By Mitch Abramson
For nearly ten days, John Duddy has been throwing punches in a boxing ring. But the punches weren’t real, and they weren’t meant to inflict harm. Duddy, the former popular middleweight was playing a role he was born to play: that of a boxer in the title role of “Kid Shamrock” in an off-Broadway production in Manhattan. Following a performance last week, the actors, many of them former boxers, lingered on stage as audience members lobbed questions. At one point, Duddy said the following about the sport he left behind in January:
"There really aren’t many good people in boxing,” he said. “It’s just how it is.”
Later in a phone interview, Duddy went into more detail about what he meant. Of course, the whole point of contacting Duddy was to ask if he was truly retired. Duddy announced he was leaving the sport in January, giving up the chance to fight Andy Lee on HBO. Duddy is still young, still in shape, and judging by the punches he threw in the play, can still fight. Was there a chance he was contemplating a decision to return to the ring as a fighter? The answer to that query, was, no.
“I’ve closed that chapter in my life,” he said over the phone. “When I made that decision to retire it was a final decision and I’m truly finished with being a fighter. The sport will always be with me. But I’ve had my time in the sun. I fought main events four times at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. I fought in the big arena five times. I fought at Cowboys Stadium in Texas. I did much more than I ever thought I would do in boxing. I’m happy with what I did. It’s time to move on to the next chapter of my life now. I don’t look back.”
When Duddy talks, he does so confidently, in quick staccato bursts. He doesn’t miss the rigors of training, he says, or the fights, or the dealings with promoters. The bout with Lee on March 12 during St. Patrick’s Day weekend would have paid him more than $100,000. A win would have led to a title shot. He released a statement back in January explaining why he made such a decision to back out of the fight despite the potential rewards.
“After a great deal of soul-searching, I have decided to retire from boxing," Duddy said. "In many ways, continuing to fight would be the easy course of action. I have been offered the opportunity to fight Andy Lee on HBO for a purse in excess of $100,000. A win would put me in position to fight for a world championship. This is not an opportunity that I cast aside lightly."
He had simply soured on the sport, he explained, after dedicating more than 20 years to the sport. He just didn’t have the fire to train hard anymore.
“I no longer have the enthusiasm and willingness to make the sacrifices that are necessary to honor the craft of prizefighting,” he went on. “I used to love going to the gym. Now it's a chore. I wish I still had the hunger, but I don't. The fire has burned out. And I know myself well enough to know that it won't return."
Harry Keitt, his longtime trainer, who was replaced, and then brought back at the end of Duddy’s career, wasn’t surprised by the announcement. In a way, he had seen it coming. Duddy had expressed a desire to get out of the sport while he was in training camp in the Poconos to fight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. last year, according to Keitt.
“He just wasn’t there in training,” Keitt says. “His body and heart was there but his mind and soul wasn’t there. One time I said, ‘Yo what’s wrong?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to be here. I want to be with my wife. I don’t want to be in camp.’ I just think he got worn out after a while, after being with all these different trainers, and what happened to him [on the business side]. He just shut down after awhile. He didn’t have the fire anymore. John was always very determined, very ambitious. He was the Irish Arturo Gatti. He lost that fire.”
Duddy made it clear last week that not much has changed since he issued the statement in January. The passion and drive to box and train and get hurt and hurt back is still absent.
“I’m 32 years old now,” Duddy said over the phone. “On record, I’ve spent 22 years of my life in boxing. The first time I was in a gym I was five. That’s a lot of time doing something. I gave it the attention the sport deserved. I put in the time. But it will be nice to write a new chapter in my life. Hopefully, I can find the next thing that I can do.”
He’s been bitten by the acting bug, he says, though it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Duddy is now contemplating a career on stage. As a fighter, Duddy had a flare for the dramatic, whether he was hurt or getting hurt or entertaining the media outside the ring. But it wasn’t just the way he told a story. He was movie star handsome, and he fought with a reckless abandon earlier in his career that endeared him to fans.
He was the top ticket seller in the Northeast for a time, and with an undefeated record, was on the precipitous of a title shot with a prime Kelly Pavlik when he ran into a little-known buzz saw named Walid Smichet back in 2008 at Madison Square Garden. The cuts that Duddy accrued in that fight, while Pavlik’s promoter, Bob Arum sat in a nearby seat, caused a potential fight with Pavlik to be called off, and Duddy hopped on a plane and went back to his native Ireland to lick his wounds right after the fight. It was a stunning situation because Duddy was basically assured of the title shot, and looking back, that moment was probably the beginning of the end for Duddy’s career.
“I know that it wasn't what people expected," Duddy told me after the bout with Smichet. "He was a tough guy and I fought the wrong fight. Perhaps I was looking past him. There was a lot of media hype about a fight with me and Kelly Pavlik. But at the end of the day, I'm still 24-0 and I'm enjoying my life as a professional boxer."
Over the next few years, Duddy would sour on the sport, leaving the management company, Irish Ropes that had developed him as a fighter over conflicts with money. It was a bad break up that left a bitter taste in Duddy’s mouth. He would go through different trainers, suffered his first loss to a journeyman named Billy Lyell in 2009 in a performance that was lackadaisical, perhaps the first hint that Duddy was starting to lose his drive.
He fought well against Chavez Jr., in their fight in June of 2010. Duddy even staggered Chavez Jr. late before losing a wide decision that didn’t express how competitive Duddy had been in the loss. Not long after, he announced his retirement.
“I just think something shook him inside to make him leave the game,” Keitt said. “After all he went though in boxing, all the people he trusted and believed in, and then to be heartbroken? I just think he couldn’t take it anymore. His heart and soul was boxing. Boxing was his second love, after his wife. And then to get disappointed over and over again I think he got so disappointed that he couldn’t overcome it.”
Duddy sees a kinder fit with acting, even though he draws a lot of parallels to boxing.
“It’s the same nerves, same adrenaline,” Duddy says. “It’s a little bit different when people are trying to take your head off in the ring. But it’s the same thing in terms of having to work at your craft, the training, the techniques. I didn’t start calling myself a pro fighter until I had the Yuri Boy Camps fight under my belt. So I’m not going to call myself an actor yet. I’m just getting started. I know I have a ways to go but I really enjoy what I’m doing. It’s just about fine tuning and filling the void.”
Playing the part of a young Bobby Cassidy in the play “Kid Shamrock,” Duddy did more than just throw punches. He effortlessly delivered his lines, even losing his thick Derry accent for the part.
“It’s been a great experience,” says Duddy, who stays busy these days with bartending and personal training. “The feedback has been great. I’ve met a lot of great people. Hopefully this is something that I can pursue. I want to do more of this. I’m ready to dedicate myself to acting.”