You've got to respect Paul Malignaggi. You may not like his showboating, his big mouth or his gelled hair, but when it comes to the boxing ring, he's proven he belongs where he's at, which is one win away from a world title.
That's not enough for Malignaggi, though. Respect is nice, but it's only part of the equation. Winning Lovemore N'dou's IBF junior welterweight title belt on Saturday at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., would also soothe some of the aches he has inside, but not nearly enough.
For the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn product, his life in boxing is a chase for something that isn't even tangible -- something that has morphed from year to year over the course of six years that have seen him through dazzling wins, a series of painful hand surgeries and rehabs, and one brutal yet courageous loss. He's had his triumphs and his disappointments, but he still moves forward, changed but undaunted.
"I thought I was going to be the next Oscar De La Hoya when I was 20 years old. I no longer think that," Malignaggi said. "But that doesn't mean that I can't make the most of my career and it doesn't mean I still can't achieve superstardom to a certain level. That's what I'm hoping for and that's what I'm going for."
In a lot of ways, Malignaggi's outlook on the sweet science was irrevocably changed a year ago, when he was decisioned in 12 rounds by Miguel Cotto. The brash and happy-go-lucky mouth of the 140-pound weight class showed up to Madison Square Garden that late spring night, full of bluster and ready to shock the world.
But once he walked into a ring that he later described as a "playpen," things started to go downhill. He was cut, dropped in the second round and suffered a broken orbital bone. Amazingly, with all this against him, he not only went the distance with the punishing Cotto, but he was dead-even with the champion before a late surge allowed the Puerto Rican to pull away.
It was the stuff that legends are made of, the type of fight that historians will look back at and deem a defining moment if Malignaggi is able to become a dominant world champion in the coming years. Even the critics had to tip their hats to "The Magic Man," which made his summer of pain and recovery a little easier to bear.
Malignaggi returned to the ring in February of this year, headlining an HBO card in New York City against tough Edner Cherry. The fight was no contest, as Malignaggi outboxed his foe en route to a lopsided 10-round decision, but it was also no Cotto-Malignaggi II, which seemed to rile fans and the media. And all the goodwill accumulated from his gallant stand at MSG disappeared.
"At a certain point, I think that if you haven't done this, you have to take a step back and respect it from a distance," Malignaggi said. "You're going to criticize me after going through such a war with Cotto for taking the safe route against Edner Cherry? I can't respect you as a person, as a man or as a woman, because you really have no idea what you're talking about."
Guess it's safe to say that the postfight reaction got under his skin.
"The Cotto fight wasn't just a regular, physical fight," he continued. "A physical fight like that changes you for the near future and maybe even the long-term future -- you don't know."
True, and while his near shutout of Cherry was less than enthralling to watch, what were people expecting from Malignaggi? He's always been a slick boxer with fast hands who makes you miss and makes you pay. His most exciting fights pre-Cotto have been when he's been matched with a fighter who was able to pressure him and force him into a firefight by cutting off the ring. Cherry wasn't able to do that, and the result was obvious early on.
Just because Malignaggi will never be truly appreciated, that doesn't mean he can't put on a great fight when matched with the right style matchup, and Australia's N'dou, who also went 12 with Cotto, fits the bill perfectly.
"Lovemore N'dou comes with a lot of pressure," Malignaggi said. "He's always in very good shape, and he tries to break up your rhythm by doing a lot of physical and dirty work."
How does a fighter prepare for those tactics in the gym, though?
"You can have sparring partners be rough with you, but it's not the same thing," he said. "The gloves are bigger and you're wearing headgear, so the butts don't feel the same. Those are things you have to deal with on fight night. But one thing that helps you is experience, and the Miguel Cotto experience and having been in a physical trench war helps me out if and when it does get physical in the Lovemore N'dou fight."
If you haven't noticed by now, it's obvious that the specter of the current welterweight champion -- who recently scored a stirring 11th round TKO of Zab Judah -- will always be around Malignaggi in some way, shape or form ... at least until he can either establish himself as the best 140-pounder in the world or when he gets a shot at redemption.
"It's something I'm always going to be obsessed with," he said of a rematch with Cotto. "It's not anything against him, but I'm a very competitive person."
The Boricua Bomber even follows him to the movies, where a recent documentary on his life, "Magic Man," focused on the Cotto fight.
"It was cool, something different. It was kind of tough watching it going into the Cotto fight again -- I can't really watch that fight anymore," Malignaggi said of the film, which was recently shown at the Hoboken International Film Festival. "But, in my opinion, it was really good, but then again, it was about me, so I'm supposed to think that. But if it takes off, it would be something real cool. That, along with me winning a world title on June 16th, will go hand in hand and really give a boost to my career.
"All the years of hard work are starting to pay off."
And truth be told, for all the injuries he's had to deal with, the lone loss and a comeback win which really didn't garner critical acclaim, he's landed on his feet with this title shot, and a win puts him among the elite in a stacked weight class.
Now all he has to do is go in there and win, which is easier said than done against a relentless opponent when all you have going for you is speed, technique and a movie. Oh yeah, he's thought about what it would be like to be a one-punch knockout artist.
"I'm sure it's something really nice to have," he said with a laugh, and it's then that the joy of the game came back for "The Magic Man." It's that joy in the ring, that sparkle in his eye, that makes him who he is, and why he won't be defined by his past, but his future.