Sunday in Donetsk, Ukraine, brash New York native Paulie Malignaggi will look to win a world title in his second weight class by challenging WBA welterweight titlist Vyacheslav Senchenko. For Malignaggi, the fight's very existence is a representation of where his career now resides. His time at the Last Chance Motel has arrived, and whether or not he gets back out again is a serious question.
For those who believe that Malignaggi is in danger of being "screwed" by faulty hometown judging on this road trip, it would be impossible to totally quell those fears, given that boxing judging is so routinely either crooked, incompetent, or both. But the more pressing matter for Paulie and his fans should be something that Paulie can (or perhaps cannot) do something about. Forget the judges. Malignaggi is going to have a hard enough time simply winning this fight, no matter who's scoring it.
At 31, Brooklyn's "Magic Man" is at this point years past the speedy, slick character who held the IBF junior welterweight title from 2007-08. He lifted that title from Lovemore N'dou in June 2007, in what was probably his best overall performance to date. Malignaggi had it all going for him that night, and boxed circles around a gritty, tough veteran fighter.
That moment, which came a full year after Miguel Cotto absolutely demolished Malignaggi and beat his face into a bloody, broken mess, was short-lived. Malignaggi never really was among the elite, and the elite have proven that time and time again. Malignaggi has been good, but never great, and his best days were packed into a very short time frame.
Malignaggi's very next fight, and first title defense, came in January 2008 on Showtime. He was matched up against Herman Ngoudjo, a Cameroonian fighter based in Montreal who had made a bit of a name himself the prior year. Twelve months before getting the title shot against Malignaggi in Atlantic City, Ngoudjo had been signed as fodder by HBO for a lame double-header pitting Ricky Hatton against Juan Urango and Jose Luis Castillo against Ngoudjo, with the goal to lead to Hatton vs Castillo.
Hatton vs Castillo did end up happening later in the year, with Hatton trouncing the once-durable Mexican veteran and ending his real career, sending him spiraling into the forgotten abyss where he can't even get a win over the likes of Jorge Paez Jr or so much as compete with Alfonso Gomez. But it almost didn't, and warning signs on Castillo's deterioration were clear when the unheralded, unknown Ngoudjo took him to the limit, Castillo escaping by the slimmest of margins via split decision (115-113, 115-113, 113-115).
Ngoudjo again turned up against Malignaggi, and in a fight that didn't make a lot of waves, tested the cocky titleholder and made him work for a 12-round decision win. Malignaggi then tried to set up a fight with Hatton, but was forced into a rematch with N'dou. Again, Hatton shared a bill with a future opponent, this time in Manchester, a card that didn't appeal to the major American networks and wound up live in the afternoon on Versus.
As Hatton sort of wearily got by Juan Lazcano in the main event, Malignaggi's night was again a near-disaster, as the rematch looked absolutely nothing like the first fight. For one thing, Malignaggi's decision to wear very long hair extensions was a blunder of hilariously stupid proportions, as the tied-back faux hair kept coming loose and becoming a hazard to anyone within range of his hair whips, constantly getting into his own eyes. As they kept trying to tape the pretend hair back, eventually the corner had to give the fighter a between-rounds haircut, which must have been the first and only time that has ever happened.
Beyond the hair, what's often forgotten is that Malignaggi eked out a split decision that night in a fight N'dou had a case for winning. What had happened within eleven months' time that had suddenly made N'dou, himself no spring chicken by then (by a couple years before, in fact), so much more competitive than Malignaggi?
It wasn't the hair and it wasn't jet lag. The most realistic and logical explanation is simple: Paulie Malignaggi isn't really as good as he looked that first time out against Lovemore N'dou, and he never really was. It was his perfect evening in the ring, when everything clicked and everything had come together for him.
I'm not saying that Paul Malignaggi is not a good fighter. Quite frankly, for a guy with absolutely no power whatsoever and a history of pretty severe hand injuries, Malignaggi's professional career has been a truly phenomenal success. He's persevered through the hard times and never given up on himself, even when it must have been tempting. And he has been tempted.
