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Paulie Malignaggi and Showtime, Part One

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Aug

On July 30, it was reported that Paulie Malignaggi – an analyst for Showtime Boxing since 2012 – had been dropped from the network’s commentating team. Technically, Malignaggi wasn’t fired. Rather, Showtime will no longer use him on telecasts and not renew his contract when it expires at the end of the year. 

In reporting on Malignaggi’s termination, the media has focused on comments that Paulie made during an April 22 interview with iFL TV. But the issues surrounding his departure from Showtime go far beyond any one interview. After speaking with multiple industry insiders, The Ring has a more complete and nuanced picture of what transpired.

Malignaggi was a good fighter. He was always willing to go in tough and compiled a 36-8 record during a 15-year career that saw him win world titles at 140 and 147 pounds. He was lacking in power (only seven knockout victories in 44 bouts) but had a fighter’s heart.

People tend to forget how heroically Malignaggi performed against Miguel Cotto in Madison Square Garden on the eve of the 2006 Puerto Rican Day Parade. Paulie was getting beaten up. Badly. By a bigger, stronger, future Hall of Fame fighter who was at his peak. But he didn’t just try to survive. He never stopped trying to win and went the distance, absorbing a brutal beating but winning four rounds on two judges’ scorecards and five on the third.

Photo by Ed Mulholland

Afterward, Arturo Gatti commended Malignaggi for his courage. “I’m proud that you’re Italian,” Gatti told him.

Paulie has permanent nerve damage in his face as a consequence of the Cotto fight. “Pain is temporary,” he says. “Pride is forever.”

Most people who know Paulie like him. He’s also an exceptionally good TV analyst.

Malignaggi’s termination by Showtime resulted not just as a consequence of the iFL interview but from an accumulation of incidents.

Paulie is Paulie. He says what he thinks and wears his emotions on his sleeve. That has always been part of his appeal. He isn’t a traditional corporate soldier. Nor is he one to calm troubled waters. Sometimes he’ll cannonball into them. Over the years, he has brought a lot to the table for Showtime – including occasional problems. 

Showtime management felt that Malignaggi crossed over the line of propriety on several occasions.

When Adrien Broner showed up at the kick-off press conference for his 2013 fight against Malignaggi, he taunted Paulie by appearing with and commenting upon a woman that Malignaggi had previously dated. That elicited a heated response from Paulie, who told reporters, “There are girls who are close to you and girls that we call weekend pussy. Jessica was weekend pussy. That means Jessica could fuck anybody she wants. And when I got time on the weekends, I could do whatever I wanted to do and she loved it. She loved getting hit (role playing) when we slept together. As a matter of fact, Adrien, if you fucked her, you already know that. Weekend pussy is exactly that. The only weekend pussy Adrien gets is the kind he pays for. He doesn’t understand what it’s like to be good-looking and get regular pussy and the weekend pussy and you don’t pay for none of it. It just comes to you. That’s my life.” 

This wasn’t the image that Showtime wanted for its commentating team. 

“I shouldn’t have called her weekend pussy,” Paulie acknowledged afterward. “I got mad. What I should have said was that this is a woman who’s a very bad representative of what women can be. But after everything I’d gone through (including an apparently spurious claim by the woman that she’d gotten pregnant by Paulie), it ticked me off when Broner and this woman made my private personal life public and did it in such a dishonest way.” 

Then Malignaggi went to war with Conor McGregor over comments regarding a sparring session between them that took place before McGregor’s 2017 fight against Floyd Mayweather. That led to ongoing verbal warfare and an ugly incident at the Mayweather-McGregor weigh-in when Paulie was being taunted by some of Conor’s fans and offered to fight them on the spot. Things got heated and security was thin.

“I wish I’d never gone to spar with McGregor,” Malignaggi said later. “They treated me like shit when I was there. Then they lied and dumped shit on my reputation afterward. But I did go spar with him and you can’t undo the past. And I still have to deal with it. You should have seen the social media after I sparred with McGregor. His idiot fans calling me a faggot, a little Dago, things they wouldn’t have the courage to come up to me on the street and say to my face. And they don’t just put it on their sites. They put it all over my social media pages. I can post a photo of me at the beach and, a day later, there’s all sorts of ugly shit attached to it.”

Regardless, Showtime management felt that the weigh-in incident put other Showtime personnel in harm’s way.

Two years later, Malignaggi lost his composure and dignity at the kick-off press conference for a Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship bout that he was about to engage in against Artem Lobov (a friend of McGregor’s). In addition to calling MMA fans “a piece of shit community,” he told Lobov, “You’re a piece of shit and I’m gonna treat you like the dirtbag that you are. After I beat the shit out of you, I’m gonna spit on you. I’m gonna take out my dick after I knock your teeth out and piss in that toothless mouth of yours. You got five weeks to live, motherfucker.”

“You have to put the press conference in context,” Paulie explained afterward. “There’s a whole back story that people don’t understand. I grew up in a not very nice place. And I’m not talking about the neighborhood. I’m talking about what my life was like and the abuse I took. I went into boxing to get away from that place and to deal with the anger that I had inside me in an acceptable way. This is bringing out a side of me that I thought I’d left in my past. It’s a response to the lies and humiliation and pain to me and my family and everything else that this guy and his piece-of-shit friend Conor McGregor caused to be dumped on me.”

