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Malignaggi: Magic Man Returns

The reality of what has really happened to him will not strike Paulie Malignaggi fully until Feb. 17 when, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, something will be missing from his introduction. For the first time in his boxing career the ring announcer will not say "...the undefeated "Magic Man''...'' before he calls his name.

That is when he will realize, in the most basic of ways, what Miguel Cotto took from him. Not his pride, which he could never take, nor an aura of invulnerability, for he knew that never existed for him or Cotto or any fighter. No, what Cotto took from Paulie Malignaggi eight months ago is something he can never get back, although he has a few plans about how to settle that score down the road. Before he can do that however he first he has to get back on the road after a dreadfully glorious night spent in Cotto's presence and that is where the question marks lie.

Last June 10, Malignaggi was a decided underdog when he stepped into the ring at Madison Square Garden to try and take the junior welterweight title away from the equally undefeated Cotto. It was supposed to be a mismatch in which Malignaggi's speed and fast hands would be powerless to hold off the champion and early in the fight it seemed so. Cotto dropped him in the second round and had the lighter-hitting Malignaggi in deep trouble but just when it appeared all was lost, a bloody and battered Malignaggi began to show what he always believed he had but so many of his critics questioned. He showed the kind of heart few possess in enough abundNce to make a living as a prize fighter, the kind that allowed him to box his way back into the fight despite taking terrible physical punishment as he did.

Eschewing what works for him best, which is using his speed and fast hands to fight on the outside, Malignaggi got into boxing's trenches with an opponent who carried far more powerful weapons and battled back to make the fight competitive before a broken orbital bone around one eye and the loss of blood he'd suffered throughout much of the fight finally wore him down to the point where he could not hold Cotto off in the final two rounds.

In the end, the decision went to Cotto while Malignaggi's face was left an angry mask of bruises and swollen tissue. He collapsed in the locker room after the decision was announced, blood flowing from his nose and mouth, and was rushed to a local hospital where he stayed for several days. Many ringside observers wrote that night that Malignaggi had broken his jaw and every other facial bone one could imagine and then shook their heads, doubting they'd ever see him again.

But on Feb. 17, Paulie Malignaggi, no longer undefeated but still believing there is magic inside him, will return to the ring for the first time since that night to face a legitimate opponent in Edner Cherry (21-4-2, 10 KO) in the main event of a HBO Boxing After Dark tripleheader that will also headline Sechew Powell (20-1) vs. Ishe Smith (18-1) and rising prospect Andre Berto (16-0, 14 KO) vs. Norberto Bravo (29-6-1). To some, Malignaggi's return is being seen as an attempt at a comeback from total defeat but the 26-year-old from Brooklyn sees things differently. Although he lost and paid a painful price for it, he also proved to the often skeptical fight crowd that he was what he said he was. For all his cute style and flashy mannerisms, he was, and remains, a fighter.

"It'll burn me when I get in there and they don't say 'The undefeated Paulie 'The Magic Man' Malignaggi,'' he admitted during a break in training in Vero Beach, Fla. where he's now working for the first time with Buddy McGirt. "That will come as a shock even though I know that's what it will be.

"A lot of people thought I couldn't hang in the heat of that kind of fight. They thought I was just a cutie but I showed I had a lot of character. I won a lot of fights with bad hands that had to be operated on but they couldn't see that damage. This time the damage was obvious and I tried to win the fight regardless. I never lost hope. I told myself when I got knocked down, 'This guy can be beaten.' I'd seen his weaknesses on tape.

2007 02 17 profile Malignaggi magic man returns

"I climbed my way back into that fight. If I'd gotten back to boxing instead of standing in front of him trading you never know what could have happened. After eight or nine rounds the fight was winnable again but my corner didn't tell me that. They kept saying I needed a knockout. I didn't have to slug with him the way I did but they told me to go after him. That still burns me because I stood and fought when maybe I didn't have to. It's not like we're playing ping pong out there. By the end he'd beaten me down to where I couldn't hold him off the last two rounds but I don't think it had to be like that.

