Former two-division world titleholder Paulie Malignaggi is making a ring return of sorts more than two years after he retired from boxing after a 16-year career.
Malignaggi, 38, has signed a two-year contract to fight in the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship, with his first bout to take place in June, likely in Manchester, New Hampshire.
BKFC founder and president David Feldman announced the signing on Thursday, giving the fledgling promotion its first name boxer to cross over to its form of combat, which is essentially fought under traditional boxing rules but, as the name says, without gloves and with fully exposed knuckles.
"I didn't have a lot of desire to come back and box, so something had to tickle my fancy. This did," Malignaggi told ESPN. "This is thinking outside the box. Before boxing I was in a lot of street fights. In a street fight you're wearing your bare knuckles. This is sort of similar to a street fight, but I can use my boxing skill set.
"When I look at BKFC there's a niche there and money to be made and a vacuum in talent, and I feel if I get in there there's a lot of damage I can do."
Malignaggi said he will continue calling boxing matches for Showtime, where he has worked as an analyst for many years, while he moves into competing in BKFC. Feldman founded BKFC in 2018, and it is regulated in three states -- Wyoming, Mississippi and New Hampshire -- with others in the works.
"BKFC is very similar to boxing, mainly boxing rules, and I like my style in these fights," Malignaggi said. "I feel like I have a lot of advantages. Yeah, you have to worry about your hands, but this sport is gaining popularity and growing little by little. A guy like me is exactly what the doctor ordered. They needed a boxer with a name, and I have a name and I can fight. Once people do see it and get a look they will like it, and I can bring more eyeballs to the sport.
"I've been signed up to bring more attention to the sport, and I can do that and I can make a name for myself."
Feldman said he believes Malignaggi is the kind of name fighter who will draw people to at least sample the sport, which has been on pay-per-view so far, though Feldman said he is close to a deal with a network for non-pay-per-view exposure.
"The company was missing that legitimate world class boxer, and in talking to Paulie, he expressed some interest, so I reached out to talk to him a little further about it," Feldman said. "Paulie is an established boxer and he has a big personality. He is the perfect fit for us."
Malignaggi (36-8, 7 KOs), of Brooklyn, New York, won junior welterweight and welterweight world titles and faced several significant opponents, including Miguel Cotto, Ricky Hatton, Zab Judah, Amir Khan, Adrien Broner and Danny Garcia. But after an eight-round knockout loss to Sam Eggington in March 2017, he retired.
After he retired he briefly returned to the ring to help UFC star Conor McGregor prepare for his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather. They had a notorious sparring session in which McGregor claimed to have knocked Malignaggi down. It led to Malignaggi's acrimonious exit from the camp and bad feelings since. Malignaggi makes no secret that he would like to fight McGregor, not just in a sparring session.
Artem Lobov, a friend and training partner of McGregor's, is making his BKFC debut on April 6. If Lobov is successful he could loom as Malignaggi's June opponent, giving the fight a built-in storyline. But Feldman said Lobov won't necessarily be Malignaggi's opponent.
"It makes sense to get that fight going, especially because of his situation with McGregor, but we have to see what happens with Lobov on April 6," Feldman said. "Paulie didn't sign with us to fight Lobov. He signed with us to bring some recognition and his personality to us. If it's Lobov, fine, but we're also talking about other guys."
Said Malignaggi of the potential Lobov fight: "I don't have time to waste on paupers. He's not the real deal. He's a hanger on. I don't want to waste my time with him."
He said he would love to lure McGregor to BKFC.
"It's not MMA and it's not boxing," he said. "Maybe with two-minute rounds he won't quit. He quits when he fights, so I'm trying to give him an opportunity to meet me sort of in the middle. He quits all the time, but with two-minute rounds this might be more up his alley and the beating he takes will be short and sweet. ... I want the real deal. Not that Conor is the real deal, but he does sell a lot of tickets."
Malignaggi will fight in the BKFC's junior middleweight division, which has a weight limit of 155 pounds (one over the limit for the boxing division with the same). The BKFC fights consist of two-minute rounds as opposed to three in traditional boxing, and fights are five rounds, with title fights seven.
That Malignaggi is going to compete in fights without gloves might surprise many because he had so many hand injuries during his career, but he believes he will be fine.
"I felt like a lot of those problems were solved," he said. "I gotta be honest -- I don't see anyone on my level in this sport."