Following his escape from the N'dou rematch -- which was really quite pointless in the end as Malignaggi had to forfeit the IBF title going into the Hatton bout anyway -- Paulie got chance No. 2 to run with one of the big dogs at 140. Cotto had beaten the living shit out of him in '06, which I do not say lightly or with any disrespect. When I say that Miguel Cotto beat the living shit out of Malignaggi, I say that with the absolute utmost respect.
What Cotto did to Malignaggi on that New York night in June 2006 would have gotten most guys the hell out of the ring. But Paulie hung around through all 12 rounds, taking a serious, damaging beating, and proving that sure, he might talk, and maybe he can't really back it up, but you're not going to just knock him out and be done with it. Cotto pretty much smashed his face in but couldn't get him out. It was one of the most admirable beatings I've ever seen taken in a boxing ring in a fight I watched live.
Hatton, who had recently hooked up with trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr in what was either a seriously ill-advised mismatch or something done mostly for public relations reasons (I never could tell, honestly), pretty much ran over Malignaggi, too. Ricky was coming off of the bad loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr in December 2007, and a rather spotty performance against Lazcano where at one point it appeared his shoelace and the referee pitched in on saving the popular Hatton from some genuine trouble.
With that loss, Paulie was 0-for-2 against the big boys, the true best fighters in his weight class. He took a tune-up win the next April before signing on to face former lightweight titlist Juan Diaz, whose own career had taken a rather sharp downturn. Malignaggi lost the August fight in Houston, and whether or not you believe Paulie was robbed, we can all agree that Diaz did not win the fight 118-110, as it was scored on Gale Van Hoy's card.
Malignaggi raged on live TV, and became a hero to Joe Hardcoreboxingfan:
That post-fight outburst -- which so many boxing fans totally identified with -- saw praise heaped upon Malignaggi for his brutal honesty and raw, passionate emotion. It also probably was the biggest reason that Paulie actually did get a rematch in December, on a neutral site in Chicago. Malignaggi outboxed Diaz, got the score cards, and moved on.
The fights with Diaz set Malignaggi up for another shot at a world-class fighter, Amir Khan, in May of 2010. Khan, who had questions about his chin, didn't figure to be thoroughly tested by Malignaggi. By this point in time, even coming off of the win over Diaz, Malignaggi was a totally known quantity and rather obviously past his short peak. Khan walked all over Malignaggi at MSG's Theater in New York City en route to an 11th round stoppage.
In three fights against true top fighters (Diaz's career was starting to become a bit of a mess by the time he fought Paulie), Malignaggi has gone 0-3, and never come close to winning any of the fights. Cotto, Hatton, and Khan all wiped him out. Malignaggi didn't just lose, he wasn't remotely competitive.
Since the loss to Khan, Malignaggi has signed on with Golden Boy in the role of ... whatever it really is. The company has shown little to no interest in giving him any type of push. He's moved up to welterweight, and is 3-0 at 147 pounds, but the wins have not been impressive. He took out battered journeyman Michael Lozada in December 2010, then scored a pair of pay-per-view undercard wins last year over Jose Miguel Cotto and Orlando Lora. Neither win showed Malignaggi looking like any type of actual threat in his new weight class.
But here we are, and Paulie's getting one final chance to win a world title. He has to travel to Ukraine to do it. Golden Boy and Union Boxing put in purse bids earlier this year for the fight, with nobody surprised when Vyacheslav Senchenko's promoters put in what most would call a very high bid ($1 million). Malignaggi responded with delusional outrage and disappointment, as if he expected Golden Boy to spend that much money on a fight that had no market in the States and wouldn't be attractive to American TV networks.
What once was an HBO main eventer, even if only briefly, is now Paulie Malignaggi the worn-out has-been. It's a harsh thing to say, but boxing is a harsh business, and there is currently zero interest in Malignaggi's career outside of his most dedicated fans. The show is only available in the U.S. through second-rate pay-per-view distributor Integrated Sports, airing with a $24.95 price tag at 1 p.m. New York time on a Sunday afternoon.
