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25 OCTOBER 2014

 

John and Grainne: A Love Story


Pic by Holger Keifel
Pic by Holger Keifel

By Thomas Hauser
Fans watch fighters in the ring and see the blows. That’s very different from getting hit. And while fans often identify with fighters, they rarely consider what watching a fight is like for someone who has close personal ties to one of the combatants and loves him.

Grainne Coll loves John Duddy, the Irish middleweight with piercing blue eyes who is unbeaten in 19 fights and is causing a sensation in America. Like Duddy, she’s a native of County Derry, Ireland. Her mother works at The Harbour Museum. Her father is a retired bus driver. Grainne is 26 years old; pretty with long brown hair and partial to casual clothes. “But I wear dresses when necessary,” she says.

John and Grainne met seven years ago. The first time they saw each other was at a credit union in Derry. Grainne was working as a sales assistant at Marks & Spencer and went there to deposit her pay. John had a job as a lifeguard at a swimming pool around the corner.

“I was walking out of the credit union just as John was coming in,” Grainne remembers. “He was wearing a lifeguard uniform, and I thought he was gorgeous. We stopped, looked at each other, and said hello. And that was it. He was coming; I was going; so I went back to Marks & Spencer.”

Grainne couldn’t have known it at the time. But after John put his pay in the credit union, he went back to the swimming pool and told one of the other lifeguards, “Something strange just happened. I saw this girl. We stopped and said hello. All we said was ‘hello’, and it was a crazy feeling.”

“A month or two later,” Grainne recounts, continuing the story, “I went to a bar called The River Inn with my friend Kristy. We walked in and, right away, I saw John sitting at the bar with some friends. He was wearing a blue shirt and his arms were folded. I told Kristy, ‘I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to get him.’ So I walked over and sort of shoved against him, which got his attention, and said, ‘Hello; how are you?’”

“I’m good. How are you?” Duddy answered.

But still, there was no exchange of names or telephone numbers.

“After that,” Grainne continues, “we passed each other one more time on the street. It was driving me mad. Then, finally, finally, John came around Marks & Spencer with a friend. He’d found out where I worked and he asked me if I wanted to go to a barbeque with him. My face turned bright red and I said, ‘Yes, of course.’”

"She had a nice face and a nice smile,” Duddy reminisces. “I said to myself, ’I’d like to get to know this person.’"

At the time, Duddy was boxing as an amateur. “I thought he was just a lifeguard,” Grainne recalls. “He didn’t tell me for a couple of weeks that he was a boxer. And when he did, I thought, ‘He must not be very good because I’ve never heard of him.’ We were football in our house. I’d never been to a fight in my life.”

John and Grainne grew close to one another. They were a good fit. But in the ring, Duddy was struggling. He was suffering from burnout and the feeling that he was going nowhere, that he had learned all he was going to learn. “He was thinking seriously about giving up boxing,” Grainne remembers. “Then, one night, he said to me, ‘I think I should go to America. That’s the only way I can learn my trade. Do you want to come with me?’”

“No problem,” she answered.

In 2003, John and Grainne relocated in New York. They’re now engaged and live together in Queens (one of the city’s five boroughs).

“It takes a lot of dedication to be a fighter,” Grainne says. “You can have all the talent in the world, but you have to want it and work really hard for it. I’ve never met a man who wants something so bad as John wants to succeed in boxing.”

“In the days before a fight,” Grainne continues, “John gets really quiet. He stays in the house and doesn’t go out or talk to people much. I understand it. He’s focussing on what he has to do. The night before a fight, I pretty much leave him alone. We don’t talk much. John reads or watches a film and goes to bed early. The day of a fight, I get up, get my breakfast, give John a kiss, and leave the house. I don’t see him again until he’s walking to the ring that night.”

As for the rest of their time together, Grainne says, “John is genuine, down-to-earth, loyal, thoughtful, considerate, and good fun. There’s nothing phony about him. What you see is what you get. It’s half-and-half with the housework. He does the laundry and some of the cooking. He loves reading and watching old black-and-white movies. John wants to be a poet. John wants to be a writer. He has a way with words; he could do those things. He just has to believe in himself.”

“Grainne knows the best and worst of me,” Duddy notes in response. “She sees me when I come home from a bad day at the gym. As much as she’d like to think that I’m thinking of her twenty-four-seven, she knows that, coming up to a fight, my mind is somewhere else. It’s frustrating for her when I go into my shell, but she understands what I’m going through. And I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for Grainne. She saw me through when I was down as an amateur and not feeling very good about myself. People ask me sometimes whether I’m married or single. I just tell them I’m in love with Grainne.”

When will they get married?

