It was a story the New York boxing press happily got behind, and I’m as guilty as the next guy for buying into it. One of our own, Brooklyn’s Paul Malignaggi, would be taking center stage in the Big Room, Madison Square Garden. By all rights, he didn’t deserve to be there, facing arguably the best light welterweight in the world, WBO champion Miguel Angel Cotto.
Some undeniable facts: Paulie (21-0, 5) has been matched soft; fought almost exclusively in local club shows; can’t break a smoke ring; and has a history of chronic hand problems. Cotto (26-0, 22), on the other hand, is a serious puncher that relishes the left hook to the body, but is equally comfortable boxing. He’s huge for the weight class, often outweighing competitors by ten pounds when entering the ring. Most importantly, he’s beaten a virtual Murderer’s Row of opponents—his last ten being superior to Malignaggi’s toughest.
Cotto didn’t represent a big step up for Malignaggi; he was an entire flight of stairs.
And yet as the fight approached, the hype for the local kid snowballed, and the fight started to look more and more interesting. By the time we submitted our predictions, about half of us were picking the upset—odds makers be damned!
We’re not total suckers. Malignaggi has terrific hand- and foot-speed. Great reflexes. He might have the best jab in the division. He corners like a Ferrari and has an instinct for the geometry of the ring. He’s a marvel in the gym, humbling the popular middleweight John Duddy in sparring. He’s as flashy as a prime Camacho, Sr., and just as brash. Can he talk trash? He’s the Louisville Lip, only with frosted hair and a can of hair spray. His greatest strength, his most persuasive quality, is a preternatural self-confidence. He never doubts himself. Those who know him well say he had it from day one.
Add in one more element to balance the scales: Cotto can no longer make weight. Or, rather, he can do it but pays dearly. (That he weighed in below the limit—138.25—doesn’t compute.) Three days before the fight, at the final presser, he looked like death warmed over—hollow-cheeked, pale, dry, wretched. Meanwhile, Paulie could’ve modeled for Rodin. What would happen if he couldn’t get to Paulie early, we in the press all wondered. At the weigh-in Cotto looked worse, a specter. Soon as he made weight, he downed a quart of that nasty Pedialite as if it was ambrosia.
Amazing what a day can do—or thirty-three hours to be exact. When Cotto did his ringwalk, his body was inflated with dense muscle, he had color in his face, and his previously sunken features were now full. He might’ve put on twenty pounds.
The majority of the 14,369 in attendance were chanting “Cotto.” Was the hometown kid the Italian-American from Bensonhurst, or the Puerto Rican from Caguas who barely spoke English? Cotto was an old friend, having dispatched Muhamad Abdulaev here one year ago. Even then, he came with a built-in fan-base; the boxing-crazy Puerto Ricans are desperate for another Tito. Malignaggi had never been on this type of stage, but the-man-you-love-to-hate is a part he plays to the hilt. He was more focused than arrogant as the two locked in on each other during referee Steve Smoger’s instructions. I’d never seen him pay such respect—usually he does a shimmy, as if overtaken by an uncontrollable shiver. This was the first guy he’s faced who summoned a graver side we’d never seen before.
The first round explained his seriousness. Cotto came out hard, and Malignaggi stood his ground and showed he has no plans of running. While in a furious clinch, an accidental clash of heads opened up a dangerous cut under Malignaggi’s left eyebrow. The sight of blood excited Cotto and he went in for the kill. Malignaggi fought back bravely—refusing to give an inch despite a clear discrepancy in power.
Lucky for the Brooklynite, he brought with him ace cutman Danny Milano. Milano, who would have a busy night and crouched in front of the boxer till it was over, controlled the bleeding. The cut never became an issue. (However, when it occasionally opened up, it was unsightly and might’ve influenced the judges.)
A minute into the second, a left hook to the head caught Malignaggi while he was backing up with right hand down. He got up quickly but it was a solid shot, and might’ve been the blow that fractured his right cheekbone. In a couple of rounds the swelling became grotesque, the size of an orange; Cotto’s natural left hook continued to find a home on the shattered bones.
Barely warmed up, Malignaggi was already in unfamiliar territory. Another might’ve panicked or folded, but he collected himself and was surprisingly aggressive for the rest of the round. Cotto was patient, a boa constrictor with endless coils to wrap around its prey.
The third and fourth were fairly even, depending on what you’re looking for. One stiff jab or clean left hook from the heavy-handed Cotto equaled eight of Paulie’s. Cotto showed no respect for his power—even dropping his normally high guard at the end of the third and inviting punches. But he often went into a defensive shell and Malignaggi got off crisp combinations that separated his gloves and earned points. When Cotto decided to throw, it was behind a hard jab and a steady body attack.
I gave Malignaggi the fifth and the sixth. He settled into a nice rhythm of combination punching that kept Cotto defensive. The shots were only enough to keep him at bay, but that was his game from the start—a highwrie act with no net. He stood right in front of the puncher—there but not there—and that’s what truly impressed. It reminded me of a young Chris Byrd against those behemoths. That he did this with a mug that was morphing into John Merrick’s, earns him more kudos. When Cotto opened up, Malignaggi slipped, slided, and blocked with style. Sometimes he’d turn him and force him to reset. Well-timed, lightning jabs regularly met Cotto’s nose when he tried to come through the front door.
Of course, Malignaggi was fighting his tail off while never harming the Boricua. When it was Cotto’s turn, you feared for Paulie’s safety.
