Paulie Malignaggi is a rare thing in boxing, and a web of contradictions. A former two-time world champion from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, he had exceptional skills, but he couldn’t punch with real power. He could sometimes be thuggish — he has spat on opponents and cursed them out in the most vulgar terms possible — but he can also be intelligent, thoughtful and highly articulate. Retired for over two years, he now has a glittering second career as a commentator, and he’s one of the best there is.
So why would he step up to get his face beaten in the brutal combat sport of Bare-Knuckle Fighting?
When Malignaggi signed on to headline the main event of BKFC 6 (Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship) in Tampa, Florida, last month, it was a blow to fans and friends. Many of his fans considered it beneath him. Friends and family members feared for his health. Some worried it was about money, but he swears he’s not broke and quickly refers to the several houses and flashy cars he owns.
“Let’s face it: As society goes to a more PC culture, the thirst for combat sports has gotten more violent,” says Malignaggi, 38.
Maybe it was about winning: He has talked about wanting to end his career on a high note (his boxing career ended in 2017 with a knockout loss in Europe) and having a genuine hatred for his opponent, Artem Lobov.
Whatever his actual reasons, it was impossible to watch him prepare for what he described as “a street fight, but a bit more organised,” without a sense of sadness, because he seemed to be forcing himself to prove something he didn’t need to prove.
We were with Paulie in the weeks building up to the event and in the dressing room on the night of the fight. We watched as fighters on the undercard, who shared a dressing room next to Paulie’s, warmed up and then walked out into the bright lights and the cheering, drunk and rowdy crowd. Most of them, including the winners, came back with black eyes, busted hands, and deep, wide open cuts all over their faces. And then the announcer, wearing a black tuxedo covered in sparkly silver sequins, stepped into the ring and, building up into what was almost a scream, bellowed, “Fight fans of Tampa, Florida, this is Malinaggi vs. Lobov. What time is it? It’s time to KNUCKLE AAAAUUUUUUUP.”
The original version of this story first aired July 10, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.