“Maybe next year,” Duddy answers. “We’re in no rush. We’re as good as married now.”

But Grainne isn’t the only one with affection for John. There are times when it seems as though all of Ireland in America is in love with Duddy.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Duddy-mania” is that Team Duddy is building a star without broadcast television, HBO, Showtime, or a big-name promoter. A lot of savvy marketing has gone into the process. Eddie McLoughlin is John’s promoter. Anthony McLoughlin (Eddie’s brother) is the manager of record. They began by building alliances in the local Irish-American community and selling tickets in bars; the way ring heroes were developed in the 1930s and 1940s when boxing mattered.

The coming out party for Team Duddy occurred on March 16, 2006 (the night before St. Patrick’s Day), when Duddy scored a first-round knockout over Shelby Pudwill. The fight took place at The Theater (a 4,955-seat venue adjacent to the main arena in Madison Square Garden). It was only the second time in history that The Theater sold out for a fight.

“A lot of people came from Ireland,” Duddy remembers. “There were people who came from Scotland that I didn’t even know. I thought I was prepared for it. But after the fight, it was a tidal wave of people going crazy, screaming my name and jumping for joy. It wasn’t a dream come true because I never dreamed such a thing. It was more than I could ever dream of. It was a very special moment for me.”

Two months later, Duddy flew to Las Vegas to attend the annual Boxing Writers Association of America awards dinner. "I can’t believe it," he said during the cocktail hour. "Wayne McCullough [a silver medalist for Ireland at the 1992 Olympics and later the World Boxing Council bantamweight champion] came over and said hello to me. I remember watching him on television when I was a boy."

"I’ve heard a lot about John and wanted to meet him," McCullough said afterward. "He’s a nice fellow."

The next day, they were text-messaging back and forth.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job on the promotional end,” says Eddie McLoughlin. “But the reason for the success we’re having is John. He’s the whole package, in and out of the ring. He has this charisma about him.”

Well and good. But once the bell rings, charm and charisma don’t matter. The key to it all is that Duddy is an exciting fighter who has survived every ring challenge to date. His sternest test came last September when he triumphed over veteran Yori Boy Campas in a scintillating brutal twelve-round slugfest. John suffered deep gashes above each eye; the first time he’d been cut since being hit by an elbow while sparring as an amateur. He was also wobbled by Campas’s punches and, at one point, appeared on the verge of being knocked out.

“I’d never been in a position like that before,” Duddy acknowledges, “where my back was against the wall and I was fighting an opponent who took everything I threw at him and hit just as hard as I did. That’s the first time I was ever really asked in the ring, ‘Do you want to be a professional fighter?’ And the answer was ‘yes, I do’.”

Duddy walked through the fire against Campas and emerged with a unanimous-decision triumph. “Now the snowball is getting bigger,” he says. “Things are catching on. I won’t use the word ‘star’ but I know that, as of late, I’ve become an attraction.”

The cuts that Duddy suffered against Campas kept him out of action for five-and-a-half months. The obvious coordinates for his return to the ring were the night before St. Patrick’s Day 2007 and Madison Square Garden. Equally obvious (but unanswered) were the questions, “What had John learned from the Campas fight?” and “Could he correct that flaws that allowed Campas to hit him so hard and so often?”

“The Campas fight showed me that I have to fight with my brain, not just my heart, and make defense more of a priority,” Duddy acknowledged. “Yory taught me with his fists, ‘Look, kid; you can’t fight like that or you’re going to lose.’ I’m trying to break some of my bad habits. Hopefully, in my next fight, I’ll show a bit more experience and maturity. I have a good boxing brain, but I don’t always use it as well as I should. The smart thing would be to use my boxing skills a bit more so, I guess, this time we’ll see how smart I am. I know Harry [trainer Harry Keitt] can teach me. The question is, ‘Can I learn?’ I’ve got to fight smart. That’s what makes champions.”

The opponent chosen for Duddy’s 2007 St. Patrick’s Eve test was Anthony Bonsante; a tough gritty club fighter with 29 victories to his credit. Two years ago, Bonsante achieved a measure of fame as one of the boxers on the TV reality show The Contender. The highlights of his career were a win over Matt Vanda and a draw against Prince Badi Ajamu. But he came up short against Kingsley Ikeke and Allan Green, lost four times to Contender opposition, and (more troubling) was defeated by Danny Thomas and Tocker Pudwill.

Duddy arrived at his dressing room for the Bonsante fight at 8:00 PM. “The weather is terrible,” he said. “Sleet, snow, rain, everything.” Wearing black sweatpants and a long-sleeved gray shirt, he did several minutes of stretching exercises; then took off the gray shirt and put on a white T-shirt with large green letters that read, “Legalize the Irish.org.” Beneath that, in smaller type, the message continued, “Irish Lobby For Immigration Reform.”

