By Thomas Hauser: If a Hollywood studio needed a fighter to play the hero in an oldtime boxing movie, the search could begin and end with John Duddy.
Duddy was born and raised in County Derry, Ireland. He’s 25 years old with a thick Irish brogue, charisma, and matinee-idol good looks. "My home will always be in Ireland" he says. "But New York is home to me now. I’m here for one thing and that’s business. I’m here to box. People come to me all the time and say, ’I’ll get you in movies.’ They promise me this and they promise me that. And I tell them, ’After boxing.’"
Duddy is likeable, gracious, and charming. Two years ago, when he came to the United States to pursue his dream, he brought his girlfriend with him. "People ask me whether I’m married or single," he says. "I just tell them I’m in love with Grainne."
Asked to describe himself further, Duddy observes, "I try to keep things simple. I don’t look too far into the future. I’m confident and straightforward. I don’t like liars and phonies. I’m very focussed on my career. And I believe that a fighter needs passion, not cruelty, to be great."
And, oh yes. Duddy has nine knockouts in nine pro fights; seven of them in the first round. Most of those victories came against soft touches. But last Friday night, in a fight featured on ESPN2, Duddy knocked Lenord Pierre out in 83 seconds. Prior to that bout, Pierre had 16 wins and no losses with 11 knockouts.
Duddy’s interest in boxing began with his father; a club fighter in the early 1980s who posted a 3 and 4 record with 1 KO.
"He took me to the gym," Duddy recalls. "Watching him is how I got involved with boxing. I started training for the fun of it when I was five and had my first fight at seven. It was against a 12-year-old who quit after the first round. When I got in the ring, everybody was looking at me. And when they raised my hand, I liked that. I liked it a lot. From then on, I loved boxing.
"My father never put pressure on me to box," Duddy continues. "He allowed me to do it, but he also encouraged me to play other sports and do other things. And he always made it clear that I could stop if I wanted to. But sooner or later, the other things I did would fall by the wayside and boxing stayed with me. No other place in the world smells like a boxing gym. It’s unique; I love it. The sweat, the leather; it’s the smell of success." Duddy smiles, which he does a lot. "I remember my mother saying to me, ’If that’s the smell of success, go outside and put a hose on it.’"
Duddy fought in 130 amateur bouts, winning 100 of them. He had some success in international competition, but eventually suffered from burnout, a common affliction among fighters who start young.
"It was the same thing again and again," he remembers. "The same bad hotels; the same planes; the same busses; the same bad food. It wasn’t fun anymore, and I wasn’t getting better as a fighter."
Then he met Eddie McLaughlin, an Irishman living in Queens, who’s in the construction business.
"I was friendly with John’s trainer," McLaughlin explains. "He told me he had a kid and might be interested in moving him to America in the future. Then, maybe a year later, he called and said, ’The kid needs to get out of here. He’s at a state where you mention boxing and he just cringes his teeth.’ So I said, ’Send him here and we’ll see if he likes it.’"
Duddy came to America in March 2003. "That was my dream," he says. "I’d been to America a few times as an amateur and knew this was the place to be. The best trainers, the best sparring, the best of everything in boxing is here. Eddie opened that door for me and he’s looked after me ever since."
Duddy turned pro with a first round knockout of Tarek Rached at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe on September 19, 2003. He fights at 160 pounds, which will be his weight for the foreseeable future. He has power in both hands, a jab that he doesn’t use often enough, and a free-swinging style that leaves him open to counterpunches. That’s a switch from the amateurs, where he was more of a boxer than a puncher.
He’s also tough. His jaw was broken in an amateur fight, but he fought through the pain and won. "There were a few times in the amateurs when I was telling my legs to stand still and they were wobbling," he acknowledges. But he has failed to go the distance only twice; once in a fight stopped by the referee when he was ten years old, and once on the 15-point rule in the European championships (In international competition, if a fighter falls behind his opponent by more than 15 points, the bout is stopped).
The only stumbling block in Duddy’s professional career so far was a 7-month period last year when he was exiled from the United States. "I overstayed my visa," he says. "I was told it would be all right, and it wasn’t. I really thought the dream was over. While I was back in Ireland, my father offered to work with me in the gym, but my heart and spirit weren’t in it. Nothing could make me pursue my career in Ireland. Ireland will always be home to me. It’s a wonderful country. But for boxing, the right people and the right knowledge just aren’t there. So I worked as a bouncer, a postman, and a lifeguard until I was able to come back to New York."
Duddy’s trainer, Harry Keitt, evaluates his charge with the thought, "John’s not the most skilled fighter in the world. But he’s focussed; he doesn’t play games; and he’s the most determined fighter I’ve ever worked with."
Duddy, for his part, says simply, "I’m learning and getting better every day. As the months go on, I realize that I’m doing well and holding my own. We’ll see how far I get. If I’m not the best, I’ll be close to it." Then he adds, "I’m happy; I’m living my dream. Boxing has taken me a long way. It’s a tough job, but it’s a good job. And I’m very lucky; I’m from Ireland. That means, wherever I go, I have Irish people offering to help and cheering for me."
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book -- "Chaos, Corruption, Courage, and Glory: A Year In Boxing" -- is currently in bookstores and can also be purchased through www.amazon.com.