On a separate forum a discussion once arose about who was the “manliest man in boxing”. You can guess the names that were involved… the hard hitting, chain smoking, beer drinking, wildly (but incredibly non-politically correct) entertaining Ricardo Mayorga. The hard hitting brawler Marcos Maidana. The tough, uncompromising former marine Ken Norton. The wonderfully moustached original heavyweight champion John L Sullivan. I even put forward my own suggestion, one of my favourite boxers of all time, Daniil Peretyatko (and after seeing this photo of sheer unbridled masculinity at it rawest I don’t see how many can disagree). And then someone joking put forward Paulie Malignaggi as a suggestion and got a couple of laughs.
I sat there and I thought about it. And then I thought about it some more.
And now I think Paulie Malignaggi may be the manliest man in boxing…
At first glance that seems a strange answer. When we think about who the most “manly” men are we generally thinking of those who are a bit rough around the edges, a bit unkempt, a bit rugged. Paulie is none of those things. He’ll likely tell you himself that he’s a handsome man, in truth somewhat of a pretty boy. He’s gone into bouts with some questionable hair choices for a professional boxer, perfectly gelled and with frosted tips, never more so than his infamous hair extensions that had to be cut off midway through a bout. And his general choice of fashion may be dismissed as… shall we say… somewhat different… by those who consider themselves connoisseurs of manlyness. He’s cocky, occasionally arrogant, sometimes offensive, armed with a quick mouth and a willingness to use it. His public persona is less that of the seething menace of a 1970’s George Foreman or a 1980’s Tyson or the rampant bombast of Mayorga in full flow. Instead he comes across as a street hustler, a cool, confident fast-talker. Not distinctly manly.
And then there’s his style. Most of the usual names that get put forward as “manly” boxers are brawlers, men who come forward and smash their opposition to pieces, demolish them with heavy fists and unrelenting aggression. Malignaggi isn’t. Malignaggi’s a stylist, a stick and move boxer, a man who makes an opponent miss and pops them with a jab before taunting them. His style isn’t built around huge power or crushing offence. It’s based around hands almost as quick as his mouth, great movement, accuracy and reflexes. It’s about hitting and not getting hit. Broken hands and his style mean he scores relatively few stoppages and very rarely against high level opposition.
You put that all together… the look, the manner, the style… and you can understand why people who haven’t seen certain bouts from Malignaggi think he’s weak, that he’s in boxing for the fame and not the glory, that he’d crumble as soon as an opponent got past the fast hands and tracked down the fast feet.
And then you actually watch the bouts.
Paulie Malignaggi’s coming out party as a fighter saw him matched with the then unbeaten Miguel Cotto, then 26-0 and already a long-time world champion, a man seen as one of the biggest and brightest upcoming stars in boxing, a man who could already point to wins over Carlos Maussa, Lovemore Ndou, Randall Bailey, DeMarcus Corley and Ricardo Torres. And Cotto hadn’t just won those bouts, he’d beaten those opponents figuratively and literally, destroying many of them with his crushing hooks and unrelenting aggression to the head and body. Malignaggi, a more modest 21-0 had picked up some decent wins but nowhere near to the level Cotto had. Despite Malignaggi’s New York background the strong Puerto Rican community that filled Madison Square Garden that night must have made it seem like he was going to an opponents hometown, the atmosphere oppressive, hanging over the ring like the site of a public execution. Many commentators expected it to be exactly that… a few rounds of Paulie frustrating Cotto with his speed before Cotto hunted him down and crushed him. Few even expected Malignaggi to see the final bell.
And early on it looked like they were right. Despite his best efforts Paulie couldn’t outbox Cotto. His fast hands and fast feet couldn’t keep him away from the Puerto Rican star. He was down in the second, he was cut later, his face began to swell, the pretty boy looks mangled by iron fists. Most expected Paulie to wilt, many expected him to quit.
But Paulie decided to fight.
Round after round he went to war with Cotto, giving as much as he could. He took a beating and he tried to give one back. He never wilted, never quit, never crumbled. He poured his heart and soul into that fight and he gave every little bit of himself that he could to try to win. His cheekbone was shattered, his face a mess and yet he kept trying.
There’s no Cinderella Man story here. Paulie lost a wide and deserved decision but what he won was the grudging respect of an audience ready to tear him apart. To tell him that he was all sizzle and no steak, all flash and no substance. He had shown that there was more to him than the clothes and haircuts and the taunts. That deep down Paulie Malignaggi wasn’t just a boxer. He was a fighter.