"I think about that fight every day. I'm a competitive person. I'm a professional fighter. I still think I can beat him if we fight again. The way things went that night still bothers me but a lot of positives came out of that fight.''

One was the realization by the world that there was more to Malignaggi than they had seen. He was not simply a fast-handed wiseguy from Brooklyn who talked better than he fought. He was instead the kind of guy his manager, Sal LoNano, had seen before.

"I got experience with a guy like this kid,'' LoNano said. "I managed Micky Ward. I know guys with heart. Paulie had never been tested like that before and he stood up and fought back to the end.''

He fought with that broken orbital bone and with internal bleeding and with pain but he did not fight with half the injuries attributed to him in the days immediately after the fight. Malignaggi thinks back to some of those stories of the punishment they said he'd suffered and finds humor in a place where perhaps only a fighter could.

"Everyone in the media was a doctor that night,'' he said, laughing at the recollection. "People said I broke my nose. I broke my jaw. I broke my cheek. I didn't know you needed a medical degree to be a writer. I didn't look too good when it was over but he didn't do half the things to me that people said he did to me.''

What Cotto did do was bad enough though. Bad enough that when Malignaggi first saw himself on a TV monitor at ringside after the fight he couldn't believe it. Couldn't believe anyone had done that to him and couldn't believe someone had and still been unable to get rid of him.

"I think about that fight every day. I'm a competitive person. I'm a professional fighter. I still think I can beat him if we fight again. The way things went that night still bothers me but a lot of positives came out of that fight.''

"I pride myself on my looks,'' Malignaggi (25-1, 5 KO) said. "I didn't like what happened. After the (plastic) surgery, the muscles in my face had to get reacquainted with themselves and the titanium plate they put underneath my eye, where the orbital bone got shattered. I didn't look right. My smile was lopsided and I was thinking, 'Oh, no, am I always going to look like this? That's not my face.' That made me so mad. But after a couple of months things came back and now I look pretty much the same as I always did.''

But can he fight the same? Will he enter the ring now with doubts about his skills or fear born from the now no longer deniable knowledge what kind of damage one man can inflict on another? Is he coming in too quickly against a world-class opponent rather than taking an easier course? Should LoNano and promoter Lou DiBella have been more selective in picking the opponent he would come back against and should they already be talking about a possible June 9 fight with WBO champion Ricardo Torres (30-1, 27 KO) not only in the same building where Cotto damaged him so badly but on the undercard of what would be Cotto's second defense of the WBA welterweight title he went on to win by stopping Carlos Quintana in five rounds last winter?

No one can know for sure about any of those questions until the bell rings and Malignaggi is alone in a small enclosed space with Edner Cherry, who in his last outing stopped Daniel Alicea in the 12th round to win the NABF lightweight title, but veteran trainer and fight commentator Teddy Atlas, a master of the psychology of the sport, believes what Malignaggi took from the Cotto fight was more than a beating. It was something that will serve him well against Cherry on Feb. 17 and beyond.

"If he'd been knocked out by Cotto it would be different, but he wasn't,'' Atlas said. "Instead, he showed the character of a fighter. After he got dropped early he got up and showed what he was made of. He showed how he would react under that kind of pressure. He reacted like a fighter.

"You always think you're a fighter but you don't know for sure until you're tested. Malignaggi didn't win the fight that night but he passed the test. He'll grow from that fight. Up to that point he was undefeated but he didn't know for sure if he belonged at that level. He didn't know for sure if he could fight at that level. Now he knows. He knows he came back and made it a close fight when it didn't look possible after the first few rounds. He probably believes he can beat the guy if they fight again.

