DiBella: Malignaggi not your average fighter

Paulie Malignaggi, left, is as evasive as anybody in boxing -- when he chooses to use his movement. Ed Mulholland/FightWireImages.com

Paulie Malignaggi was an angry 16-year-old heading no place in particular, except maybe jail or the cemetery.

He had been permanently expelled from Utrecht High School in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, for getting into fights and ditching classes.

He was kicked out of his mother's home because he clashed with his abusive stepfather.

He was crashing at his grandparents' place, sleeping on their couch at night. During the day, he was sleeping on couches at the homes of people where his grandfather did construction work.

"My grandfather was trying to teach me a lesson. He made me go to work with him every day so I couldn't get into trouble," Malignaggi said. "But I didn't know anything about construction and he didn't want me messing anything up, so he would send me to inside jobs and he'd tell me to go somewhere and sit down. I'd sleep on these people's couches while the other guys on the crew worked."

With energy to burn, and no place to expend it, Malignaggi convinced his grandfather to let him try boxing. The day he walked into Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn was the day Malignaggi's life was saved.

"I was an angry kid, and boxing kept me out of trouble," Malignaggi said. "Boxing was something I knew I would lose if I continued to act out the way that I was acting. It was the first time that I thought if I screwed up, I'd have something to lose."

Today, Malignaggi, 27, is an accomplished pro. But he still fights like he has something to lose. Now it centers on his junior welterweight title, which he will defend against Herman Ngoudjo (16-1, 9 KOs) at Bally's in Atlantic City on Saturday night. The 12-round match will be broadcast on Showtime.

Malignaggi describes Ngoudjo, who is from Cameroon and lives in Montreal, as a fighter whose style is similar to Ike Quartey's.

"He doesn't stop; he's an aggressive fighter," Malignaggi said. "Like Quartey, he's got a long jab, but it's not as good as Quartey's is. He has a stronger right hand than Quartey [though]. But he's flat-footed."

That should work to Malignaggi's advantage because he uses his foot speed to box circles around those who fight like statues.

This will be Malignaggi's first defense since he won the IBF strap against Lovemore N'dou on a lopsided 12-round decision June 16, 2007. Malignaggi thought he'd get more mileage out of the victory and the championship, but his career stalled over the last six months of the year. While other prominent boxers were vying for Fighter of the Year and mixing it up in matches that were under consideration for Fight of the Year, Malignaggi was idling. It felt like he was sleeping on the couches of his grandfather's construction customers again.

Malignaggi said he was frozen out by the politics of the sport and a shortage of television dates on HBO and Showtime. After having his career stunted from 2005 to 2006 because of two surgeries to repair a bad hand, it seemed ironic that Malignaggi was completely healthy and still on the shelf for much of 2007. It was sheer torture for a boxer like the "Magic Man," who thrives on attention and likes to strut his stuff on a big stage.

"The kid believes he's destined to be a superstar," said Lou DiBella, Malignaggi's equally frustrated promoter. "Nothing less than that will do for him. He definitely has star power. He's got a lot of pizzazz."

That pizzazz has usually taken the form of Malignaggi's mouth going 1,000 mph to promote himself or a hair color (blond, blue, purple or red-streaked) to set the stage for all that Brooklyn flash. It used to come with an arrogant smirk that his opponents couldn't knock off his face. He has since lost the smirk.

Early in his career, all that flash seemed to lack substance, and it alienated some boxing fans. He won two New York Daily News Golden Gloves championships and a U.S. National Amateur championship, dancing, prancing and preening his way to a 40-9 record in a brief, two-year amateur career.

His flashy style in the ring seemed to run counter to the rough, brawling style that Malignaggi had honed in his numerous street skirmishes in Brooklyn. Much of that street fighting was a result of the anger Malignaggi had pent up inside of him.

Malignaggi was born in Brooklyn, but his parents, who had migrated to the U.S. from Italy, returned to Palazzolo, Sicily, when he was a few months old. After his brother Umberto was born, the family moved back to Brooklyn. Malignaggi was 6 years old, and as a first-grader by then, spoke no English.

Malignaggi's father, Sebastiano, was a professional soccer player in Italy and stayed in America only a few weeks before returning to Italy. He soon divorced his wife, leaving her in the U.S. with two small boys. Malignaggi said he didn't see his father again until he was 17.

"My mother really struggled when we were young," Malignaggi said. "She was on food stamps and welfare. Looking back, I know we didn't have a lot, but I never felt I was at a loss for anything."

His mother remarried when Malignaggi was 9, and they moved into their stepfather's home in New Jersey. While that brought a level of financial stability to his life, it didn't help him emotionally. He clashed with his stepfather, who would often beat Malignaggi and his brother.

