By Matthew Hurley
Irish middleweight contender John Duddy is as humble and self-effacing outside the ring as he is tenacious and hard-hitting inside the squared circle. Since his professional debut in 2003 against Tarek Rached, which he won by TKO in the first round, Duddy has created a buzz in the boxing community. His crowd pleasing style, Irish pedigree and engaging personality instantly endeared him to the ‘beer and pretzel’ crowd. He’s a blue collar prize fighter from Derry, Ireland and boxing, in which ethnicity breeds near fanaticism within its fan base, is always looking for that one fighter who can break through and become a star.
Duddy is well aware of the increasing expectations being placed upon him by both the fans and the media but, with a beaming, boyish grin, he welcomes the pressure and the many opportunities available to him. Still, the twenty-six-year-old is cognizant of the pitfalls that come with being a professional athlete. The desire to maintain a level of consistency in performance and continued improvement in skill and technique is often hampered by outside forces. The amiable pugilist makes no bones about how unforgiving his chosen profession can be.
“I appreciate all the support I get from me fans,” he says in his thick Irish brogue, “but, you know, one day you can be on top and the next you could be right back at the bottom and forgotten about. When you lose they all turn their backs on you. I just keep on fighting and keep winning and I’m enjoying the experience. I love me fans and I really do fight for them as much as meself.”
Duddy has compiled a record of 14 and 0 with 13 knockouts. Although his opposition hasn’t been a ‘Murderer’s Row’ in terms of talent, it has been improving and the young prospect has proven himself popular enough to land spots on ESPN’s Friday Night Fights – which has become the best place for young professional fighters to show their wares. Because of his exciting style – an orthodox stance with a charging two-fisted attack – he’s been invited back to the cable network and has developed into a favorite son of his adopted home, New York City.
John Duddy comes from boxing tradition. His father fought as a lightweight in the early 1980s. “Me father was a champion as an amateur and had a few fights as a professional. He had a family at the time so money was tight and I think it was the only reason he did it. So I was in a boxing club watching the fellas work out and there was never really pressure on me to fight. I was active in all sports, particularly soccer, and then boxing just stuck with me because I was better at that than the others, I guess.”
A few years later Ireland would embrace the “Clones Cyclone”, Barry McGuigan as its favorite son, despite the fact that McGuigan, a Catholic, married a Protestant. McGuigan, recently inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, won the featherweight title in 1985 against Eusebio Pedroza in front of a partisan crowd of 27,000 in London and became a unifying figure in both Ireland and England.
So great was his popularity that crime rates would go down in Ireland whenever he fought. Everyone was either at home watching the bout, at the arena or at the local tavern. Religious and political unrest was forgotten for that brief time when Barry fought. He was an iconic figure who inspired many young fighters including John Duddy.
“Barry McGuigan was me hero,” he says passionately. “I also loved Stevie Collins and Wayne McCullough as well – both tough Irish blokes. But Barry was for me what Muhammad Ali is for other fighters. He was it.”
Duddy’s transition from the rural countryside of his homeland to the hustle-and-bustle of the city streets of New York has been a relatively easy one. “I can’t get over how many Irish people actually live in New York City. It’s very comforting for me. I’ve really been enjoying meself.”
As for the future, the young pugilist is optimistic yet also realistic. “I’m still learning, so it’s going to take a while,” he says, but you can hear the anxious pangs of a fighter who yearns for the brass ring. “I want so badly to get to the top and prove meself and please me fans. I want to be the total package. I want to be champion.”
With the heavyweight division in such disarray since the retirement of champion Lennox Lewis the boxing world has looked to the lighter weight classes to carry the sport’s torch, much as it did in the 1980’s when names like Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran dominated the sports pages.
A bright, Irish beacon of hope might very well be what boxing needs right now. His crowd-pleasing style, his charming personality and a wide open boxing landscape may just allow John Duddy to become that next great star. At the very least, he’s got the punch and the boyish smile to go a pretty long way.