That same willpower and heart carried him through other bouts. He came into the Hatton bout in poor form with a trainer that didn’t suit him at all… and despite being badly beaten for 11 rounds he never quit, never looked for a way out and was as angry as anyone when his trainer threw in the towel. He faced off with Amir Khan and simply wasn’t good enough… Khan was too quick, too sharp, too good… arguably the best he’s looked through his career… and he put a beating on Paulie minute after minute, round after round. Paulie’s eye was closed, he was bloodied, he was out classed. But he never stopped trying, never stopped fighting back and even managed to work a few taunts in there. The referee and his corner gave him an easy way out but he instead asked for one more round. Yet again, Paulie Malignaggi had fought… not just boxed, but fought… his heart out. Physically overmatched he had no quit, not looked to escape, not run away. He had done everything he could to win and when that wasn’t enough he kept trying anyway.
And Malignaggi never made excuses. He never claimed he was drugged, he never invented phantom injuries. When people beat him it was because they were better. He’d explain why him working with Buddy McGirt meant that he didn’t perform on the level he could but he never blamed his opponents for this. And when the scorecards went against him he never claimed that he had to have won. He simply pointed out how wide and ridiculous some of the scorecards were.
His performances in the ring are echoed by those outside it. He travelled to Juan Diaz’s hometown and publicly dared them to rob him (something judges in Texas have a sad history of doing). And when they did he didn’t whine and complain, instead he simply pointed it out, pointed out how ludicrous a 118-110 scorecard was, earned a rematch in a neutral location and handily won. When he was lined up to face Hatton he was happy to travel to the UK, hair extensions and all, to face a stadium full of baying Hatton fans who wanted this cocky American to be destroyed. And when the Hatton and Khan bouts had seemingly ended his time as a top level boxer he was not scared to earn his place at the table. He didn’t try to get important bouts by press releases and twitter spats. He did it the hard way, by taking on lesser names in small bouts, some of which didn’t even make it on TV and when the opportunity came to box for a world title he took it. It didn’t matter that it was in the Ukraine against a hometown fighter. It didn’t matter that he was getting relatively short money. It didn’t matter that it was against a then undefeated champion who would later go on to end Ricky Hatton’s attempted comeback. He went anyway.
And he won.
I’m not sure it was quite the best performance of his career… personally I think the way he utterly bewildered Lovemore Ndou in their first bout is Malignaggi at his best. But it was damn close. In a stadium full of Ukrainian fans, against a Ukranian champion, on a night that was meant to be a coming out party for both Vyacheslav Senchenko and domestic Ukranian boxing, Paulie Malignaggi beat the hell out of Senchenko. The champion was a good boxer with a good jab himself… yet he couldn’t touch Malignaggi. And Malignaggi could touch him. Over and over again be it with jabs, straights or shredding hooks. He broke Senchenko. In what was meant to be his night, in front of his fans, Senchenko looked lost and hapless, eventually desperately looking to the referee Steve Smoger for help. And Smoger did, stepping in to stop the beating.
And perhaps his greatest trick was yet to come. In the wake of his loss to Adrien Broner, Malignaggi publicly called out Broner’s advisor Al Haymon, the powerful but somewhat shadowy figure who advises Floyd Mayweather and a host of other boxers, a man who can seemingly guarantee that his fighters not only get lucrative TV dates for vast amounts of money but also get the edge when a narrow decision is announced. Hell, Broner called him out before the bout. And then, only a couple of months later, he has Al Haymon sign him.
That’s balls. To publicly call someone out for nefarious deeds and insidious influences… and then get him to sign you? That’s manly. That’s like showing up at the office of a business rival, publicly trashing them only to find them offering you a highly paid job a month later.
But perhaps the most manly thing about Paulie Malignaggi isn’t to do directly with boxing either in or out of the ring. Many a boxer has had a tough upbringing and I don’t intend to dwell on Malignaggi’s but there are details here for those who are interested. Suffice to say the Magic Man never had it easy.
But here’s the big one.
Ronny Vargas (alternatively spelt Ronnie and Ronney) was an up-and-coming boxer, a three time New York Golden Gloves champion with an 8-0 professional record. The 20 year old was talented, dedicated and looked to have a bright future both as a boxer and a man. And then he was senselessly and tragically murdered.
Paulie Malignaggi visited the family and presented them with his IBF title… a title he had fought so hard to win, a title he had bled for, a title he had won outright and that he could keep forever… so that Vargas could be buried as a champion.
And you don’t find a bigger… or better… man than that.
So here’s to Paulie Malignaggi. The pretty boy from the Bronx who defied the odds to become the manliest man in boxing.