting my opponent up and keeping him from setting me up.”
But Malignaggi had an Achilles heel – a notable lack of power that would limit him to seven knockout wins in 44 career fights. In a way, that made his ring accomplishments all the more impressive. Often, when he went into battle, his opponent was armed with a machete while Paulie was carrying a pocket-knife. He built his victories by adding up the points, round-by-round-by-round.
And Malignaggi laboured under a second disadvantage as well. He was plagued by hands that HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant called “as brittle as uncooked spaghetti.” They were broken multiple times, necessitating numerous surgeries.
Still, by 2006, Paulie was undefeated in 21 fights and challenged Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade. “It was,” he said later, “like fighting the devil in hell.”
In round one, Malignaggi suffered a bad cut from a headbutt. In round two, he was knocked down. He left the ring that night with the first loss of his career and broken bones in his face that took six months to heal. But he fought valiantly, went the distance, and won four rounds (five on one judge’s scorecard).
Fifty-three weeks later, Malignaggi shut out Lovemore N’dou with a masterful performance over 12 rounds to claim the IBF 140lb crown. That was his shining moment in boxing. Successful title defences against Herman Ngoudjo and N’dou followed. But by his own admission, Paulie looked ordinary each time.
Then Malignaggi got another shot at stardom; this time against Hatton.
Prior to facing Paulie, Hatton had a career record of 44 wins with 31 knockouts against a single loss. Until 2005, he’d been widely thought of as a ‘protected’ fighter. Then he stopped Kostya Tszyu in 11 rounds to annex the IBF super-lightweight title. Victories over Carlos Maussa, Luis Collazo, Juan Urango, and Jose Luis Castillo solidified his claim to being a legitimate world champion.
In December 2007, Hatton reached for the stars. He signed to fight Floyd Mayweather Jnr. But when fight night came, he was forced to battle both boxing’s pound-for-pound king and the one-sided refereeing of Joe Cortez. Mayweather knocked him out in the 10th round.
Ricky returned to the ring with a unanimous decision victory over Juan Lazcano. Hatton-Malignaggi followed. “Every year, I start out hoping that this will be the year I make it big,” Malignaggi said after the bout contracts were signed. “So far, it hasn’t happened. The Cotto fight could have done it, but I came up short. Beating Ricky Hatton can get me to where I want to be. This fight can get me recognised as the best junior-welterweight [super-lightweight] in the world. This fight can make me a star.”
Hatton-Malignaggi was Paulie’s first fight in Las Vegas. His face was on room keys at the MGM Grand. The world press was there.
Malignaggi was long on confidence during fight week. Although the odds were 12-to-5 in Hatton’s favour, he didn’t think of himself as an underdog. Ricky planned to pressure him, but Paulie intended to frustrate his foe.
“Speed kills,” Lou DiBella opined. “And speed particularly kills Ricky. It’s not punchers that give Ricky trouble; it’s speed. Look at his fights against Floyd Mayweather Jnr and Luis Collazo.”
“Don’t compare Hatton with Cotto,” Paulie added, “because they’re not on the same level. Ricky is an average fighter. In England, he was pampered against club-fighter opponents. He’s been very ordinary over here. I think he’s regressed, or maybe he was never that good to begin with.
“Hatton has flaws that I can take advantage of,” Malignaggi continued. “I’ve seen them all through his career. When you’re fast, you can hit anybody. I’m fast, and Ricky isn’t a good defensive fighter. My A-game is better than Ricky Hatton’s A-game. It’s going to be a very frustrating night for Ricky. He’ll be catching a lot.”
“Paulie thinks he’s a good talker,” Hatton responded. “But he tends to come out with a lot of bull. You’re not going to see Ricky Hatton doing the Ali Shuffle. But you will see more head movement and a few other things that I know how to do and haven’t done as often as I should lately. And you’ll also see what I always do; constant pressure and body punching.”
