Paulie Malignaggi is a former two-division world champion and one of the most respected ringside analysts in boxing today. Not bad for a onetime “knucklehead” who was kicked out of high school.
Yes, like many a fighter before him, Paulie Malignaggi was headed down the wrong path when he was introduced to the sweet science in his native Brooklyn, New York. It didn’t take long for boxing to give Malignaggi a sense of purpose, along with a way out—and a way up.
A technically sound fighter who relied greatly on his hand and foot speed, Malignaggi made his professional debut in July 2001 at the age of 20, earning a first-round TKO victory. He would go on to win his first 21 fights, setting up his first world title shot at 140 pounds against Miguel Cotto in June 2006.
Although he fell to Cotto by unanimous decision, Malignaggi displayed a toughness and grit that would come to define the rest of his career—the same kind of toughness and grit that was synonymous with the career of his boxing idol.
With his fighting days nearing a close, Malignaggi—who is 36-7, with all seven defeats coming against current or future world champions—remains connected to the sport he loves through his analyst work, mostly as a member of Showtime’s broadcasting team.
We recently caught up with the 36-year-old son of Italian immigrants to talk all things fighting—from why he loves Raging Bull to his beef with Connor McGregor—as well as a wide array of non-boxing topics, such as his surprising musical tastes (he’s a closet metalhead) and not-so-surprising go-to comfort food (the man loves his pasta!).
Who’s your boxing hero?
Arturo Gatti. Obviously, I really didn’t mimic his style, but his family [immigrated] from Italy and moved to Montreal; my family was from Italy, but moved to New York. There were a lot of similarities in that our families moved to North America to create a new life, and we both wound up in boxing. So I looked up to him as my hero.
I followed his career, saw him on USA [Network’s] Tuesday Night Fights and then followed him on his ascent to the world championship. He fought exciting fights, he was a big puncher and he became iconic for me—especially as a confused teenager who was searching for people to look up to.
I actually got to fight [in November 2002] on the undercard of Gatti-[Micky] Ward II in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was a thrill to be part of the entire show. It’s funny how life turns out.
Who’s the one fighter in history you wish you could’ve fought?
Meldrick Taylor was one of my favorites. I often wondered how my speed would match up against his speed, because his speed is more of a reckless speed. He’d try to throw eight-to-10-punch combinations to the point where he stood in the pocket too long and was getting hit back.
My speed is more pick-my-spot speed, where I’m looking to throw two-or-three-punch combinations and stay in the pocket for just a little bit.
So when I was young, I did wonder how my speed and decision-making in the ring would’ve matched up against Meldrick Taylor.
Any idea how you would’ve done against Taylor?
I think Meldrick would’ve beat me.
At the end of the day, you put your heroes on a pedestal, and you don’t want to think of them in a negative light.
Meldrick probably should’ve been a better decision-maker, so there would probably be opportunities for me to pick him off. But at the end of the day, Meldrick was Meldrick. He had an Olympic gold medal and was a two-time world champion, so I wouldn’t disrespect him by saying I could beat him.
“ Hollywood and life are too politically correct now. You could never make a movie about my life, because you’d ruin it. Just like they ruined Vinny Pazienza’s movie. ” Paulie Malignaggi
What’s the general public’s biggest misconception about boxers?
That we’re not smart. Don’t get me wrong: Not everybody is a genius. Some fighters didn’t finish school—like myself. But I’m able to have a television job because I’m a little bit of a thinker, and I try to put concepts together and really retain what I do learn, through my experiences in life and listening to other people.
But you also have a lot of fighters—especially in Europe—who have college degrees. [Boxing] is just part of their culture.
Another misconception is we’re naturally violent people. They look at the stereotypical old movies that [depict boxers] as wife beaters and short-fused kind of guys. That’s simply not true.
A lot of fighters get enough fighting in the gym. They don’t want to fight [outside of the ring]. They’re just looking to make a living. Many fighters are actually the opposite of temperamental. They’re very laid-back people.
Even though you’re still an active fighter, you’ve already established yourself as one of boxing’s most respected ringside television analysts. What about that role appeals to you?
I enjoy getting to be ringside and seeing firsthand the emotion of fighters achieving their dreams. Becoming world champion for the first time is a very special feeling. It’s an emotion I have felt, and there’s nothing like it. Those are special nights for these young guys, and they bring back special memories for me.
I also enjoy giving a perspective and analysis through my eyes in hopes of teaching fans how to pick up certain patterns so they can better follow the fight.
You recently blasted UFC star Connor McGregor for continuing to believe he could beat Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a boxing match. What prompted you to do that?
The reason I went after McGregor is simple: I just feel there is too much difference in the combat skills needed to succeed in boxing as opposed to mixed martial arts, and vice versa.
While Connor is great in the octagon, there are just tactical differences in balance and punch selection [in boxing]. And most importantly, it’s not easy to recognize where you are in the ring at all times and to recognize when a trap is being set for you to place you in danger.
These are very subtle but important things you cannot learn in a few months, because the traps in boxing are different from the traps in mixed martial arts. And not being able to recognize traps when they present themselves can either shorten your night, or give you a very long and painful night.
What’s your favorite punch to throw?
The jab. I’m not known as a very big puncher, but my jab sets my distance, sets up my ability to control and dictate the pace, and then it’ll set up my combinations when I need to throw them.
The jab will help me avoid being in exchanges as well, because I’m controlling the distance. Maybe you want to fight [in close], but because of the jab, I’m not allowing you to. So the jab is my favorite punch to throw because, for me, it’s also the most important punch.