The second half of the fight was a slow, painful, slaughter for Malignaggi. That’s not to say it was a blowout. He never once showed a sign of surrender, he continued to have his moments, but the toll of Cotto’s blunt, disfiguring blows couldn’t be ignored. Never much for infighting, Paulie smartly clinched when he could. Between rounds eight and nine, Paulie looked like a wounded animal whose guts and pride and tremendous condition were keeping him in the fight. His cutman figured using the enswsell on his swollen cheekbone was pointless. In the other corner, Cotto exhibited his trademark calm, reminding me of that line about Hannibal Lecter’s heart rate staying in the low 80s when he performed his handiwork.
In the ninth, the pro-Cotto crowd began to whistle a sound I’d never heard before. I later learned that the noise emulates the coqui, a species of tree frogs indigenous to Puerto Rico. It sounded like birdsong, and apparently this beloved creature sings around bedtime. Cotto was putting Malignaggi to sleep. The music seemed to further relax the crowd’s native son, who winked to someone at ringside while Malignaggi had a glove retaped. Perhaps overconfident, Malignaggi caught Cotto with a right hook upstairs that knocked him backwards. Cotto was just off balance but before seeing the replay, the shot looked worse.
The damage to Malignaggi worsened as Cotto aimed to end the show. Along with the fractured right cheekbone and the cut above the eye, he suffered a broken nose and dislocated jaw. Any number of stiff jabs might have injured the nose. A flush left uppercut in the eleventh could have altered the jaw. George Forman, who did a (surprisingly) commendable job as a commentator for the pay-per-view broadcast, focused on Malignaggi’s valor. “I’m forever fully impressed with Malignaggi’s guts and skills,” he said. “He’s a throwback, a slick warrior.” Indeed, even the legion of Paulie haters will now have to refrain from calling him “a punk,” or “soft.”
Foreman didn’t focus much on Cotto. One takes for granted what an excellent pro he is. He’s neither flashy nor spectacular in any one category, but when all the elements are combined, he just might be a great fighter. In the final round, knowing he was way ahead on points, he could have taken it easy. Instead, he punished Paulie as if it was the first frame, wanting that 23rd stoppage. Maybe he wanted the inexperienced boxer to not just end up in the hospital (a given), but to not remember how he got there. The proud Malignaggi wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Scores were 116-111 twice, 115-112.
Malignaggi will be out for at least six months. If he can retain that self-confidence that one associates with him, he might go on to win a major belt someday. He’s only 25 and for all his preening and braggadocio, humble when it comes to mastering his craft. With a frog in his throat, and his once-clean features now a wreak, he said, “I wanted to win so badly.” At the post-fight press conference, Cotto said he’s moving up to welterweight. There are no guarantees he will be a force at that weight. Here’s hoping he reconsiders and defends his title one more time. How big would Cotto vs. Hatton be? As they say in Paulie’s neighborhood, fougetaboutit!
Some boxing fans were offended that Tommy Z (Zbikowski) had his pro debut just before the main event. 214-pounder Tommy Z is a star football player for Notre Dame, but has boxed since he was nine, compiling an amateur record of 75-15. He faced an amiable tomato can named Robert Bell (2-2, 2). Was this a novelty act? Sure. Can Mr. Z fight? Yeah, I think. The fight only lasted 49 seconds. Z caught Bell with a left hook to the body and doubled it to the head, which sent him reeling to the ropes. Z landed another big hand and followed with extremely fast and hard double left hooks to the head. Bell wanted no more, but the ref began his count and tacitly pressured him to continue. Z moved briskly towards him and hit him flush on the jaw with a fully extended lead right hand. The shot whipped the opponent’s 227 body like a top. Bell didn’t fall, but he was out. The ref immediately stopped the fight.
Tommy Z is a phenomenal athlete, and boxing is apparently in his blood. In an alternate world he could be groomed as a cruiserweight (he’s only 5’11’’ and looks like he could make 200). But, whether he fights a couple times again or not, the NFL will come calling soon and that is where his future lies. Furthermore, he will never be put in with someone tough enough to test him. If that happens, it’ll be a fluke. Well, it was fun while it lasted. And if he ends up being a bust in the NFL, and still has two functional knees, Bob Arum will welcome him back with open arms.
Popular Irish middleweight John Duddy (now 17-0, 15) faced arguably his toughest opponent in Freddie Cuevas (now 25-9-1, 17). Cuevas has been in with Jermain Taylor, Kingsley Ikeke and Kassim Ouma. Duddy joins the list of prospect/contenders who have bested him. Cuevas’corner stopped it before the eighth—his nose was bleeding profusely—but only one judge had given him a round (the first, and I’m not sure why?) before then. Duddy doesn’t like to give up rounds and it’s doubtful he’s legitimately lost more than a couple in his young career. He was typically susceptible to Cuevas’ counter right hands and occasionally ate some jabs he should’ve blocked or slipped. His trainer, Harry Keitt, has been trying to tighten up his D, but this might be as good as it gets in that regard—luckily he seems to take a good shot. He’s essentially an offensive machine with great stamina. Sometimes he looks like a ferocious puncher, other times he lands all night and doesn’t get a knockdown. But opponents never walk to him and they always leave the ring looking worse for wear. Duddy can put five thousand fannies in the Garden, and he hasn’t faced anything resembling a true test yet. Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. A collision course with Matthew Macklin looks inevitable.