"I began to feel a lot of emotional distress during that time and I was more unhappy than ever," Malignaggi said. "I was angry a lot."

When Malignaggi was 15, he stood up to his stepfather during one of their clashes and he was thrown out of the house. He went to live with his mother's parents in Brooklyn, and transferred schools as well. That didn't work out, either. Soon he was thrown out of school for fighting and cutting classes.

His mother had forbidden him from boxing when he was younger. Malignaggi wanted to try the sport again as a teenager, but not as an athletic pursuit.

"I wanted to learn how to box so I could kick people's asses," Malignaggi said. "I didn't want to box for a living because I thought all the guys eventually got brain damage. My grandfather said no [to boxing] because he knew [I wanted to do it] for the wrong reasons."

But after having Malignaggi lay around on construction jobs all day, and with some prodding from his uncle, Dario, who used boxing as a means to work out, his grandfather relented.

As he learned more about boxing, Malignaggi discovered that he would have to corral that anger and exercise more discipline if he was going to win. And he wanted to win more than anything else.

"I'm a very competitive person," he said. "I want to win at everything I'm doing. It doesn't matter what it is. I want to beat the person that I'm competing against."

The more he boxed, the more disciplined he became. And the more disciplined he became, the more he won. That refinement in his character carried over to his style in the ring. He could win using his speed and quickness a lot faster than he could trying to outslug his opponents. And if he could show the guy up by dancing around the ring, popping him with a jab and showboating, then all the better.

That grated on some die-hard New York boxing fans. People would show up just hoping that Malignaggi would lose and have to fill his nonstop mouth with humble pie. It didn't happen … until he fought Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden on June 10, 2006.

Cotto came in the favorite and was establishing himself as an icon during the annual Puerto Rican Pride Week festivities in New York. Malignaggi was an underdog in his hometown in the biggest fight of his career. He gave away two concessions that he believes might have cost him the fight: He allowed Cotto, who was having trouble making the 140-pound limit, to weigh in early the day before the fight, and he gave in to Cotto's request for a smaller ring.

The early weigh-in allowed Cotto to bulk up and enter the ring weighing as much as a middleweight. The smaller ring made it hard for Malignaggi to use his foot speed to outbox Cotto.

"Right before the fight started, we were standing across from each other … it looked like I could reach out and touch him. That's how small the ring was," Malignaggi said. "Right then in that moment, I changed my strategy."

Cotto opened a deep gash over Malignaggi's eye less than a minute into the fight. And then he dropped Malignaggi in the second round. From that point on, in his head, Malignaggi thought he was going to have to brawl in order to win the fight.

His corner, anchored by trainer Billy Giles, didn't tell Malignaggi to go back to his original strategy.

"The game plan was to frustrate him early with speed and by using my legs and then pot-shot him in the later rounds," Malignaggi said. "When I heard the scores and how close it was, I was devastated. I took a lot of physical damage for nothing. It's a shame. I should have never changed the game plan.

"It will forever haunt me that I lost the Cotto fight that closely -- that I fought the wrong fight."

Renowned trainer Emmanuel Steward isn't so sure Malignaggi fought the wrong fight -- or if taking his lumps was such a bad thing.

"I know he showed a lot of heart against Cotto, but that was a situation where he had to," Steward said. "He was fighting in front of that big crowd in his hometown, and the fans were into it."

Steward believes a more aggressive Malignaggi -- one who sits and commits more to his punches -- would make for a better fighter.

"He really hasn't shown any commitment to getting anybody out of there," he said. "His punching power is not what it should be. He doesn't have any power because you have to stay in there and commit."

As a result of the Cotto fight, Malignaggi had to have surgery to repair a fractured eye socket and cheekbone. He also changed trainers, opting to go with Buddy McGirt. The Ngoudjo fight will be their third bout together.

"The thing I like about Paulie is he has a never-say-die attitude," McGirt said. "If he gets something wrong, he's going to stay in the gym until he makes sure he's got it right."

And an odd thing happened with the loss to Cotto. Malignaggi's stature as a fighter rose.

"A lot of people who hated him going into that fight became fans after," DiBella said. "It made him fans with the Latino fight fans. When he was walking out of the ring looking like Frankenstein's monster, the guys who were booing him before the fight were cheering him.

"He proved if you're going to talk a lot of smack, you'd better lay everything on the line to back it up. And the thing is I don't think he's lost a round since the Cotto fight. That's 22 straight rounds. He's not your average fighter."

Tim Smith is the boxing columnist for the New York Daily News.