Duddy likes a quiet dressing room where he can sit alone with his thoughts. His team leaves him alone in the hours before a fight. But the higher a fighter climbs, the more intrusions there are.

At 8:10, referee Steve Smoger entered the dressing room to give Duddy his pre-fight instructions. Smoger was followed by representatives of the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Association, both of which had belts on the line. Then an MSG Network camera crew taped an interview that would air during the telecast.

At 9:00 o’clock, the interruptions ended and Duddy was alone. The solitude of his dressing room contrasted markedly with the scene below.

Duddy-Bonsante had become more than a fight. It was a celebration. Once again, The Theater was sold out. Joe Frazier and Jake LaMotta were at ringside. So was novelist Tom Wolfe. Irish dancers performed in the ring between bouts accompanied by Irish musicians who stood on a stage behind the press section.

Two months earlier, Duddy had noted, “I have people calling to complain to me that they can’t get tickets for the fight. That’s because tickets aren’t on sale yet.” Now John said simply, “Seeing all the excitement on a night like tonight, knowing that I’m responsible for a large part of it; that’s a good feeling.”

The crowd had become a character in the drama.

At 9:30, Grainne entered the arena, wearing a black skirt, a red-and-black silk blouse, and high-heeled red shoes. Her parents, who had come from Ireland for the fight, were with her. Making her way past well-wishers, she settled in a third-row ringside seat beside her father.

The arena was jammed; every seat taken. The undercard fights had been what are known in the trade as “cowboys and Indians.” In each bout, there had been a clear favorite who the promoter expected would win. Six of the bouts featured an Irishman against a lesser foe. Now, to the consternation of many in The Theater, one of the “Indians” triumphed. Five-time Irish National Amateur Champion James Clancy (9-0 as a pro) was knocked woozy by Rodney Ray of Brooklyn at 1:20 of the second round.

It was a reality check for the crowd and for Grainne. This was boxing. Anything can happen. The fights aren’t scripted, and the brutality is real.

Normally, Grainne laughs a lot. Now there was nervous chatter. “I’m completely nervous; I can’t concentrate,” she told her father.

At 10:20, the singing of the Irish and American national anthems began.

At 10:32, almost unnoticed, Anthony Bonsante walked to the ring.

“When I’m watching John fight,” Grainne had said earlier, “there’s every type of emotion. As soon as I hear the bagpipes, I get nervous and have butterflies in my stomach. Then the fight starts and I’m scared; I think of the worst that might happen. But it’s exciting to see your man up there doing what he loves to do and hear the crowd shouting his name.”

At 10:34, Duddy began his walk to the ring. Bagpipes sounded and, as John, came into view, the crowd exploded.

A rhythmic chant of “Duddy! Duddy!” filled the air.

The fighters were introduced. There were boos for Bonsante and a thunderous roar for John.

Grainne clasped her hands and rubbed her palms together nervously.

No matter how stable an environment a fighter tries to create, he is forced by his trade to live life on the edge. One moment of violence can change everything.

As for the fight; Bonsante threw only a handful of punches in the early going, opting for a defensive strategy that allowed Duddy to move forward with abandon. Anthony is a survivor but he lacks power. John is relentless against opponents of that caliber and was the aggressor from the opening bell.

Grainne leaned forward in her chair during the fight, fidgeting with her fingers and watching intently. She was largely silent but joined in when the crowd chanted, “Duddy! Duddy!” An occasional “Ohhh” escaped her lips when either fighter landed solidly. “I think I’m sweating more than John,” she said at one point. Then she cupped her hands on either side of her mouth and shouted, “C’mon, John.”

Duddy showed the same defensive flaws he’s shown in the past. He didn’t move his head enough or bend at the knees. There wasn’t much need to retreat; but when he did, he often moved straight back while standing straight up.

In round four, there was an accidental clash of heads and Bonsante emerged with an ugly gash high on his forehead. The cut bled for the rest of the fight, dripping into his eyes and onto his gloves whenever he tried to clear his vision.

“He kept wiping the blood away with his gloves,” Duddy said afterward. “Every time he hit me, I got splattered with his blood.”

In the middle rounds, Bonsante landed some good shots (better than John should have allowed), but they didn’t have much effect. Meanwhile, Anthony’s blood was streaming down his face. It stained both fighters’ trunks, their socks, even the undersoles of their shoes as they moved around the blood-splattered ring canvas. After round nine, the cut had worsened to the point where Bonsante was no longer able to continue. Because it had been caused by an accidental head-butt, the winner was determined by the judges’ scorecards. This observer gave every round to Duddy. The judges favored him by a 90-81, 89-82, and 88-83 margin.

