ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Paulie Malignaggi is one of the most elusive boxers in the ring. Now you see him. Now you don't. Maybe that is why they call him The Magic Man.
Malignaggi worked that "magic" against Herman Ngoudjo to win a 12-round unanimous decision and successfully defend his IBF junior welterweight title in a sold-out ballroom at Bally's Casino Resort on Saturday night.
As fights go, it was not a stylistic thing of beauty. Ngoudjo moved forward but did not throw a lot of punches. And the ones he did get off often missed the mark. Malignaggi showed signs of rust from a six-month layoff -- the longest of his career. Forced to dictate the action, Malignaggi moved forward and often walked into punches from awkward Ngoudjo.
The bad news for Malignaggi (24-1, 5 KOs) is that he didn't look like the second coming of Sugar Ray Robinson. But the good news for the Brooklyn native is that he didn't lose and therefore jeopardize a future megafight with Ricky Hatton.
Malignaggi said he based his fight plan on Ngoudjo's being the aggressor, as Ngoudjo had been in his match against Jose Luis Castillo in January 2007. But Ngoudjo was the one who laid back.
"He had me waiting so long that I started losing my patience and I started lunging in with stupid punches," Malignaggi said. "I wanted it to be exciting. I wanted to pick up on where I left off the last fight. But a six-month layoff is never good for me. I thought I could have looked better."
Ngoudjo (16-2, 9 KOs) was incredulous about the outcome. Judge Al Bennett scored it 117-111, judge Steve Weisfeld 115-113 and judge Kenny Chevalier 116-113 -- all for Malignaggi.
"I felt I won the fight," Ngoudjo said. "But Malignaggi is the champion. I thought [having] three U.S. judges may have hurt me."
Ngoudjo, a Cameroon-born Canadian, was the only one who truly hurt anyone all night. He caught Malignaggi in the seventh round with a sharp right hand that put the champion's head on a swivel and made his legs rubbery.
"Did it look bad? Did I do a little dance?" Malignaggi asked after the fight.
"I knew what was going on. I just didn't have my legs underneath me so good," Malignaggi said. "At the same time, I said, 'Let me just stay tight and come forward. Maybe he'll think I'm not as hurt as I really was.' He buzzed me, but I knew where I was and what was going on."
Malignaggi also bruised the knuckle on his right hand, which has been surgically repaired twice. He said he injured the hand landing uppercuts late in the fight.
"If I had landed them early, I was either going to break it again or I was going to knock him out," he said.
It is not an injury that should keep Malignaggi out of the gym or stall his next ring date.
Malignaggi's promoter, Lou DiBella, said he has had some preliminary talks with Ray Hatton, Hatton's father and manager, about a possible fight. If it happens, it might not be until the fall.
"They may be interested in taking an interim fight in between," DiBella said. "But we're very interested in making a Malignaggi-Hatton match in 2008. Ricky said he's not going to fight at 147 again and that he's coming down to 140. I think Paulie's the best guy at 140."
Malignaggi echoed that sentiment.
"Ricky Hatton needs me at this point," Malignaggi said. "If he comes back down to 140 pounds, he can't fight slubs anymore. I think I'm the biggest name at 140 besides Ricky Hatton."
He said he is not interested in fighting Hatton in England.
"I think I can hold some of the cards with Ricky Hatton. You know what, Ricky: Bring it over, buddy. You've had enough free rides in England. Bring it over here now," Malignaggi said.
Hatton has fought his past three fights in Las Vegas, including his Dec. 8 loss to Floyd Mayweather. DiBella said that he would consider having Malignaggi and Hatton share a card in England to build their fight but that he thinks Malignaggi-Hatton belongs in the U.S. -- preferably in New York at Madison Square Garden or in Las Vegas. That interim fight for Malignaggi could come against Lovemore N'dou, whom Malignaggi beat June 16 for the IBF title and contractually owes a rematch.
There is a question of how the two styles -- Malignaggi with his speed and movement and Hatton with his bull rushing and mauling -- will mesh.
"I think it's a classic bull and matador," DiBella said. "Paulie runs, but he throws punches when he's running. I don't think Hatton will be able to hit Paulie in the [butt]. Hatton is not as big or strong as [Miguel] Cotto. He's not the puncher that Cotto is."
Emanuel Steward, veteran trainer and HBO Sports boxing analyst, said he gives Malignaggi a slight edge over Hatton, although he believes Hatton's pressure style will prove difficult for Malignaggi to figure out.
"A guy with [Malignaggi's] style is going to give anybody problems mainly because of his speed," Steward said. "Ricky is aggressive, but he's always off balance. He comes in, but his feet are all crossed up. He was overly aggressive with Floyd, and it didn't work out."
Malignaggi warned people not to look at his work against Ngoudjo as a guide to what he'll do against Hatton.
"If I fight Ricky Hatton, it's going to be much more different than this," he said. "It's a different style in front of me, more like Lovemore N'dou. I do best when guys come at me. Stylistically, the Ricky Hatton fight is the best fight for me."
Tim Smith is the boxing columnist for the New York Daily News.