by Hamilton Nolan
“You know who was the first guy to beat up Paulie Malignaggi? Me!” said an older acquaintance of mine at Gleasons Gym. “He came in here when he was 15 and they asked me to spar with him. And I get in and he starts belting me. This 15-year-old kid, belting me! So I,”-and here, he pantomimes crouching down and throwing huge body hooks-”bam, bam, and I cracked his rib. Yeah, I cracked his rib, Paulie Malignaggi.”
This anecdote is related simply to illustrate the fact that Paulie Malignaggi is the type of guy who inspires others to want to beat him up. He is boxing’s greatest Guido; he is The Situation, with a more offensive haircut.
Paulie Malignaggi is a Brooklyn Italian kid who rocks the loudest of loud fashion ensembles in and out of the ring, talks shit incessantly, and taunts opponents mercilessly. He dances in the ring, during fights. He wears shiny purple outfits, tassels, and cornrows, or sometimes spiky gelled hair with frosted blond tips, during professional boxing matches. He tells other fighters how much they suck, on Twitter. He is endlessly self-promoting. His nickname is “The Magic Man.” He is easy to loathe.
Saturday night, Paulie Malignaggi fought Amir “King” Khan in Madison Square Garden. Khan is one of boxing’s prime Golden Boys, a tall dark and handsome Islamic British Olympic medalist with a flawless pedigree, the world’s best trainer, and Manny Pacquiao for a sparring partner. In his last fight-which was, admittedly, set up more as a novel “Battle of the Religions” than as a balanced card-the opening bell had scarcely finished echoing before Khan knocked down Jewish fighter Dmitry Salita, who lasted a total of 76 seconds before being rendered unconscious, ungraciously.
During the months leading up to this match, Paulie Malignaggi talked so much shit. He talked shit to reporters. He talked shit on Twitter. He expertly denigrated Khan in order to sell tickets, despite the fact that most canny boxing observers could tell early on (right around the moment the contract for the fight was signed) that Malignaggi was a severe underdog. For one thing, Paulie Malignaggi is a terribly light puncher. His footwork is fabulous; his movement and defense and ability to dodge and dip and slide away from punches is, indeed, magical to watch. But his best punch is just a snappy left jab, and he hasn’t knocked anyone out in a hell of a long time. He also has a tendency to break his right hand early in fights, which does not help him out, power-wise. In short, Paulie was doomed from the start, not that you would know it by his demeanor, strutting around cockily and playing to the press from atop a massive pile of shit-talking.
Anyone who has ever watched Jersey Shore and felt the fundamental feeling of revulsion that the show is designed to induce should be intuitively able to grasp just how easy it is to hate Paulie Malignaggi. He is that guy. He brings in huge, loyal crowds of hair-gelled, tanned, muscled-up, tattooed guys from the usual places. If you are not one of them, it is hard to acquire a taste for their ways. Paulie was the night’s self-made antihero, and he could not have cared less. Just spell his fucking name right.
The undercards were less than thrilling. The HBO announcers did their stand-up intro. The BBC reporters jostled in the back row of the press section. An incredible number of Brits (what with the recession and the volcano and all) were on hand, waving “Khan’s Army” banners that sported dual British and Pakistani flags, which you just knew were bound to set off the Long Islanders, sooner or later. (The crowd fights broke out in the sixth round, FYI). The place exploded when Malignaggi made his entrance, blasting what sounded like a mix tape intro complete with a sample of Denzel in Training Day declaring, “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me!” We got to hear the dapper announcer Michael Buffer say the words “Brooklyn in the house,” as well as “in the blue corner, wearing leopard trunks…” This could only be a Paulie Malignaggi fight.
Amir Khan’s hands are fast. Supernaturally fast. He is, without exaggeration, one of the fastest punchers on the face of the earth. He fires so fast that your eye can’t pick up when he throws a punch. Instead, you’d just catch a frozen moment in time: Khan with both arms fully extended, an inch or so from Paulie’s chin, his white gloves seeming to dangle out there like a bungee jumper at the bottom of the fall, before snapping back in place. Khan’s still a young fighter-just 23-and sometimes he even overwhelms himself with his own speed, shooting punches out like the Thousand Hand Slap, his wrist seemingly so fast it gets ahead of his own knuckles.
Point is, he’s fucking fast. Which is how Amir Khan knocks everyone out: they’re on the mat before they know what hit them. Paulie Malignaggi is fast too. But not quite that fast. In the first round, though, Paulie succeeded, mostly, in dancing under and around most of Khan’s big shots. It was like watching two very quick capoeira dancers, who wanted to kill each other. Khan’s deadly speed was apparent though; the anticipation was in full effect for Paulie Malignaggi’s inevitable end, crumpled unconscious and not fucking talking, for once.
And then something sort of spectacular happened. Paulie Malignaggi began to earn my respect. As the rounds progressed, Paulie began to absorb more and more hard shots from Khan; but he never started running away. He kept his distance and stuck his jab and looked at Khan as if he was a man in danger, although he certainly was not. In the second round, nearly backed into the corner and ducking a big right hand, Paulie somehow found a moment to break out a fancy little dance, before skittering off to the side just ahead of another incoming missile. In the third, despite Khan’s total domination of the round, Paulie staged his own brief Light Brigade-style charge. In the fourth, another little momentary dance. In the fifth, Khan ripped a body shot into Paulie’s belly; Paulie grabbed on to Khan and sunk to the floor. But then he popped right up, complaining loudly to the ref that he had been pushed, and somehow managed to convince him not to rule it a knockdown.
In the seventh, Khan began popping his jab into Paulie’s face with sickening regularity-it was simply to fast and too close of a punch for Paulie, or anyone, really, to get out of the way of-and Malignaggi’s left eye began to swell shut. Nevertheless, he stuck out his tongue at Khan as the bell rang. Through the eighth and ninth Khan continued to mash Paulie’s face with sharp jabs, and by the tenth the big right hands and left hooks that Malignaggi had been able to avoid in the early part of the fight were landing, hard.
Paulie did not fall down. After the tenth round the fight doctor came to his corner to see about stopping the fight. And Paulie Malignaggi-the flamboyant, pompous, overconfident, shit talker-could be seen speaking to the doc very calmly, asking politely to please be allowed at least one more round. The doctor acquiesced. Malignaggi came out for the 11th round, still dipping and dodging as best he could, left eye closed, mouth bloody, and ate a series of jabs and couple of rights against the ropes before the referee stepped in and stopped the fight.
Paulie Malignaggi did not have the physical tools to win this fight. But he came out and fought like a champion. He gave it his all. He did not surrender to fear or to pain. He stared down a superior force and emerged bloodied but unbowed. He gave a performance of which anyone could be proud. And I felt that I had been ennobled by witnessing his bravery.
On the way out, I realized that most of Amir Khan’s fans were just the British versions of Paulie Malignaggi’s fans, anyhow. Never judge a douchebag by his accent.