When The Magic Is Gone: The Curtain Closes For Paulie “The Magic Man” Malignaggi

NEW YORK, N.Y. — Paulie Malignaggi looks on after loosing to Danny Garcia following their welterweight bout at Barclays Center on Aug. 1 in Brooklyn; Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

There was a moment Saturday during the post-fight interview after his 9th round technical knockout loss to Danny Garcia where Paulie Malignaggi began to choke back tears. The Brooklyn crowd, many of whom had supported their fellow Brooklynite from the very beginning of his career, started cheering him on. Malignaggi, face busted, cut badly over his right eye, acknowledged them for perhaps the final time. Or at least, let’s hope it’s the final time. The brash, cocky, machine-gun-talking Italian who got to the pinnacle of the sport despite having zero power, is absolutely shot.

There were few who championed the fight when it was announced that junior welterweight king Danny Garcia would be jumping up to face Malignaggi at welterweight on an ESPN broadcast of Al Haymon’s “Premier Boxing Champions.” In fact, the derision was felt far and wide. And frankly, it wasn’t undeserved. Garcia has frequently drawn the ire of most fans for his recent list of opponents. After scoring the biggest win of his career, a decision victory over Lucas Matthysse, he’s basically been on autopilot — beating up on hopeless fighters like Rod Salka, or scoring VERY iffy wins over Mauricio Herrera and Lamont Peterson. Fans expected something big in his first fight at the 147-pound limit.

What they got was Malignaggi, the light-hitting, slick boxer who hadn’t fought since April of 2014. It wasn’t just the layoff that drew red flags for this bout, though that certainly didn’t help, but it was the fact that he’d been utterly destroyed in his last outing. Shawn Porter bounced him all over the ring, and the normally elusive, fast-punching boxer was nowhere to be found. Instead, he was replaced by a tentative, twitchy mess who got railed with every punch. After losing by 4th round knockout, Malignaggi contemplated retirement. But for him (and pretty much anybody who’s ever put on the gloves at the professional level), there was one more fight. It did not go well.

If Porter showed us how badly Malignaggi had faded, the much-maligned Garcia laid it out in boldface, underlined, with about 57 exclamation points. It was an ugly fight, with Paulie landing little more than a few jabs and a decent uppercut, while Garcia landed some solid body shots, some right hands, and missed with basically everything else. Put it this way — Garcia looked TERRIBLE, and the fight still wasn’t remotely competitive. The always-game Malignaggi tried desperately to stay in the fight, but his jab frequently came up short, and even when he landed a punch, it looked like a boy hitting a man; Garcia never so much as budged.

It has to be terrifying for a fighter who made his living almost solely on reflexes when he realizes that those reflexes are no longer there. Some fighters can compensate for the loss, similarly to someone who loses one of their senses — the others get heightened. Shane Mosley’s ridiculous hand speed started to slip, so he fought bigger guys and bared down on every shot to extend his career. Bernard Hopkins used his wealth of knowledge and defensive skill to keep going, and he’ll probably be doing this well into his 70s. Juan Manuel Marquez lost some of his defensive skill, so he just kept getting bigger. And bigger. And bigger.

Malignaggi, who recently compared himself to pitching legend Greg Maddux, didn’t have anything else to utilize. Maddux, like Malignaggi, never had an elite fastball, but he used movement and accuracy to succeed. The problem is that in boxing, nobody strikes out. Malignaggi simply didn’t have the pop to earn the respect he desperately needed to keep guys away from him. Once the mover could no longer move, he was basically helpless against top-level fighters.

Over nine years ago, Malignaggi fought Miguel Cotto and took a horrific beating. Cotto broke his face in round two, and teed off on him for the rest of the fight. But Malignaggi’s heart — one of his best attributes — wouldn’t let him succumb to the pounding. He fought back, won some rounds, and won the respect of everybody who watched. He parlayed that fight into a couple of belts, a ton of money, and huge fights with some of the biggest names in the sport including Amir Khan and Ricky Hatton.

It would be difficult to name ANYBODY with a knockout ratio locked in the teens who had a more successful career in recent history. He didn’t simply overachieve, he overachieved while staying wildly popular despite hearing the judges’ scorecards after every fight. Show me a guy who can deliver 10,000 people into an arena to watch a decision and I’ll show you a genius-level marketer.

And that was Malignaggi. Fast punching, fast talking, gigantic heart. The problem is that once a fighter goes to battle with nothing but heart, he gets hurt. The good news is that despite being one of the more polarizing figures in boxing social media, nobody can dispute the fact that he’s brilliant behind a microphone. He’s outstanding as Showtime’s expert commentator, and he’ll be doing that for years to come.

And he’ll no longer have to take shots to the head to be heard. He can let his mouth go and be paid handsomely for it. The magic might be gone, but he’ll still be heard.

That’s not a bad way to go out.

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