Bensonhurst-born boxer returns to his roots before title fight

Welcome back, Paulie: Bensonhurst-born boxer Paulie Malignaggi greets old friend Sal Demarco at his old hangout, Two Brothers Hair Cutting, on 18th Avenue and 71st Street.
Photo by Steve Solomonson

Bensonhurst-born boxer Paulie Malignaggi is prepping for a title fight on the other side of the planet — but the best spot for him to train remains the hard-scrabble streets that taught him how to throw a punch.

The 31-year old welterweight has spent the past few weeks at the Fight Factory Gym in Gravesend and the New York Sports Club next to the Caesar’s Bay Shopping Center on Bay Parkway and Shore Parkway, sparring and strength training for his April 29 bout against undefeated Ukrainian World Boxing Association champion Vyacheslav Senchenko in his opponent’s hometown of Donetsk.

In true “Rocky” fashion, Malignaggi says he needed to get back to his roots in order to get both his mind and body prepared for the upcoming bout, which, as fate would have it, is straight out of “Rocky IV.”

“Training in Brooklyn takes me back to the days when I was first starting out,” Malignaggi said.

The scrapper made his professional debut in Brooklyn during a 2001 under-card fight at MCU Park in Coney Island. Malignaggi won in just one round.

The fighter’s early life is a lot like “Rocky”: a second-generation Italian-American kid from Brooklyn gets kicked out of school, joins a leading boxing gym, hires his best friend as his manager, and goes on to win titles.

Malignaggi started boxing at age 16 — a little later than most professional fighters — after his uncle and grandfather brought him to Downtown Brooklyn’s legendary Gleason’s Gym shortly after the teenager got expelled from New Utrecht High School.

“I was kind of a confused kid in those days, not a bad kid, just confused,” Malignaggi said. “They thought it might straighten me out, get my butt kicked a little bit, keep me going in a more positive direction. They didn’t think I’d become a fighter.”

Gleason’s owner Bruce Silverglade will never forget the day Malignaggi walked in.

“He was like every other kid who comes into the gym. He had a big mouth telling us how good he was and what he was going to do,” Silverglade recalled. “They all come in like that. Some kids manage to break the threshold and become a champion and Paulie is one of the guys who did that.”

Gleason’s is also where Paulie met Anthony Catanzaro, another Bensonhurst native who would eventually become his manager.

“One of the trainers came over and said he’s got an Italian-American kid who’s pretty good. My friend and I went up to him and saw he talked our dialect, and we offered him a ride home,” Catanzaro said.

Malignaggi chalked up a string of early victories and won the World Boxing Council International and Continental Americas Light Welterweight titles.

He invited Catanzaro to become his manager going into his fight with Miguel Cotto. It was his first loss, but set a trend where Malignaggi would proudly pit himself against more famous, more powerful fighters like Ricky Hatton and Amir Khan.

Malignaggi’s record now stands at 30 wins — including six knockouts — and four losses.

Still, it’s the Bensonhurst boy’s experience against world-class boxers that will give him an edge in the upcoming fight against Senchenko, Catanzaro said.

“Senchenko has fought no one near the level of opposition that Paulie has,” Catanzaro said. “We fought Hatton in his prime, we fought Amir Khan in his prime, we definitely fought Cotto in his prime. Senchenko stepped into a vacant title and he’s defended it against guys I never heard of,” said Catanzaro. “We’re actually sparring with guys that are better than Senchenko.”

Silverglade also favors Malignaggi — because the pugilist is quick on his feet and can take a punch.

“I think he’s got a very good chance,” Silverglade said. “He’s a scrapper, he’s always been a scrapper, and he’s got a lot of heart. Senchenko is a tough fighter, but Paulie’s going to go the distance and bring it to a decision. His heart will carry him through.”

Malignaggi, a notorious trash-talker, was surprisingly reserved when speaking about Senchenko, though he says he isn’t afraid of the other fighter. Paulie claims that he was looking past the April 29 match, when he will be defending his title — which will mean a fight in Brooklyn and a shot at sports immortality.

“The Barclays Center promised me that if I win, the first fight will be my defense of the title,” said Malignaggi, whose face appears in newspaper ads for the new stadium. “I want that piece of trivia: who had the first fight at the Barclays Center after it opened? This is a very important to me because I’ve always wanted to have a big fight in Brooklyn. I had my first fight 11 years ago in Coney Island, and I’ve always had a sour taste in my mouth because I never had another fight here.”

The Malignaggi vs. Senchenko fight will air live Sunday, April 29, on Pay-Per-View.

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