This fight, to American audiences, is an afterthought, something that may as well not even be happening. But for Malignaggi, this has to be a big fight, this has to be something he treats like it's that night against Miguel Cotto, when he got his first chance to become a real star six years ago.
Paulie has failed against Cotto, Hatton, and Khan. Fortunately for Malignaggi, Senchenko is not Cotto, he's not Hatton, and he's not Khan. If Malignaggi is going to win a world title at 147 pounds, this guy is about as good an opponent as he could hope for -- by which I mean Senchenko is about as mediocre a fighter as possible to (1) hold a world title for years, and (2) potentially lose it to a deteriorated, heavy version of Paul Malignaggi.
Senchenko (32-0, 21 KO) has a record that is doubly misleading. The actual numbers, without an examination of who they were built against, may lead one to believe that Senchenko is a great fighter. I saw someone once say that Miguel Cotto was fighting "a badass" and then cited the record of his upcoming opponent. That supposed badass was then-unbeaten Yuri Foreman, as weak a "world champion" as we've seen in the past decade.
But focusing too much on just the record is also a problem when talking about the 35-year-old titleholder. Though his opposition has been quite frankly appallingly weak for someone who gets to say they're "world champion" in professional boxing, he likely could beat better fighters. Probably not a whole lot better, but better enough that his wins wouldn't be totally disregarded as they can be currently. His best win came against Yuriy Nuzhnenko in April 2009, which gained him the WBA title, and since then he's defended just three times, beating Motoki Sasaki, Charlie Jose Navarro, and Marco Antonio Avendano. In other words, Senchenko won the title with a decent but totally non-special victory, and has defended it against pure also-rans.
That doesn't mean he can't box, though. Senchenko is a truly competent fighter who makes few mistakes, sort of the template for your stereotypical Eastern European technician. He's not a big puncher, but he's not feather-fisted and definitely holds the power advantage.
Three years ago or so, Malignaggi may have had a hand speed advantage, but at this point it's probably even, maybe slightly to Senchenko. Malignaggi's hands haven't looked quick in a while, even in the fights with Diaz. Paulie has been gutting through his recent fights more on solid boxing IQ than anything. His legs aren't really with him anymore either, so he doesn't move the way he did when he was at his most effective. Watching tape of the 2007 Malignaggi compared to the 2011 Malignaggi is pretty striking. He's got the same intentions, but his body just doesn't do what it used to. He's had some tough nights in the ring, and they've taken their toll.
Can Malignaggi outbox Senchenko enough to get the win on the road? Look, I think it would be a stretch to say that Malignaggi at this point can outbox Senchenko enough to get a win at his old high school gymnasium on Paulie Malignaggi Day.
I'm sure to some people who want to mostly treat boxing like it's some type of love affair and not a sport will read this and think I'm being incredibly negative toward Malignaggi, so let me add this for the warm fuzzies: I quite like Paulie Malignaggi. He's smart, he's passionate, he's funny, and he's not a dummy. He's got a long future ahead of him behind the microphone, because he breaks down fights well and is an honest person who doesn't sell a line of bullshit. When he says he means to do something, he really tries to do it. It doesn't always work, but he tries.
I'm sure on Sunday he's going to give his best to win this fight. I just don't think he's got much left physically at this level, and we're a ways off from a truly world-class fight with this one. Senchenko is a back-end top ten guy at welterweight in all reality. The problem for Paulie on Sunday won't be that he's fighting in Donetsk, and the judges shouldn't be an immediate concern. What should trouble Malignaggi and his supporters is the reality that Malignaggi is going to Ukraine for this fight because he's slipped so far that it's not viable anywhere else. Money doesn't always reflect quality in this sport, but in this case, I'm afraid that it does.
Malignaggi pulling this one out would be a great story, and one I'd be happy to tell on this site, and if he wins the fight, he'll have to really earn it, and it will be legit. It would also possibly be the best win of his pro career. Does anyone think he has a career night in him at 31, with all the injuries, with his skills eroded, with his non-existent power an even bigger issue at a heavier weight? Senchenko UD-12.