Paulie Malignaggi, for all he's accomplished, has never been considered a truly elite fighter. The light-punching Brooklyn talker has, however, won world titles at both 140 and 147 pounds, competed against some of the best, and consistently defied the odds, utilizing superior ring IQ en route to a solid pro record of 33-6.
On Saturday, he'll face Danny Garcia, who moves up to 147 pounds after a strong run at 140 that weakened in its latter days. Garcia (30-0, 17 KO) is unbeaten, but many would argue that he shouldn't be. Mauricio Herrera gave Garcia all he could handle in March 2014, Garcia escaping with a majority decision win. The same happened this past April, when Garcia faced Lamont Peterson at a 143-pound catchweight, once again leaving with a majority decision victory some believed he did not deserve.
At 27, Garcia is still very much a young man in the sport, and the best may still be to come. But the seeds of doubt have been sowed a few times over. Between the controversial wins over Herrera and Peterson, Garcia took even more heat for a laughable second round knockout win over Rod Salka, an unqualified mid-tier fighter who was set up for Garcia to blast in a Showtime-televised main event last August.
After those three fights with Herrera, Salka, and Peterson, all of them hurting Garcia's reputation to some degree, it's easy to forget that two years ago next month, he beat Lucas Matthysse on the Mayweather-Canelo PPV undercard, a fight where he was picked by many experts to lose, expected to be overwhelmed by a superior puncher in Matthysse.
Instead, it was Garcia doing the damage, opening up a cut on the Argentine smasher and wisely picking it apart en route to a strong decision win. The Philadelphia-bred fighter also has wins over Kendall Holt, Erik Morales (twice), Amir Khan, and Zab Judah, dating back to 2011.
But as consistent a winner as Garcia has been, he's failed to get serious respect as a top-tier fighter himself, though he's been recognized as the No. 1 man at 140 pounds. There has been a sort of smoke and mirrors aura about Garcia, that he's certainly a good fighter, but just as certainly not a great one, and that any fight now, he was due to lose. An off night against Herrera seemed as though it may have handed him that first L, but Herrera came up short in the eyes of the judges. The same goes for Peterson.
Malignaggi, 34, has been here several times over. He fought Miguel Cotto way back in 2006, getting physically trounced by a stronger man, but never seeming truly outmatched. Though Malignaggi left that fight with pretty nasty injuries -- Cotto was at his seek-and-destroy best at that time -- he hung in there for 12 gritty rounds.
Malignaggi's losses may wind up being the story of his career more than any of his wins, but on Saturday, he gets a chance to score what would be a career-best victory. Losses to Cotto, Ricky Hatton, Juan Diaz (highly controversial and avenged), Amir Khan, Adrien Broner (controversial), and Shawn Porter are nothing to be ashamed of, and in two cases (Diaz and Broner), he was seen as robbed by at least a sizable portion of the fan base.
But where are the notable wins? Diaz, a creaky Zab Judah, Vyacheslav Senchenko -- those are probably the three best Ws of Paulie's career. Garcia, an in-prime champion with no losses, would be his biggest win by a good bit.
So why take Malignaggi seriously? If he hasn't done something on this level before, why could he do it at 35?
The answer lies in the Mauricio Herrera fight, where Garcia struggled mightily with an awkward righty whose intelligent style gave him absolute fits. Garcia never did truly figure out Herrera in that fight, and while it's true that Herrera is probably a better fighter right now than Malignaggi, Paulie's got the smarts to watch that fight, see what he might be able to incorporate, and then go about his own plan in addition.
Malignaggi is still a good boxer. His trucking at the hands of a physical force in Shawn Porter in April 2014, his last fight, doesn't reflect what we are likely to see on Saturday. Garcia is not Porter -- he might be better than Showtime Shawn in some respects, but he definitely doesn't fight like him, doesn't have the same strengths or flaws. Prior to that, Paulie was still looking very sharp in 2013, with the win over Judah in December and the highly debated loss to Adrien Broner.
It's hard to tell what sort of Malignaggi we'll have on Saturday, though. Is he there to win, or just to cash a good paycheck? Paulie has focused largely on his commentary career, which is his long-term job, and hasn't fought in 16 months. That's a pretty lengthy layoff for any fighter, let alone one who's 35 and lost badly in his last outing.
Garcia will be expected to win, and one could argue that he should win fairly easily. Malignaggi is past his prime and may just be physically worn out. He's indicated in recent times that training camps have started to take a toll on him, and he's made no secret of the fact that he doesn't see himself fighting too many more times. In fact, he's said he's comfortable with the idea of never fighting again. Fighters who have a foot out the door in that way are often as good as finished, and don't retain the will to win that they had when the next payday came from that night's fight. Malignaggi is no longer really in that situation. He's got a steady job with Showtime and CBS, and also a potential future as a trainer, if he wants to go that route, having dabbled a bit thus far.
Garcia, meanwhile, is in need of some image rehab, whether he likes it or not. As much as he may talk about how things don't bother him, Garcia is an image-heavy fighter, and people talking about him getting gift decisions and fighting cherry-picked foes no doubt bothers him. And Malignaggi, for all his veteran savvy, is seen by the majority as another cherry-picked showcase opponent.
If Garcia hasn't learned from the Herrera fight in particular, this could be a long night for him. He can't afford to overlook Malignaggi, and needs to expect to face the best version of Malignaggi, even if that's completely unlikely. Even in a world where Malignaggi has been victim to controversy and Garcia a beneficiary of it, there stands a legitimate chance that Paulie can pull this off if Garcia is expecting a cake walk, and hasn't prepared himself for a fighter who can be incredibly frustrating in very simple ways, just by not making bad mistakes, something that Garcia has shown a knack for capitalizing on against guys like Khan, Judah, Holt, and Matthysse.
No one's going to tell you that Garcia-Malignaggi is a blockbuster fight, or that it's the sort of thing we hope to see regularly from PBC on ESPN. But there is a bit of danger here, too. and it should not be ignored. As long as Paulie Malignaggi is in shape, he can be a troublesome opponent for someone like Danny Garcia.