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Page last updated at 08:08 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Malignaggi tougher than he looks

By Ben Dirs
BBC Sport in Las Vegas

Paulie Malignaggi
Malignaggi has an individual style outside of the ring
If Paulie Malignaggi achieves nothing else in boxing, he will at least retire in the knowledge that he's the only fighter in history to have had his hair restyled in the middle of a world title bout.

That moment in his clash with Lovemore N'Dou - when trainer Buddy McGirt was forced to come over all Trevor Sorbie and cut free Malignaggi's loosened braids at the end of round eight - will have warped many British fight fans' opinion of the brash New Yorker.

"Who the hell is this clown?" some of the 55,000 fans at the City of Manchester Stadium may well have asked out loud, "and where's his blinking handbag?" Or words to that effect.

Malignaggi didn't just experience a serious hair malfunction on the undercard of Ricky Hatton-Juan Lazcano - he stank the place out, holding onto his IBF light-welterweight crown courtesy of a contentious split decision.

But anyone whose view of the 27-year-old is formed entirely by that one night in May should seek out his first match with N'Dou, when Malignaggi won every round to claim the IBF crown, or his match against Puerto Rico's Miguel Angel Cotto in 2006, when he showed tremendous heart in defeat.

"The problem I've had in my career is that when I'm expected to do well I end up trying a little bit too hard," Malignaggi told BBC Sport.

"Every time I'm favourite I never end up looking good. In fights where people doubt me I always end up surprising people.

"In my first fight with Lovemore a lot of people weren't too sure I could beat him because I didn't handle the pressure style too well, but I dominated him.

"I'm not expected to win this fight against Hatton and I feel threatened. And I'm at my best when I feel threatened."

Against Cotto, one of the toughest operators in world boxing, Malignaggi won plenty of fans, not only with his quick hands, rangy jab and slick combinations, but also with his willingness to mix it on the inside and his ability to absorb a punch.

Yes, Cotto had Malignaggi down with a big left hook in round two, but Malignaggi bounced back up and soaked up plenty more left hooks until the right side of his face was grotesquely swollen.

And while Malignaggi is a relative peashooter - "he packs all the punch of a peach schnapps" is how one wag put it - as the old adage goes, just because he's not a puncher doesn't mean he's not tough.

"Cotto is a very good fighter but I don't think I was in over my head," says Malignaggi. "The experience of being in a big-fight atmosphere and dealing with some of the pressures that can bring helped me.

Ricky Hatton (left) and Paulie Malignaggi
Hatton and Malignaggi are contrasting characters
"Some people say that getting beat is one of the best things that can happen to you. I don't believe that. But the experience of having dealt with that is what makes me better.

"That will make a big difference in the Hatton fight, having already fought in an arena where the electricity and tension were so thick."

Those familiar with the back story will never have taken Malignaggi's metrosexual leanings - his modelling, the ever-changing hairdo (he sported a mohawk in his first fight with N'Dou), the huge diamond dial on his wrist - for a weakness.

If Hatton is meat and potatoes, Malignaggi is more truffle linguini. But as "the Magic Man" puts it, "when the bell rings, I'm not feeling my looks".

Malignaggi was born in Brooklyn of Italian parentage but moved to Sicily when he was still a baby. He returned to the States when he was six, although his father, who played professional football for Catania, remained in Sicily.

"Growing up I had some rough times," says Malignaggi. "My father left us and my mother remarried. I wasn't getting on with my mother's husband and I ended up acting up a bit and getting thrown out of my mother's house.

"I moved into my grandparents' house when I was 15 and then I was thrown out of school. I was losing my way a little bit, but boxing gave me a goal, a reason to keep positive."

I'll have a pretty exotic outfit for the Hatton fight and I'll be doing something with my hair

Paulie Malignaggi
It was his grandfather who dragged him to the legendary Gleason's Gym in 1997 and it was there that he learnt his trade, working his way through the amateur ranks and winning a US amateur championship in 2001.

A natural peacock, Malignaggi is cute enough to know that fanning one's feathers does no harm in the marginalised world that is modern boxing in the United States.

"When I was a kid I saw the Naseem Hamed-Kevin Kelly fight [at Madison Square Garden in 1997] and I was rooting for Kevin because I was from the same gym.

"But I ended up amazed by this guy Hamed and I said to myself, 'if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it like him'. Boxing is a niche sport in my country, you need an angle.

"I'll have a pretty exotic outfit for the Hatton fight and I'll be doing something with my hair. But don't worry, I'll have something more manageable than I had for my Manchester fight."

Which is just as well. For all the posturing, Malignaggi doesn't strike you as the type of man who'd take kindly to his feats in the ring being shown up by his hairdo.

see also
Hatton's seven best - and worst
18 Nov 08 |  Boxing
Hatton beyond help - Malignaggi
10 Oct 08 |  Boxing
Malignaggi test next for Hatton
29 May 08 |  Boxing

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