Finish this sentence: If not for boxing, I would be …
… in a place that’s probably not so comfortable.
I was a little bit of a troubled teenager. I not going to sit here and tell you that [without boxing], I’d be in jail or be dead or anything like that. But I was hanging out with some of the wrong people, I was getting into trouble, I was expelled from school.
I always wanted something better for myself; I don’t think I would’ve accepted failure. The problem was, without school and without a proper trade to learn—and because I was such a knucklehead at the time—I don’t think success would’ve come in any other way except by illegal measures.
So boxing gave me a legal way to make a better life for myself and make me a more successful individual. And I’m just a better person overall, because [boxing] matured me and took me to a better place.
Favorite boxing movie?
I know everyone jumps on Rocky, and I love those movies as well. But my favorite is Raging Bull.
For one thing, it shows the raw life that was New York back in the day, and it shows Italian-American culture in New York and that old-school mentality. It also showed you how raw boxing was, because everybody had to fight each other, and it was hard to make a buck and people were coming from tough neighborhoods.
I also like Raging Bull because it’s not politically correct, and I’m not really with the politically correct agenda. You can’t make movies like Raging Bull anymore. Now everything has to be politically correct and based on true stories.
If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would you want to portray you?
I remember I used to think about this when I was younger, and I’d say Andy Garcia. But now he’s older—and I’m actually older! So I don’t know.
You’d have to find somebody with the old-school New York accent, which would be difficult, because even my accent is an endangered species. It’s equivalent to somebody who’s from old-school New York.
Maybe Bradley Cooper. He could immerse himself in the role. But as I said before, Hollywood and life are too politically correct now.
You could never make a movie about my life, because you’d ruin it. Just like they ruined Vinny Pazienza’s movie (the recently released Bleed for This). That guy’s life was so raw, and they turned it into a feel-good motivational movie. Buddy, Vinny Pazienza is more Raging Bull than Raging Bull!
Who was your first celebrity crush?
Hilary Duff. And she’s still a crush.
Who’s the one artist fans would be surprised to find on your iPod?
People look at me and they assume I’m a guy who just loves hip-hop, and I do love my hip-hop—I actually love old-school hip-hop more than new-school hip-hop. But I also love my old-school rock bands and even heavy metal bands from the ’80s.
As a kid in the ’80s and early ’90s, I always thought [heavy metal] lyrics were about death and all kinds of crazy stuff. But then when I got older—maybe late teens or early 20s—and started to pay attention to the lyrics and listening to CDs from bands like Guns ’N Roses and Mötley Crüe and whatnot, I found out most of the time they were talking about love or a party life—sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. And I was like, ‘Man, this is really cool!” and I kind of got into it.
I even recently went to see Guns ’N Roses at Dodger Stadium with the original lineup on their reunion tour, and that was really a cool experience. So people would be surprised to find some of the ’80s heavy metal bands.
What’s the one meal that’s the toughest to give up while training for a fight?
Pasta. Any pasta. I’m Italian! I like my pasta, and I like it al dente. And I like it with creative sauces, too. Obviously, being Italian, pasta is part of our diet—it’s a food group in and of itself! And it’s tough to give up.
When I’m not training, if I go two or three days without it, I’m craving it. But when I’m in training camp, I don’t touch pasta at all, because it’s so high in carbs that I’ll gain too much weight. In training, I’m already below my normal walking-around weight. So one wrong meal will put on five pounds.
But when I stay away from pasta for two or three days, and I know there’s another two or three months before I can eat it again, it starts to play on my mind. And I really don’t like that feeling.
Whose career would you rather have had: Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan?
Michael Jordan. Because in golf, the roar of the crowd is [suppressed]. In other sports, the roar of the crowd is lifted up. And the roar of the crowd is everything for me in this entertainment field and sports in general. It feeds that fire.
That’s why the best feeling in the world must be scoring a goal in World Cup soccer.
Whose skills would you rather have: LeBron James or Steph Curry?
Steph Curry. Because I feel like he’s proven that a guy who is not physically as big as the rest of the guys [in the NBA] can still hang, and his athletic ability and intelligence can make up for his lack of size. As a little guy myself, I can relate.
Which animal in the wild best describes your personality?
I’m very protective of the people I care about, to the point that I have a short fuse if you try to offend or attack them. So I’d say a wildcat animal, like a tiger or a lion that protects their pride to the point where they’ll fight you and will be very offended if you come at them a certain way.
I’m not the guy who is going to look for a fight for no reason, but I will get in your face if you offend someone I care about.
Finish this sentence: People would be surprised to learn that I …
… speak three languages pretty fluently. Spanish, I’m almost completely fluent in, and I’m completely fluent in Italian and English. I don’t even have a high school diploma, so people probably don’t assume I have much intelligence!
You can change one thing in the world: What is it?
I’d end terrorism.
What’s on your bucket list?
I would like to partake in some kind of Hollywood movie—have a major role or something like that. I was always very creative as a kid, always playing make-believe and whatnot, so it would be really cool to try acting.
Given the chance, I think I could really immerse myself in certain kinds of roles, and it would be fun. But only if [the opportunity] came to me. I don’t want to kiss any asses to do it, so I don’t know that it’ll ever happen.
Really, though, I’m fine where I’m at in my life. I don’t need to make more money if I can’t. I don’t care about being super rich; I just want to pay my bills. But I do enjoy taking on challenges that I actually enjoy. Like climbing Mount Everest is a challenge, but I don’t think I’d enjoy climbing Mount Everest.
“12 Rounds With …” is published every Wednesday at PremierBoxingChampions.com. Next week: 130-pound title challenger Gervonta Davis.