That said, from Showtime’s point of view, this wasn’t how the network wanted its commentators to be seen by the public. And in addition, Premier Boxing Champions (which supplies most of Showtime’s boxing content) was unhappy with comments that Malignaggi had made regarding one of its flagship fighters, Deontay Wilder.

Still, the powers that be at Showtime were empathetic with Malignaggi. They understood that he was transitioning from being a brash-talking fighter to a network spokesperson and that the process would take time, particularly during the years when he was still fighting and those roles overlapped. 

Then politics became a factor.

Malignaggi wholeheartedly – and sometimes stridently – supports Donald Trump. He kept his political opinions off of Showtime’s boxing telecasts but engaged in heated social media debate on a wide range of issues. Some of his thoughts – like single parenthood in the Black community and the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery – involve racial issues.

Finally, as Showtime’s August 1 return to boxing approached, Espinoza and Dinkins called Paulie again and said, “We have to clean this up.”

On April 22, Malignaggi was interviewed by iFL and asked about Devin Haney’s comment: “I will never lose to a white boy in my life. Can’t no white boy beat me.” 

In response, Paulie talked about boxing being dominated sequentially by Irish-American, Jewish, Italian-American, Black (he didn’t mention Hispanic), and now Eastern European fighters. Then the conversation turned to the issue of a double standard and what would have happened if a white fighter had said, “Can’t no Black boy beat me.” 

As part of his response, Paulie opined, “I don’t believe there is racial oppression in 2020, in this century. I believe there has been, sure. But I don’t believe there’s any racial oppression today. I believe it’s all made up. The whole hypothesis of racial oppression is way exaggerated in this century.” 

The interview was conducted more than a month before George Floyd’s death beneath the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. But even for its time, it was an ill-considered comment.

Initially, Malignaggi’s statement about the absence of racial oppression didn’t cause much of a stir. A few podcasts and websites referenced it, but that was all. Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza and executive producer David Dinkins called Paulie and asked that he tone things down, and he agreed to do so. Then, on May 25, George Floyd was killed and the landscape changed.

On July 14, Nick Cannon was fired by ViacomCBS from the comedy improv show Wild ‘N Out after making racist anti-semitic comments during a podcast. 

Cannon’s remarks were widely viewed as being more offensive than anything Malignaggi had said. But there were questions as to why Cannon (a Black man) lost his job while Paulie went unpunished. The issue was brought to the attention of executives above Showtime Sports on the corporate ladder. Finally, as Showtime’s August 1 return to boxing approached, Espinoza and Dinkins called Paulie again and said, “We have to clean this up.”

Conversations with multiple sources provide the details of what happened next. Malignaggi said that he would issue a statement apologizing “if my comments offended anyone.” Espinoza responded that this ritualized public apology wasn’t good enough; that there could be no “if” in the statement. Paulie then asked for a chance to write the statement himself.

The statement that Malignaggi drafted acknowledged having offended some people and that his words might have been construed as insensitive and even ignorant. He talked about having viewed things through the prism of bad experiences that he’d had in his own life and that, in doing so, he’d failed to empathize with the experiences of others. He also talked about the need for people on all sides of the divide to engage in a healthy dialogue, pledged to do his part in pursuing that goal, and promised to choose his words more wisely and carefully in the future.

Espinoza sent back a revised draft that was similar in content but had two phrases that Malignaggi was uncomfortable with: 

(1) The Espinoza draft contained the statement that Paulie was “sorry” his recent statements had offended many people. Paulie wanted to change that to an acknowledgement that his statements had offended many people and that he regretted not having chosen his words more wisely. From Malignaggi’s point of view, a statement saying that he was “sorry” might have been interpreted as the abandonment of his personal beliefs; and

(2) Malignaggi had written that his words “may have come off” as insensitive and ignorant. Espinoza wanted to shift the “may” so that Paulie acknowledged that his words had come off as insensitive and “maybe even ignorant.”

Malignaggi then sent Espinoza and Dinkins a note requesting that they meet halfway on the issues. Rather than meet halfway, Espinoza telephoned Paulie and told him that Showtime had decided to terminate his employment. Informed sources say that the decision-making process reached above Showtime Sports but that final responsibility for the decision rested with Espinoza. These same sources say that it was a difficult decision for Espinoza given his personal fondness for Malignaggi and his respect for Paulie’s work as a commentator. But after discussions with Malignaggi, the feeling was that, despite his written words, Paulie’s mind was insufficiently open to other people’s experiences and that he was less willing to listen and learn than would be necessary for him to continue in a role as a representative for Showtime.

Espinoza and Malignaggi agreed on a quiet parting. But the following day, Paulie’s termination was reported on BoxingScene.com in an article by Keith Idec. Malignaggi felt that the leak was an attempt by Showtime to undermine his credibility and value as a commentator and hinder his ability to find work with another network. Espinoza was equally exasperated by the leak. In reality, the information was divulged by a representative of Premier Boxing Champions.

Paulie Malignaggi’s departure from Showtime involves issues that go far beyond the parties involved. More on that tomorrow.

 

This is Part One of a two-part series. Part Two can be read here.

Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected]. His most recent book – A Dangerous Journey: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.