Former boxing champion Paulie Malignaggi (36-8), now an announcer for Showtime, knew something was up the minute he walked into the UFC's new performance institute to square off for a second time with the promotion's lightweight champion.
The first time he'd sparred with Conor McGregor, who is preparing for a bout with boxing's greatest contemporary fighter, Floyd Mayweather, things were quite a bit different. That session was about putting in work, a private, gritty affair where the few men in the gym had to leave their cellphones in a box to ensure no unauthorized video or pictures leaked out.
"I wasn't really in the best of shape," admits Malignaggi, who retired in March. "I was in decent shape but not fighting shape. I told myself, 'I'm not going to be the only sparring partner there, so I don't have to be in great shape.'
"We did eight rounds the first day, and I just wanted to make him work. If I am there for him to throw punches at and I'm in position to shoot punches back, then I've done my job. Once I reached a certain level of sharpness, I thought I could really be a big benefit to his camp. I was excited to fly out a second time and was ready for a tough session."
This time, a week later, dignitaries abounded. Surrounding the ring were the likes of UFC President Dana White, former owner Lorenzo Fertitta and McGregor's agent Audie Attar. This sparring session, Malignaggi feared, wasn't about preparing a fight. This was about proving a point and proving it at Paulie's expense.
"I realized it was more of a personal agenda," he says. "There was a dark intention to what Conor was doing."
In a normal sparring session, fresh training partners rotate in and out so the fighter preparing for the bout is always testing himself against a hungry, rested competitor. It's the fighter who is supposed to get tired and be pushed to the limits, not the sparring partner. So when McGregor's team asked Malignaggi to go all 12 rounds without a break, just like an actual fight, he knew their intent was to try to knock him out, not use him to get better.
But unbeknown to Team McGregor, Malignaggi had done some sparring and training of his own in the days between their sessions. He wasn't happy with his performance the first time and wanted to be able to offer McGregor good work, not just a warm body. When he got the call this time, he'd vowed, he'd be ready.
Ultimately, that decision saved him from a fate worse than leaving camp and returning home. Instead of being able to boast he'd knocked Malignaggi out in training, the UFC champion could only post what the boxer calls misleading photographs from the session, a fight he says he got the best of.
N. Martin Domin @martin_domin
Conor McGregor suffers blow ahead of Floyd Mayweather fight as Paulie Malignaggi walks out of training camp https://t.co/ApF654UOus https://t.co/Ga5v8FLcIg2017-8-4 07:03:30
"The second time we sparred, he had a very tough day with me," Malignaggi says. "But even though he was losing, there were times when things had gone bad for him that he'd say, 'Another one for me. Seven to nothin'—me.' I'd comment back, 'They didn't teach you how to count where you went to school?' He wouldn't be feeling the way he was talking if he'd been going back to his corner and being reprimanded and corrected for his mistakes."
Worse for McGregor, Malignaggi contends, is that his mistakes are rarely mentioned or corrected, making his progress incremental instead of spectacular.
"He's such a big deal, and a lot of times these big-deal fighters end up with cheerleaders in their corner instead of trainers who aren't scared to tell them when things are going wrong. That's a bigger problem than the tactical stuff," Malignaggi says. "Conor has his own style. He knows what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. It's just a matter of sharpening it up and making it work and linking it with some boxing stuff.
"Clearly they have a plan, but some things are going to work and some things aren't going to work. I think it's important not to let a fighter get a false sense of confidence. I got the sense that there's a lot of yes men in his corner. Even when things were going wrong, he was being told he was doing good. At the end of the day, people need to be blunt with you when there are things that need to be corrected."
After the session, Malignaggi says he felt good about the work he'd done. McGregor, he says, thanked him for coming out, and he felt they'd buried the hatchet after some rough back-and-forth in the media. When a photo leaked that made it appear he'd been knocked down by a McGregor punch, Malignaggi was disappointed—but not shocked.
"It's one thing to talk about what happened in sparring, Malignaggi says. "It's another thing to lie about what happened in sparring. Neither of those things is actually supposed to happen. I should have already known it was coming. I gave Conor the benefit of the doubt. I thought he would have a little bit of code and some ethics. But the guy's got no morals, he's got no ethics. He's a scumbag who thinks he's above everything and everybody. None of the rules apply to him.
"I should have known better. Chris van Heerden, when Conor sparred him, had egg on his face afterward when Conor's team posted some misleading stuff. Luckily for him, he had video of the whole thing and people saw what really happened."
Paul Malignaggi @PaulMalignaggi
I actually beat his ass, 24 hrsoff a flight 2 lol, which is why Im saying post the vid, I try not 2 be petty but seems it's late 4 that now. https://t.co/vSE2Iw4ffM2017-8-4 01:34:42
Ultimately, Malignaggi decided he couldn't continue working with McGregor, whose taunts continue unabated. But he walks away more excited than ever for the bout between the two champions.
"I'm sure Floyd has seen everything. We know that. But Conor has some things on his side," Malignaggi says. "He's young. He's got a little bit of power. He has the ability to pressure and counter from his mixed martial arts fights. He's just got to find a way to blend that into something that works in boxing.
"I don't think he's a bad boxer, and Floyd Mayweather was a great boxer—but that was the past. Mayweather is a guy who is aging. He's 40 years old. He hasn't had a fight in two years. It's a matter of Conor finding the right moment in the fight. If you're able to capture a certain moment, maybe you can change the momentum or even end the fight."
Malignaggi, though disappointed with how things turned out, remains confident his experience inside the MMA fighter's camp will help him when the time comes to call the fight August 26.
"People are talking about me and Conor because of all the beef that is going on, but we can visit that if the time ever comes," Malignaggi says. "Right now I'm focused on Floyd and McGregor, not me and McGregor. I think it's a great fight and a great event more so than that.
"I'm really excited to share what I've learned on fight night. I'll be able to give viewers some X's and O's about what I've observed in Conor's camp. Some things I think will work, some things I think will not work. I think it will be an interesting broadcast."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.