Imagine Paulie Malignaggi with a devasting right hand.
Don’t laugh. He once may have had one.
Through his first three professional bouts — two in July of 2001 and one in November of that year — Malignaggi stopped his rivals in one, four and three rounds, respectively.
But after scoring his third consecutive knockout, a young Malignaggi suffered the first of numerous injuries that would plague him throughout what has, nevertheless, been a tremendous pro career.
“I’ve had injuries to my right hand a lot, especially during the early part of my career,” said Malignaggi, who turned 33 on Nov. 23. “The first time that I injured my hand was when I knocked out Luis Melendez in my third pro fight. I remember the right hand that knocked him out cold. I felt a sharp pain in my middle and pointer-finger knuckles.
“If you hesitate even to grit your teeth and to brace for the pain, you miss the shot. So it’s things like that that people don’t understand. I’m not Arturo Gatti. I’m a technical fighter that has to rely on timing. I can’t just break my hand and still have that same timing. I have toughed it out throughout fights, but at the same time, the timing on everything changes.”
Malignaggi (32-5, 7 knockouts) has “toughed it out” over the course of a career that has included winning titles in the 140- and 147-pound divisions.
Malignaggi aims to hang tough again on Dec. 7 when he takes on fellow Brooklyn native Zab Judah (42-8, 29 KOs) at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Saturday on Showtime.
It is for that reason, among others, that Judah (42-8, 29 KOs) has so much respect for Malignaggi entering their matchup.
“Time after time, they’ve said that Paulie has no power,” said Judah, who turned 36 last month. “But when he goes in there, he makes the magic happen, and that’s why the call him ‘The Magic Man.’”
It has been that way, said Malignaggi, since the victory over Melendez.
“Over the next year, I dealt with that pain, and then I finally had had enough and saw the doctor about it,” said Malignaggi. “I was told that I had torn the tendons off of both knuckles and that I needed surgery.”
“I was scheduled to fight on the Gatti-Ward II card, however, and no one was gonna prevent me from doing that, because Arturo was my favorite fighter growing up,” said Maliganggi.
“With a chance to be on that undercard, I was not going to miss that. So I told the doctor I was only going to do the surgery after the fight. It almost cost me. The pain in my hand was ridiculous throughout the whole fight. I won the split-decision, and then, I got the surgery.”
After three victories, including a sixth-round stoppage of Kevin Watts in August of 2003, Malignaggi soundly decisioned Delgado over eight rounds in December of 2003 on the undercard of Vitali Klitschko’s second-round knockout of Kirk Johnson.
“I dominated every round, and then, I remember in Round 8, sitting on his jab and waiting to come over the top of it with a sharp, counter-right hand,” said Malignaggi, of the rematch with Delgado. “I saw what I wanted, and I let it go, except that I didn’t close the right hand in time.”
But then came the pain and the injury, yet again.
“I felt the sharpest pain in the scaphoid area of my hand. I remember not throwing the right hand for the rest of the round and the fight, and my hand really blew up afterward. I just iced it in the locker room,” said Malignaggi.
“I was scared of having to miss time again due to potential surgery. So I just hoped that icing the hand would get it better. For the next year, it was really tender. With the hand, I just wrapped it carefully and I even taped over the skin in the gym before I would wrap it.”
Still, Malignaggi’s stock increased over his next five decision victories.
“It was during this time, even in the gym, that I felt I was really coming into my own,” said Malignaggi. “I was becoming a real pro and feeling calm and learning and really making progress.”
Malignaggi’s wins, during that time, included those over Rocky Martinez, Ramiro Cano and Sandro Casamonica.
But even as his stature increased, Malignaggi battled with a brittle right hand.
“After the Cano fight, even the old knuckle injury had flared up. The next six months in the gym were tough,” said Malignaggi. “Because I was basically trying to come up with alternate ways to of fighting without having to use much of my right hand. I remember thinking ‘I can win, I just have to avoid exchanges and stay out of the pocket.’ You can’t get into exchanges when you’re a one-handed fighter.”
“That was my first 12-rounder. I figured I could still do it. But as the fight went on, and after I had grabbed an early advantage, my right hand was absolutely killing me, man,” said Malignaggi.
“What’s worse is that even my left hand was hurting from jabbing this guy’s bald head all night long. An accidental head butt cut him in Round 7 and they had to go to the cards, so I got saved. I had no hands left. I won a technical decision.”
Malignaggi fought just twice more after that before his first big title shot against Miguel Cotto in June of 2006, his triumphs during that time coming via eight- and 10-round decisions over Jeremy Yelton and Donald Camarena in August of 2005 and February of 2006.
“That time period until midway through 2004 was when I felt that I was really coming into my own. But instead of going forward, I went backward. The activity dropped, and I only fought once during 2005. What’s worse is that I couldn’t train for a long time. My hand had completely shattered in the Casamonica fight,” said Malignaggi.
“It took nine f___ing hours to repair it and to put it back together in a surgery where they grafted bones from both sides of my hips as well as artificial bones into my hand. I was fortunate that I came out of this part of my career. But I was not only too stubborn to give up my dream, but I was also broke.”
Malignaggi, therefore, could not pass up an opportunity to face Cotto, to whom he lost a 12-round unanimous decision in a failed bid to earn the WBO’s 140-pound belt.
“When I fought Miguel Cotto in 2006,” said Malignaggi, “there wasn’t going to be anything to take away my will to win.”
Against Judah, Malignaggi will attempt to restore the magic in his career by rebounding from June’s split-decision loss to Adrien Broner, a fighter who turned 24 in July after having dethroned Malignaggi as WBA 147-pound beltholder.
Malignaggi had won the belt in April of 2012 with a ninth-round stoppage of previously unbeaten Ukrainian Vyacheslav Senchenko, who represented Malignaggi’s fifth straight victory as a welterweight during a run that had included two knockout wins.
“There are three fights where I feel that I scored bad knockouts, and that was against Luis Melendez, Anthony Simpkins [TKO 2] and Kevin Watts. I have scored several knockdowns during my career in fights that went the distance, including in the first Lovemore Ndou fight,” said Malignaggi, referring to a unanimous decision that dethroned Ndou for the IBF’s junior welterweight belt in June of 2007 before he defeated Ndou by split-decision in their rematch in May of 2008.
“I dropped Ndou with a sharp right hand in the first fight. That’s a guy who had never been stopped, so my right hand has been there during certain moments in my career. But my disappointment isn’t the fact that I might have more knockouts. My disappointment is the fact that I might have developed into a better overall fighter had I been able to have a healthy right hand, day in and day out in the gym in those days. Because those are the days when you’re learning and soaking in all kinds of knowledge.”
Before facing Broner, Malignaggi had earned a split-decision victory over Mexico City’s Pablo Cesar Cano at Barclays Center in October of 2012.
Broner represented Malignaggi’s first loss since falling by 11th-round knockout to Amir Khan to as a junior welterweight at New York’s Madison Square Garden in May of 2010.
“I remember I didn’t have the confidence to counter over the top of a jab with my right hand for years. Moves and punches like that are split-second things,” said Malignaggi.
“But I will always feel that had I not those injuries, my progress and development would have been to a much higher degree.”
In addition, junior middleweights Austin Trout (26-1, 14 KOs) and Erislandy Lara (18-1-2, 12 KOs) will meet in a clash of left-handers, and WBC super middleweight titleholder Sakio Bika (32-5-2, 21 KOs) will defend against Anthony Dirrell (26-0, 22 KOs).
Photos / Naoki Fukuda, Tom Hogan-Hoganphotos / Golden Boy,
Lem Satterfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org