Paulie Malignaggi is breaking down something that’s already broken: the psyche of a fighter. It’s a damaged thing, as he tells it.
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part look at former two-division champion Paulie Malignaggi as he prepares to battle unbeaten Danny Garcia in Brooklyn, New York, on Saturday in a bout being televised on ESPN.
“To be a fighter, something’s got to be missing in your mind,” Malignaggi says. “I’m not saying that you’ve got to be a lunatic, but to want to do this consistently … something’s got to be off, man.
“You’ve been through something in your life that lit a spark,” he adds. “I know I had plenty of things to use as sparks in my life.”
It began when he was a kid. Malignaggi’s father was a professional soccer player in Italy, but after his parents went through a tough divorce, his mother wouldn’t let him play organized sports while he was growing up, fearing that he would become an athlete.
Years later, he chuckles at the irony of her decision.
Malignaggi, 34, didn’t start boxing until he was 16 years old, when he was no longer living with his mom, but with his grandparents. He was thrown out of high school, and he, in turn, threw himself into the sport.
“For the first time in my life I had something that I really liked,” he says. “I had a reason to not get in trouble, had a reason to want to stick with something when I hadn’t stuck with anything before.”
He got real good, real quick, and by the time he turned pro, Malignaggi was the No. 1 amateur in his weight class, even though he had only been fighting for three years.
As he rose in the ranks, he adopted the nickname “Magic Man,” a tip of the illusionist’s top hat to his elusiveness in the ring: Now you see him, now you don’t.
He distinguished himself as a wily technician, as slick and slippery as a politician on the stump, prone to bouncing around the ring like he was coated in rubber.
He also earned a rep for lacking punching power, though Malignaggi ties his low knockout rate to a series of debilitating hand injuries that once threatened his future as a fighter.
“There were times in my life when I thought my hand injuries were going to end my career,” Malignaggi recalls. “I remember laying in bed, almost wanting to cry, just thinking, ‘Nobody will ever know how good I was.’”
A nine-hour surgical procedure would eventually make Malignaggi’s right hand right again.
He’d become a two-division world champion at 140 and 147 pounds, acquit himself valiantly in a gutty loss to Miguel Cotto in June 2006 that left with him with a broken orbital bone, and win the Battle of Brooklyn by defeating Zab Judah in December 2013, just to name a few of his career highlights.
Along the way, he established himself as one of the most brash and flamboyant dudes in the sport, especially early in his career, when he’d clown guys in the ring while sticking out his tongue like a winded Great Dane, sport garish skirt trunks covered in more fringe than a hippie commune and rock some of boxing’s most outlandish haircuts (from dyed spikes befitting a metrosexual hedgehog to his most unforgettable ’do, those long dreadlock hair extensions that once had to be hacked off mid-fight in what can only be described as an act of mercy shearing).
Back then he was wound tight—tight as the clenched fists he made his living with.
These days, Malignaggi has learned how to exhale from time to time, and says that he isn’t as enamored with being the center of everyone’s attention— “I don’t really care as much as I used to about fame,” he claims. But he still possesses a cocksure edge, will occasionally wear sunglasses indoors and doesn’t shy away from flaunting the fruits of his labors—especially to anyone who wants to bust his chops online.
“Sometimes people look at it as obnoxious: ‘Who are you to show off your cars or your girls or your houses?’” Malignaggi says. “I don’t look at is as showing off, I look at it more like, ‘I worked really hard, and now I want to enjoy it and have some fun.’”
For complete coverage of Garcia vs Malignaggi, visit our fight page.
Coming Wednesday: Part III of The Passion of Paulie