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With loss of Paulie Malignaggi, Team McGregor learns unrelenting hype sometimes burns you

Boxing at The O2 Photo by Leigh Dawney/Getty Images

Now that it’s over, now that Paulie Malignaggi is gone from Conor McGregor’s crash course in championship-level boxing, the brash Irishman will probably wave him off with a scowl or a glare or a middle finger.

Good riddance to the bum, you can imagine him saying in his brogue, as if it wasn’t a significant setback to his preparation for his Aug. 26 bout with Floyd Mayweather. It is. Sparring partners may come a dime a dozen, or perhaps even cheaper when you carry around a net worth of eight figures and counting, but few pack the ring smarts and the institutional knowledge of Malignaggi, a former WBA champion who was forced to get by on his wits rather than through overwhelming athletic gifts. That’s the kind of partner who can offer fractional observations that can make the difference between slipping a straight right hand and catching it square in the chin. Useful stuff when you’re preparing to fight the best boxer of the last two decades.

After deciding that he will train for the match with his normal MMA braintrust — head coach John Kavanagh, striking coach Owen Roddy and longtime sparring partner Artem Lobov — McGregor had done a smart thing by bringing in the boxing-centric mind of Malignaggi, only to have it undone and irreparably fractured after just two sparring sessions, not by McGregor’s own mouth but by the unrelenting hype machine that surrounds him.

Social media is a beast that must always be fed, and when McGregor’s photographer released pictures that made it appear as though McGregor had knocked down Malignaggi in training, Malignaggi immediately screamed dirty pool.

While training camps are hardly zones of moral high ground, there is a universal, unwritten rule that what happens in the gym stays in the gym. But McGregor has a fight to sell, so any chance to hype the fight is an opportunity too good to pass up, and his team saw gold when they saw a photo that showed a floored Malignaggi at the feet of McGregor.

For the record, we don’t know exactly what the picture in question signifies. In a Twitter post, Malignaggi called it a “pushdown,” while McGregor’s camp mostly let the photo slide into the public consciousness to let imaginations run wild.

Either way, it’s hard to see a scenario in which its release helps him in any meaningful way. While it’s true that the attention on the fight has cooled a bit (as have ticket sales; there are plenty of seats left on Ticketmaster), this seems like a counterproductive way to reignite interest when a late media push is already a virtual guarantee.

As much faith as he has on his own team - and for good reason given his success - this is a different sport with tons of wrinkles, many of which he could stand to learn from someone of Malignaggi’s stature and smarts.

In a way, no one should be surprised at this eventuality. The relationship between the two was always a match away from detonation. It began before they ever joined training camp together, before Malignaggi subordinated his ego for McGregor’s benefit to work as a sparring partner.

In most situations, such a job is effectively thankless. Partners come and go, offering rounds and repetition for a fighter working to improve his endurance and build toward a fight night peak.

But maybe Malignaggi should have seen this one coming. It was back in December when he challenged McGregor to a boxing match, saying, “I’m going to knock the beard off of you,” to which McGregor Jeremy Stevens’d him with the oldie but goody “Who the f--k is that guy?” response.

That’s fun stuff in the moment, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that McGregor plays the long game. Is it possible he put the grudge aside temporarily only to light it up at a time of his desired choosing? Sure it’s possible. It’s maybe even likely. Because to McGregor, if you’re not part of his team, you’re in the way. He’s made that abundantly clear over the years, and it seems that Malignaggi got caught up in crossfire. He was (briefly) part of the team, but only to suit specific needs. Beyond that, he was expendable.

At least externally, Team McGregor seems unbothered by the departure. Camp will go on, and other boxers will be brought in, and Malignaggi will become a footnote in a fight where the most important words are the ones that start with the money symbol.

That’s too bad. Malignaggi may never have been the X-factor between winning and losing, but then again, there’s a reason he has such a prized boxing mind. All you have to do is listen to a few rounds of his nuanced analysis work to realize he probably brought more to the table than any other partner McGregor will work with.

Oh, well. In the short term, McGregor still has his match and his payday, and that’s a pretty good haul for a boxing debut. But if he loses, one day in the future, he may look back and wonder whether it was worth it. The money doesn’t last forever, and neither does the glory. But winning and losing? No one can take that away from you, and in provoking Malignaggi to walk away, Team McGregor might have sealed his fate for good.

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