There was a question as to whether Hatton could work effectively under the aegis of his new trainer, Floyd Mayweather Snr. In late July, Billy Graham (who’d trained Ricky for every one of his professional fights) was fired. There was a school of thought that Hatton would miss Graham both in the gym and in his corner on fight night. And more significantly, there was the issue of Ricky’s lifestyle. If Malignaggi’s underlying weakness was his hands, Hatton’s was the abuse of his body between fights.
Ricky was a drinker; a heavy drinker. He was also a ravenous eater and typically gained 40 to 50lbs between fights. He often made light of the situation. On a teleconference call after training camp began, he’d told the media, “I’ve been stepping out at 5.30 in the morning to run for five miles, which is a big change from the usual routine of getting in at 5.30 in the morning after a night on the town.”
But in recent fights, Hatton had tended to fade in the championship rounds. Collazo, Mayweather, and Lazcano all hurt him late. And conditioning became even more of an issue when nutritionist and conditioning coach Kerry Kayes quit Team Hatton in protest over Graham’s dismissal.
Thus, the question: What had a hedonistic lifestyle coupled with the aggressive practice of a brutal sport taken out of Hatton? Ricky was 30. Malignaggi was 28. But because of Hatton’s lifestyle, he was thought of as a much older fighter. Would this be the fight when Ricky was suddenly too old to do what he did well?
Malignaggi liked to get to the arena early when he fought and give himself time to settle in. He wasn’t scheduled to be in the ring until 8pm on fight night but arrived at his dressing room at five o’clock preparatory to doing battle against Hatton. Team Malignaggi was with him. Trainer Buddy McGirt, assistant trainer Orlando Carrasquillo, cutman Danny Milano, Umberto Malignaggi (Paulie’s brother), Pete Sferazza (a close friend), attorney John Hornewer, and Anthony Catanzaro (who mentored Paulie outside the ring).
While the others engaged in quiet conversation, Paulie sat on a chair and listened to music through a pair of headphones. It was impossible for the members of his team to know precisely what doubts and fears were running through his mind. But one thing was certain. He knew the taste of defeat. Its sour residue had been in his mouth since losing to Cotto two years earlier. He never wanted to taste it again.
Over the next few hours, Malignaggi stretched, put on his shoes and trunks, had his hands taped, shadow-boxed, and listened to referee Kenny Bayless’ pre-fight instructions. At seven o’clock, he went into an adjacent room with Carrasquillo to warm up and hit the pads. McGirt stayed in the main dressing area to watch James Kirkland vs. Brian Vera (HBO’s first televised fight of the evening) on a television monitor.
At 7.15, Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Zito entered the dressing room and made their way to Malignaggi and Carrasquillo. “You look good, man,” Stallone told Paulie. “Better than I ever looked.”
“I’m ready. The plan is to bust him up.”
“Have a good one.”
In less than a minute, Stallone and Zito were gone. For the next half-hour, Malignaggi alternated between hitting the pads with Carrasquillo and sitting on the arm of a worn paisley-covered sofa with his head down. More than any of the people around him, he was processing the reality of how dangerous and contingent the next hour would be.
As more than a few boxing insiders had speculated before the fight, a fighter got old in the ring during Hatton-Malignaggi. But that fighter wasn’t Ricky. It was Paulie.
Malignaggi had a slight edge in round one as a consequence of superior footwork and his jab. But he wasn’t particularly effective with either, which was a precursor of things to come. He let Hatton get into a rhythm early and never got into a rhythm of his own.
In round two, Ricky became more aggressive and, with a half-minute left in the stanza, stunned Paulie with a chopping right hand. Thereafter, Malignaggi seemed to abandon his game plan in favour of an almost impatient battle. He fought like a fighter with a puncher’s chance instead of a boxer whose only road to victory lay in putting together punch after punch to win point after point, round after round. And he didn’t have a puncher’s chance because he wasn’t a puncher.
Hatton was physically stronger. Malignaggi’s primary defence was movement. He didn’t have the power to keep Ricky off. When he landed, Hatton simply walked through the punches to get inside. At times, Paulie seemed frozen, unable to punch or get out of the way of Ricky’s punches. Contrary to all expectations, he allowed Hatton to get off first for much of the night.
