The mouth that soars: Ever-loquacious Malignaggi living his dream

Center of attention When you see Paulie Malignaggi heading towards a microphone, you don’t know whether to prepare to laugh or to cringe. In reality, usually it turns out to be a little of both.

“When he goes off,” his promoter, Lou DiBella, told me with a shrug, “I mean, I sometimes… like, I tremor! He goes off and I’m sitting there shaking my head…”

But it’s mostly endearing, right?

“Oh yeah! It’s definitely mostly endearing, but he says certain things, and then people hold me accountable for things that Paulie says. I can’t control Paulie’s month. I mean, I’ve given up a long time ago censoring Paulie Malignaggi.”

Credit to Round1TV

One reason for DiBella’s hands-off approach is he knows Malignaggi is most comfortable when he’s saying what he feels without restriction. He’s like Billy Hoyle in White Men Can’t Jump – “I’m in the zone, man!” Paulie psyches himself up while throwing his opponent off – at least in theory.

His press conference at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday to announce his fight on HBO’s Boxing after Dark against England’s Amir Khan on May 15 was a textbook example. One second, he was saying how much he respected Khan for coming to New York. The next, he was throwing former trainer Buddy McGirt under the bus, reiterating his steroids accusation against Manny Pacquiao, and implicating Khan by association with shared trainer Freddie Roach, adding:

This is New York City. This is my city. When Amir’s head is getting snapped back with blistering combinations, the crowd is going to love it.

*****

Historically, I prefer athletes to do their talking primarily in the ring, or on the field. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Paulie, since I first talked to him in the spring of 2004 before he fought Rocky Martinez. Though he has no shortage of detractors, his ebullience makes him a hard guy not to like. He spends time every day communicating on Twitter with his fans, even asking what they do for a living.

Paulie/DiBella in 2004 “Paulie’s wearing a T-shirt that says ‘Stop Hating,’” DiBella said at the podium. “It amuses me, because Paulie loves to be loved.

“Basically, he wants people to notice him. He wants people to know he’s there, he wants an audience. He’s an entertainer.”

Frequent eye-rolling aside, DiBella admits to having a special affinity for Paulie, stemming from the first time he showed up at his office while “living on his grandmother’s couch.” They’re both Brooklyn natives, and they both have ancestry from Italy.

“I was drawn to his experience, his life experience, and I was drawn to his enthusiasm,” DiBella said of Paulie, who he considers family. “I mean, he has desperately wanted to be a star from the time he was 19 years old.”

*****

Like the first boxer he watched at the Garden when he was a teenager, Naseem Hamed, Malignaggi is a slick fighter that uses the entire ring and thrills in slipping punches a la Chris Byrd while taunting his foe at the same time.

“He’s giving you angles, he’s moving around you, he’s moving in and out, he’s weaving,” DiBella said. “He’s a scientist… but not a coward. That’s what makes him fun to watch.”

Make no mistake, he has a paucity of power. DiBella says Malignaggi “can’t break an egg,” and even Paulie agreed when discussing Khan, whose ability to take a punch is suspect:

A guy with no chin against a guy who can’t punch – it’s the opposite of the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object.

But there’s real substance behind both his antics in the ring and on the microphone. The years of dedicating his life to an often frustrating sport have jaded him, but have also made him more savvy. Malignaggi isn’t just street-smart, he’s worldly, especially when it comes to the ills of boxing, as anyone who heard his justifiable tirade after being on the short end of a horrible decision in his first fight against Juan Diaz can attest.

He also uses his tendency to stir the pot to help set up situations for himself. This fight means just as much to Malignaggi as it does to Khan, if not more, and his public taunting of Khan on Twitter actually seemed to help move things along, as evidenced when Golden Boy was attempting to maneuver the fight from the Garden to Detroit:

I put it on Twitter and said, “Punk” – something like that – “you said you’re coming to New York to knock me out and you’re punking out already?” Within about two hours, I got a call from my promoter, “They’re coming to New York, you’re good.”

*****

I think a big part of the reason Malignaggi can relate to his fans is that he remembers being in their shoes. Though he’s found a degree of success – his watch has more ice than Alaska – he strikes me as the same Paulie I discussed Air Jordans with six years ago. The same Paulie who sat in the Garden watching Naseem Hamed in 1997 thinking, in his own words, “Wow, so this is what it’s like to be in the big time in this sport. I gotta have this. I gotta have this.”

Fight begins at 11:25 — it ends at 12:40

Make no mistake, Amir Khan is not a pushover – he destroyed previously unbeaten (and overprotected) Dmitry Salita in 75 seconds. And he has the incomparable Roach, who told me this on Tuesday about Malignaggi: “He’s hittable at times, he’s not a puncher, you don’t really have to be really careful with him. We can kind of attack him a little more aggressively than we would a guy that could punch harder.”

But if Malignaggi can beat Khan, who’s never fought in the United States, he may just talk his way into a huge payday with Pacquiao. (You think he was calling Manny out for the heck of it?)

*****

For the time being, the same guy who cobbled together enough money to get into the Garden as a teenager, dreaming about someday having the spotlight on him, will live for the moment while reflecting on his past, three years after he first earned respect in a fight there against Miguel Cotto.

When I think about it, it’s ironic, it’s funny. Because my career’s on the tail end of it now. I’m 29, I’m not 20, so all these years later…

I’m thirty! How does that make me feel?

(Laughs) Well, boxing is like, we’re not spring chickens, you know?

It’s ironic, it’s funny, but I’m glad I’ve gotten to do it.

Esoteric

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