When the decision was announced, a happy smile crossed Grainne’s face. Then she put two fingers between her teeth and let out an ear-splitting whistle.

But there was an unanswered question: “What had Duddy learned from fighting Yori Boy Campas?” Bonsante didn’t truly test him. Eddie McLoughlin says that he wants John fighting in the main arena at Madison Square Garden for the middleweight championship of the world on St. Patrick’s Day weekend 2008. But despite the hype, Duddy isn’t a legitimate title contender yet.

“We’re not jumping over mountains here,” trainer Harry Keitt said in the dressing room after the fight. “We take things one fight at a time. A win is a win. John did what he had to do tonight.”

Meanwhile, Grainne was on her way to a nearby bar to have a beer with her father. “John has to change clothes and talk to the writers and television people,” she said. “If I’m there, I’d just be in the way. A beer with my da will calm me down.” She fingered her cell phone. “I’ll wait for the call; John saying, ‘It’s over. Meet me out back; we’re going home.’”

* * *

John Duddy isn’t the only fighter with a noteworthy demographic who plied his trade at Madison Square Garden this month. On March 3rd, Roman Greenberg won a ten-round decision over Michael Simms to raise his record to 25-0 with 17 knockouts.

The 24-year-old Greenberg is a rarity in boxing. He’s white, Jewish, a heavyweight, and an Israeli citizen. He also brings to mind a quote from Mark Twain, who wrote, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

Like Wagner’s music, Greenberg is better than a lot of people think he is. He has fast hands, moderate power, and reasonably good defensive skills (but drops his right hand at inopportune moments leaving himself open to a quick left hook). He has yet to face a world-class opponent, but his record against the usual suspects is comparable to the performances of better-known fighters.

Greenberg knocked out Marcus McGee in four rounds. McGee went the distance with Jameel McCline, Malik Scott, and Michael Grant, and lasted into the eighth round against Sultan Ibragimov. Similarly, Alex Vassilev went the distance with Nikolai Valuev, Sergei Liakhovich, and Vassiliy Jirov. Roman stopped Vassilev in six stanzas.

Greenberg’s stoppage of Vassilev earned him the IBO Inter-Continental heavyweight title, which he defended successfully against Alexei Varakin. “But I read recently that someone else was fighting for it,” Roman says, “so I guess I vacated it or was stripped. To be honest, I don’t know which.”

In the dressing room before his fight against Michael Simms, Greenberg displayed all the urgency of a fighter who was readying for a sparring session. He chatted amiably with the members of his team, New York State Athletic Commission personnel, and anyone else who happened by.

“I try to relax before a fight,” Roman says. “It’s no good working myself into a state. By the time I get to the arena, I’ve thought about the fight a lot. I know what I have to do. In the dressing room, I want to take my mind off it for a while. If I think about it too much, I’ll become a nervous wreck.”

Simms is a slick counterpuncher, who came into the bout with a 19-6 record and 13 knockouts. He’s reluctant to take risks and has never been stopped. Roman made the fight (such as it was), using his jab effectively and doing some good body work with his right hand. Then he got into a comfort zone, stayed there, and cruised to a 99-91 victory on each judge’s scorecard.

As for what lies ahead; Greenberg is likeable and well-spoken; traits that mean nothing once the bell rings. And there’s danger in the fact that he appears to be too trusting in the ring. He pulls out of clinches with his hands low, leaves himself unnecessarily vulnerable to headbutts on the inside, and drops his guard at the bell ending each round.

Also, Greenberg has the reflexes of an elite athlete but not the body type. That’s partly because he only recently began paying proper attention to conditioning and diet; and it’s partly Mother Nature’s doing. The bottom line is that he has 17 percent body fat (which trainer-manager Jim Evans hopes to reduce significantly this year). Unless corrective action is taken, he might find that some opponents are simply too physically strong for him.

The short-term future for Greenberg involves physical therapy and possible surgery on a chronically-injured right hand that has bothered him for several years. Then he’ll return to the wars. “I want to fight for one of the four major belts within the next few years,” he says. “Right now, I think that Waldimir Klitschko is the best of the heavyweights. Maskaev and Briggs won’t be there for long. Valuev is underrated as a boxer. I would love to fight him.”

One can envision a bout between the 6-foot-2-inch Israeli and the 7-foot-2-inch Russian being marketed as “David against Goliath”, but Roman has a different view. “Greenberg against Valuev sounds better to me,” he says.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com



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