Paulie Malignaggi's got the edge. Days before the defining fight of his young boxing career, against WBO junior welterweight champion Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, the Brooklynite hasn't stopped talking (no surprise there), but he has clicked in the way you want to see fighters click in before a big fight.
Malignaggi, 25, who readily admits that it was his brash mouth as much as his resume that helped get him this fight, realizes now that he is being brought in as the foil to the unbeaten Puerto Rican on the night before the Puerto Rican Day parade. He's the fall guy, the one supposed to lose, the last obstacle before Cotto abandons 140 pounds and chases after big-money fights against the likes of Ricky Hatton, Jose Luis Castillo, and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
It's making him angry and that's good.
"I'm gonna be [difficult] at that post-fight press conference," bristled Malignaggi, who then cited chapter and verse from a recent Boxing 2006 article previewing the fight. "The guy wrote that this fight was not even a potential blowout [in Cotto's favor], but 'an anticipated blowout.' Do I need that? Yeah, I guess I do just to get me more revved up."
Malignaggi, who is one of those fighters who reads everything and doesn't miss a beat when it comes to what people are saying about him, was just getting started.
"I'm looking at the New York Post right now as I'm speaking to you, and they're giving away tickets," he continues. "The grand prize is to get two VIP seats to my fight with Cotto and also a chance to meet and greet Cotto. This is the New York Post -- I'm a New York fighter. I'm looked at as a shmuck right now and believe me, anyone that's seen me train and get ready for this fight knows how sharp I am. I'm like a razor right now. Cotto can come as strong as he wants -- there's no escaping my wrath on the 10th.
"People think he [Cotto] can't wait to get his hands on me for me talking about him. What they don't know is that I'm revving and I can't wait to get my hands on him. When it comes down to it, he's just not good enough."
Paulie's got his game face on, and for a lot of us who have watched him come up the ranks from his days in the New York Golden Gloves to now, this is the day we knew would come -- the day when the flashy kid got his back to the wall and came back swinging, silencing those who chalked him up to being simply all mouth.
"The thing that people mis-assume about Paulie Malignaggi is that they think the first time I'm tested, I'm gonna fold up," he said. "They see this clown that's playing around all the time and that he just needs this good shot that's really gonna shut him up and make him fold.
"But they don't even know what I've been through already that's built the character and determination. Just fighting with broken hands is a big thing to worry about, and having to get through that fight and stay mentally strong and do what I have to do to keep my composure and win the rounds built a lot of character in me. I've got the character and determination to know what I need to do, whether times are hard or times are easy. I'm hungry for this."
That character comes from beyond the ring for Malignaggi, whose problems with brittle mitts have been well documented. It goes back to growing up in a fatherless home, being kicked out of that home, going nowhere fast, and finally finding salvation in the form of boxing. He's the rare fighter whose goals have never been to fight in Madison Square Garden, to win a world title, or to make millions, though all of that would be nice. Instead, he's always talked of chasing greatness, of being somebody, and to never, ever, be called 'a bum.'
So yeah, he might grate at your nerves with his smack talk or annoy you with his showboating in the ring, but never question the heart, especially when he is stepping up from Donald Camarena to Miguel Cotto in terms of opposition, a quantum leap if there ever was one.
So when you make that jump in class, are there any nerves, especially when you throw in the magnitude of the event and fighting in your home city?
"There's always nerves involved," he admits. "I'd be lying if I said there weren't, but there aren't any extra nerves. I'm confident that I'll beat Miguel Cotto, just like I was confident I would beat the other 21 opponents I had. This is just a bigger statement to make because everybody thinks he's going to beat me."
But while Malignaggi is comfortable with the 'me against the world' motivation, there are more than a few respected boxing folks who think he has a legitimate shot at upsetting Cotto, given the champion's continuing struggle to make 140 pounds, and Malignaggi's speed and jab, both of which could cause the slower Cotto trouble.
Malignaggi isn't buying it, though, insisting that even a victory would be met with snickers from the media.
"They're not gonna say I'm for real -- they're gonna have excuses," he said. "Nobody wants to give me credibility. I already see it and I already know what they're gonna say. I don't want to hear he had trouble making weight, I don't want to hear he looked past me. I don't want to hear that Miguel Cotto wasn't himself when I dominated the fight. I don't want to hear any of that."
He'll hear it though, especially from the Cotto rooters who give him no chance on Saturday night. And when you hear the negative enough, you've got to wonder whether it's all true at some point.
"Everywhere I go, all I hear is how strong Cotto is and how I won't be able to hold him off, and me and my team are so confident waiting for the fight, that the more I read and the more I hear, I think, 'are we not seeing something?'" he laughs. "I start looking at Cotto and wonder, 'Am I not seeing something that everybody else is seeing, that he's such a bad guy to fight, so big, so tough, so strong?' And we start asking ourselves, are we seeing something that nobody else sees in us? Are we overconfident in ourselves?"
"But then, all I've got to do is pop a tape of Miguel Cotto in the VCR, see how ordinary he looks, and I say, 'Oh, it's them, not me.'"
It's one of the few laughs from Malignaggi these days, as he's ready to get into the Garden ring against Cotto in the worst way. But that doesn't stop him from talking to anyone and everyone and fulfilling every media obligation asked of him. Did you expect anything less from Malignaggi, who was probably one of those kids who practiced signing his autograph while in grade school?
"I relish all this stuff and I was born ready for this," he said. "I was born to be the center of attention, the superstar. This is just my time coming. When I come out for that fight and make my ring entrance, there's gonna be people cheering and people booing, but believe me, you're gonna know I'm ready for that moment. I've been waiting for that moment my whole life."
For most observers, if Paul Malignaggi is to reach the greatness he expects of himself, Saturday night is the first step, a world title shot against an unbeaten power puncher in the world's most famous arena. But for him, every fight has been the biggest of his career, the most important obstacle to climb over. This is just the latest, and he believes that if he's gotten past those 21 previous big fights, 22 will be a piece of cake.
"Every fight is the biggest fight for me," he said. "The last fight I fought Donald Camarena and that was the biggest fight of my career; the fight before that with Jeremy Yelton was the biggest fight at that time. That's because a loss sets you back, and you can't afford to lose. So every fight you go into is the biggest fight of your career. I always have that mentality and always have that outlook on every fight.
"When I look at it like that, it's nothing different for me going into this fight. It's me and Miguel Cotto. The world title comes along with it and it's gonna be nice winning it, but my main focus is beating Miguel Cotto. All the other perks will come after that."