"It helps that Cotto went on to win another title at a heavier weight class (147), too. I think the fact they picked a real guy for him to face coming back was a good idea. Not everyone would do that but it was smart. Cherry is a legitimate guy. He can fight, so Malignaggi knows he has to be ready to fight. I think he will be. I think he'll be better because of what happened against Cotto. He lost that night but he gained a lot from that fight.''

That's one reason his comeback night is back on HBO. He was not forced to take a step down to the ESPN2 level or lower. He didn't have to take a fight against a nobody in some small, smokey arena where the crowd is small and so is the purse. Instead, he's one win away from a second world title fight and a chance to move one step closer to a dream a lot of civilians would think is a nightmare. A second night with Miguel Cotto.

"A lot of people looked at my face at the end of that fight and forgot how good a fight it had been,'' Malignaggi said. "It wasn't a one-sided fight the way some people made it sound. I made him look bad a lot of the time. If I hadn't suffered that broken orbital bone it might have been a nominee for Fight of the Year. I lost but it was an entertaining fight.

"I think the fact I'm back on HBO says a lot about my popularity and about what really happened in the Cotto fight. A lot of guys don't get beat and come back on HBO. He had all the advantages, which is what a champion gets. He got the small ring. He got the early weigh-in so he had plenty of time to put weight back on and be strong. And I was still there at the end, fighting."

"Now I'm back after another long layoff. I've had a couple of them because of my hands. Now I had one because of my face. I can't get a break because I keep breaking something but I'm confident I'll come back and win a title. We took Cherry to prove that. We didn't want to go to a lower, club fight type of guy. Some people may think this isn't smart but we felt we needed a high level fighter to prove I can still fight. He's not a 10, maybe, but he's a fighter HBO would accept.

"I think the fact I'm back on HBO says a lot about my popularity and about what really happened in the Cotto fight. A lot of guys don't get beat and come back on HBO. He had all the advantages, which is what a champion gets. He got the small ring. He got the early weigh-in so he had plenty of time to put weight back on and be strong. And I was still there at the end, fighting.

"I know we've got the Torres fight waiting and it's hard not to look past this guy and think about that, but I got a lot to prove first. I know there are people wondering if I can come back from that so-called beating. 'Is he the same?' No, I'm not the same. I'm better.

"I was gun shy a few times after I injured my hands and had to have operations to fix them but not in this case. I didn't have a problem from the first day of sparring. I just feel if some things were changed a little I could have beaten Cotto. No matter how my face looked that night I feel I can go where I want to go.''

Oddly, where Paulie Malignaggi wants to go is right back to where he had his most difficult night. He wants to go back to Madison Square Garden. Back to a world title fight at 140 pounds. Back to a dressing room not far removed from one Miguel Cotto may be in come June 9 if all goes well for him March 3, when he defends the WBA welterweight title for the first time against Oktay Urkal at Roberto Clement Stadium in Puerto Rico.

"I'm working with Buddy now,'' Malignaggi said of McGirt, a former 140-pound world champion himself who is his new trainer. "He was a boxer-puncher and he's teaching me some things, opening my eyes to new things. I've been blessed with fast hands and good reflexes but I have to learn how to use them. I realize now I won a lot of fights just on physical ability. Buddy is teaching me how to use my skills the right way.

"I know I have to focus on Cherry first, but it's hard because I know we're close to making the title fight with Torres on Cotto's card. That would pretty much be like returning to the scene of the crime. To win a title belt in the same place where I took that beating would be so great. But first I got to take care of Cherry. I understand that.''

He understands that and a lot of other things about himself, just as the boxing world now understands a little bit more about who and what Paulie Malignaggi, the flashy kid from Brooklyn, really is. A fighter to the end.

"I'm working with Buddy now,'' Malignaggi said of McGirt, a former 140-pound world champion himself who is his new trainer. "He was a boxer-puncher and he's teaching me some things, opening my eyes to new things. I've been blessed with fast hands and good reflexes but I have to learn how to use them."

Posted 12:00 AM | Feb 17, 2007

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