“My neck felt like it had a stinger,” Paulie said afterward. “Like there was a hundred pounds on it. I couldn’t move the way I usually move. One time, I ducked and it felt like I was stuck. I guess that’s what Ricky does to you. But the referee did a good job. I’ve been in fights where the referee was a spectator. Kenny Bayless did his job right.”
Hatton took advantage of what Bayless gave him. On occasion, he jammed an elbow into Malignaggi’s throat or raked a glove across Paulie’s face. But overall, he fought a clean fight.
In the middle rounds, Ricky stepped up the pace, going to the body with telling effect. By round nine, Paulie was struggling to survive. During round 10, Lou DiBella went to Malignaggi’s corner and told McGirt, “He’s not doing anything. Maybe it should be stopped.” McGirt said no. But he did tell Paulie between rounds that, if he kept taking punches without throwing back, he’d stop the fight.
In round 11, Malignaggi took a hard body shot and DiBella returned to the corner. “If you don’t stop it, I will,” he told the trainer. Seconds later, McGirt waved the white towel of surrender. Each judge had given Paulie one round.
After the fight, Paulie sat for a long time on the sofa in his dressing room. The back of his robe was pulled up and forward over his head, completely covering his face.
Finally, he lowered the robe.
“They shouldn’t have stopped the fight,” he said.
There was a distraught look on his face.
“You were getting hit.”
“But I wasn’t taking big shots. I wasn’t hurting that bad. There was less than two rounds left. How bad could it have been? This will bother me forever.”
“You were behind on points and you weren’t going to knock him out.”
“He wasn’t going to knock me out either. Losing is bad. Having it on my record that I got stopped is worse.”
“No one wanted to see you get hurt.”
“Against Cotto, I got hurt worse. Against Cotto, I could have understood someone stopping it, although I’m glad they didn’t. Tonight; oh, man; no way it should have been stopped.”
The door to the dressing room opened and Ricky Hatton came in. Paulie rose and the fighters embraced.
“It was a good fight, mate,” Hatton said. “You weren’t that far behind me. Most of the time, you were causing me murder.” There were more compliments. Then Hatton left.
Paulie kicked a towel that was on the floor. “The most important fight of my life and I didn’t finish. I’m better than being stopped.”
“You didn’t get stopped. Someone else stopped it.”
“Yeah; but that’s not what the record book will say. The record book will say ‘TKO by 11.’ It goes down in history now; Paulie Malignaggi got stopped.”
“You fought a good fight.”
“No, I didn’t. I fought like I was 40 years old. I saw openings, but my mind and hands wouldn’t connect.”
“Did your hands give you trouble?”
“My hands are fine. How could I hurt my hands? I didn’t hit him all night.”
Fighters who rely on speed and reflexes as their edge over opponents peak young. That was true of Malignaggi, who never fought with the skill set or fire of his youth again. Still, there would be more fights and one more moment of glory.
On April 29, 2012, Paulie travelled to Ukraine and scored a ninth-round knockout of Vyacheslav Senchenko to claim a WBA 147lb title. But that win was sandwiched between losses to Juan Diaz (later avenged), Amir Khan (a knockout defeat), Adrien Broner (by disputed decision), and KO losses to Shawn Porter, Danny Garcia, and Sam Eggington. Finally, at the end, there was an ill-conceived June 22, 2019 bare-knuckle fight that resulted in a loss to Artem Lobov.
Malignaggi’s final ring record (not counting the Lobov fight) was 36 wins (seven by knockout), eight losses (including five KOs). The fighter who inflicted the most physical damage on him was Miguel Cotto. But in many ways, Hatton-Malignaggi hurt more. “That fight cost me my dreams,” Paulie said years later. “If I beat Hatton, I become a star. I might even have made it to the Hall of Fame. The way I fought that night will bother me till the day I die. It was like God gave me a gift when they made that fight and I f**ked it up.”