By John Torenli, Sports Editor
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Paulie Malignaggi dares you to doubt him again.
The 31-year-old Bensonhurst native, just hours away from his much-anticipated defense of the WBC Welterweight World Championship at Downtown's Barclays Center on Saturday night, has certainly been counted out before, if not in the ring, than certainly along the periphery of the squared circle.
It was two and a half years ago that Malignaggi suffered perhaps his most devastating loss, an 11th-round stoppage at Madison Square Garden against Britain's Amir Khan.
The then-29-year-old Malignaggi had lost three of his previous five fights, a stretch that began with another TKO defeat to Brit Ricky Hatton back in 2008, and appeared slated for a ringside TV gig on one of the major cable networks, such as SHOWTIME, which will televise Saturday's historic fight card from the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues.
Unbowed and motivated to re-establish himself as a formidable contender in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of pro boxing, Malignaggi rebounded from the loss to Khan with three straight wins before capping his improbable comeback with a ninth-round TKO of previously undefeated WBC champ Vyacheslav Senchenko in his native Ukraine this past spring.
Now, for the first time in a boxing career that has spanned the globe, the "Magic Man" (31-4, 7 KOs) is coming home for his first-ever bout in our fair borough, working just under the Danny Garcia-Erik Morales headliner against 22-year-old Mexican phenom Pablo Cesar Cano (26-1-1, 20 KOs).
"I'd say I'm hungry, because I have a lot to prove, not so much to anybody else but more to myself," Malignaggi said in a media conference call earlier this week. "I feel like I underachieved a lot so I need to prove a lot more to myself. And as a world champion you have to stay hungry, because there are people coming for you, and I know my opponent is very hungry, he's young and he's got a bright future in front of him, but in order to make title defenses against a guy like this, you have to remain hungry yourself, and I'm very hungry."
That hunger, which drove Malignaggi from an admittedly rough upbringing in Bensonhurst to some of boxing's biggest venues, was certainly called into question after the loss to Khan. But after reviving his career under the Golden Boy Promotions banner, the always loquacious Malignaggi is ready for more big bouts, including a potential rematch with Hatton.
"I think a lot of the talk about me being finished was overrated," he said. "A lot of the things that people say about me, the negative press is that I'm overrated, but in the end I think if you look, since I lost the Ricky Hatton fight I've had one bad performance in four years, and that was when I lost to Amir Khan. In the four years since I lost to Ricky Hatton one bad performance. The year I lost, Ricky Hatton had three bad performances, all in the same year. And I told everybody, do you know what, I just need to make a change and I'm going to be all right. And you know what, four years have passed and I've had one bad performance in four years. That's not too bad."
While the next big fight is always on the Malignaggi agenda, the ring veteran knows he can't afford to overlook Cano or, perhaps more importanly, let down the thousands of local fans who will be rooting him on Saturday night at the state-of-the-art-arena.
"I have worked hard and I have definitely been looking forward to the opening of the Barclays Center for two years, ever since I signed with Golden Boy Promotions," admitted Malignaggi, who was initially thought to be the perfect fighter for the main event before Garcia-Morales II received top billing. "So it feels good that it's getting closer, it feels good that the moment is almost here, and I look forward to putting on a good show."
"Again, I don't want to overlook Cano," he added. "I think all the focus has to be on him because he's so hungry and ready and motivated. "In order to get to the other big fight I've got to win this fight. Anyone that knows me knows that my Brooklyn roots make me the fighter that I am and that I have been throughout my career. I don't ever give up. That's Brooklyn baby."
The Garcia-Morales showdown is a rematch of the fighters' bout in March, which Garcia won via a unanimous decision. Garcia, a Philadelphia native, went on to topple Khan in July and will doubtlessly have a large Puerto Rican contingent of fans stuffing the Barclays Saturday night. Morales, of Mexican descent, is also likely to be well represented in the arena, which is hoping for a crowd similar to the one that rocked the house Monday night during the Nets' preseason home opener.
"I am excited to part of this great night for boxing and also to give the legendary Erik Morales the opportunity to beat me and take back the title," Garcia said. "Unfortunately for him, that's not going to happen."
Morales quicky countered: "I'm very excited to be back in the ring and fighting Danny Garcia again. He beat me the first time, but I know I have what it takes to avenge my loss. I am a veteran at learning from my mistakes and correcting them." ... Also representing our fair borough on Saturday's fight card are: Danny "The Golden Child" Jacobs, former world titleholder Luis Collazo and local contender Dmitry "Star of David" Salita, who was originally rumored to be Malignaggi's opponent. Also, young prospect Boyd Melson, a Bay Ridge resident and Brooklyn Tech alum, will hope to improve on his 10-1 record, as well as raising money for his charity in an effort to help the more than 300,000 Americans currently suffering from spinal cord injuries.