In a surprise turn of events, former two-division boxing champion Paulie Malignaggi made headlines last week when it was announced he signed an exclusive deal to compete under the fledgling Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships banner. At 38 and two years removed from his last fight, Malignaggi appeared to be content living what he described as a "comfortable" retirement serving as a high-profile analyst for Showtime boxing and the host of his "Brooklyn to the World" podcast. BKFC is also a promotion that has appealed more to ex-MMA fighters than slick boxers due to the elements of clinching and mauling (often refereed to as "dirty boxing" in MMA) that is legal.
But along with the attractive financial package he was offered by BKFC president David Feldman and the opportunity to scratch whatever remaining itch to compete that is still inside of him, Malignaggi hasn't hidden from what is very much a large motive in him making this decision: the hope of luring former two-division UFC champion Conor McGregor into the ring to settle their grudge.
Malignaggi (36-8, 7 KOs) still can't utter the native of Ireland's name without adding the word "coward" as a forename. The beef goes back to 2017 when McGregor was training for his pro boxing debut in a blockbuster pay-per-view match against Floyd Mayweather. Malignaggi served as a sparring partner and claims to this day he got the better of McGregor, although UFC only released edited highlights of the 12 rounds they fought, including a knockdown by McGregor that Malignaggi maintains was a shove.
Despite repeated requests publicly by Malignaggi, UFC has still refused to release the full sparring video.
"It's obvious we aren't going to do it in MMA," Malignaggi told CBS Sports' "State of Combat" podcast on Monday. "According to him, he dropped me and all these things but he's not going to do it in boxing either because he doesn't want to be proved the bum that he is. So I figured this is kind of a play in the middle. We can do it bare knuckle.
"I think this is a no brainer, especially with the kind of money we can generate."
McGregor (21-4 in MMA, 0-1 in boxing) made his return from a two-year layoff last October when he was submitted by lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229. He's expected to return to the Octagon later this year and, similar to the Mayweather fight, likely wouldn't be able to compete outside of UFC without the promotion's blessing, which makes Malignaggi's idea of a BKFC bout somewhat problematic.
That hasn't stopped Malignaggi from trying to bait McGregor at every turn, including on social media where the "Magic Man" made fun ofafter he allegedly smashed and stole the cell phone of a fan trying to take a picture outside a nightclub in Miami.
"He's a supposed puncher but I never felt like he was a puncher," Malignaggi said. "But if he's a supposed puncher with the small MMA gloves, then obviously he has to be one with the bare knuckles, right? That has to give him some kind of advantage for those who assume that he's a puncher. See, I know the punching power that I'm dealing with. It's not anything to be scared about."
What could potentially aid Malignaggi's plans is the fact that McGregor's longtime training partner and close friend Artem Lobov was granted his UFC release in February and signed with BKFC immediately after. The 32-year-old Lobov (13-15-1, 1 NC in MMA) makes his debut on April 20 in Biloxi, Mississippi, when he headlines BKFC6 against former UFC fighter Jason Knight.
Feldman has shared publicly his hope that a Lobov victory leads to a showdown against Malignaggi that could come as early as June, when Malignaggi is expected to make his debut at a BKFC card in New Hampshire. Considering McGregor's repeated loyalty to those on his team, the idea that he might want to avenge a Lobov loss to Malignaggi feels like an angle so good, it could've come straight out of professional wrestling.
Malignaggi, however, isn't as enthused about the idea.
"If I'm fighting Lobov, they might arrest me for an assault," Malignaggi said. "I don't know if that's the way to go. I really didn't sign with BKFC to look at Artem Lobov, to be honest with you. I do know that he signed to the promotion, as well. I do know that he's Conor's personal floor mopper or whatever else he does as a favor to Conor because I don't think he has ever made a name for himself for his own combat skills at all.
"Honestly, he's going to be stepping into boxing, bare knuckle or whatever, and I think there is levels to this thing. If I end up fighting him, it's going to be an assault and then I'm the bad guy if I put him in the hospital. It's kind of counter-productive in that regard. I'm not trying to be [Ivan] Drago to Conor's Rocky [Balboa]."
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Malignaggi isn't naive to the questions -- if not outright concerns -- he faces in signing with BKFC at his age. Known as a light puncher in his boxing days with just seven knockouts in 44 pro fights, the idea of taking the gloves off doesn't seem compatible to Malignaggi's history of hand injuries.
"Here is how I defend this: When you are using your bare knuckles, you don't have to throw everything full strength," Malignaggi said. "You are not going to be throwing haymakers. People think bare knuckles and they think some kind of cave man stuff. There is still some kind of technique to it and there is still some kind of game-planning to it."
Known more for his speed and technique, Malignaggi also isn't nervous about the idea of MMA fighters having an advantage due to the holding and clinching that is legal in BKFC.
"I'll deal with it. Obviously, I will be training for it. But if you are going to get that close, you obviously have to close the gap and that means you have to get through my hand speed," Malignaggi said. "My hands are very fast. The bare-handed speed is going to be a problem. So you can get close and try to wrestle around, but I'm not going to sit there like a heavy bag and let you try and wrestle me.
"To earn your way into the distance, you're going to have to get through an assault and shots don't have to be full strength to bust you up. My knuckles just have to connect and my knuckles will connect because I have the accuracy of a pro boxer."