What do you get when you take dashing good looks, sprinkle them liberally with a rock star’s charisma and add fists loaded with dynamite? A fight promoter’s dream, of course.
In these United States, the dream has Irish roots – Derry City to be exact — weighs 160 pounds and goes by the name of John Francis Duddy. He’s a real crowd-pleaser — oh, and he can fight. He’s clocked only 59 rounds in three years since taming Tarek “The Tiger” Rached inside two minutes in his pro debut.
The wildly popular Duddy is 17-0 and only two of his opponents have retained their senses long enough to hear the final bell. Nine never made it out of the first round; although the number could be 10 if you count the hulking bully the Derry Destroyer laid out in a scrap in Central Park 18 months ago.
At first reluctant to recount an incident steeped in valor and self-defense as if fearful of being labeled another prizefighter gone wild, Duddy, winding up training in the Poconos, chuckles then relents. His mind goes back to that early spring weekend when he and girlfriend Grainne were ambling past the scenic Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.
It was a few days after his sensational debut on ESPN — the dismantling of Kevin Rooney’s then 16-0 prospect Lenord Pierre in 83 seconds at Foxwoods Casino — had thrust him from the back pages of the Echo to national prominence. Millions of boxing aficionados saw the emergence of a new prospect, but evidently not the bully of around 6-foot-4 barreling toward Duddy and the love of his life.
“He was big with a big coat, blonde hair under a cap and headphones,” the 5-foot-11 Duddy remembered.
He might have also been high on something.
“The guy was not right in his head. He walked between me and Grainne and punched her in the chest. I was shocked for three to four seconds.”
So were the other Park goers — some 20 or so lolling around the Fountains. “They wanted to see my reaction,” Duddy recalled. The gauntlet had been thrown down and Duddy picked it up.
“I jogged up behind him and tapped him on the shoulder — before I could ask why he’d punched Grainne, he came at me.”
“I put him down with one right and he shot right up — I knew then that he must have been on something.”
Duddy’s next shots, a left and right, knocked the bully senseless.
Comeuppance had been served.
Onlookers, unaware that they just watched the most exciting Irish prizefighter in recent memory for free, applauded.
“Well done, young man,” an old man reading a paper congratulated him.
When he heard, Eddie McLoughlin, the Mayo-born ex-amateur who’d lured Duddy States-side to turn him into a prizefighter, was aghast.
“You have to be fearful of anything happening,” said McLoughlin, heart fluttering at the thought of any harm coming to his seven-figure investment.
In contrast, trainer Harry Keitt’s reaction was akin to the perfectionist that he is.
“Did you lay him out?” was Keitt’s first question to his charge.
“Yes,” Duddy acquiesced.
“Good,” Keitt shot back, pleased that his fighter had done what he’s trained to do: to render all opponents senseless.
“I’d have done the same,” Keitt said later. “I wish I was there. I’d have helped him out.”
As for the anonymous bully whipped into submission in Central Park, if he only knew who he was messing with.
John Duddy, most pundits will agree, is one of the most exciting young prospects, even if raw and untested in the view of some. He’s a fresh Irish breeze in a sport that’s reportedly been moribund for the last decade and a half.
Named for an uncle who fell in Derry on that Bloody Sunday, Jan. 30, 1972, the 27-year-old grew up around the gym and under the wings of his father Micky and his buddy Charlie Nash, the noted Irish amateur. A frequent Barry McGuigan sparring partner, Micky Duddy’s own modest pro career lasted all of seven bouts (3-4, 1 KO).
Whether it was his papa’s coaching skills or just a case of the fistic apple defying myth and falling far from the tree, young John proved a natural in the ring. He was a boxer then and not the power hitter that has middleweights quaking these days. He went 100-30 in the amateurs, with one of the losses being a narrow decision against Andre Ward, the sole American gold medalist at the 2004 Olympics.
Ward, 9-0 with five whacks in the paid ranks but with ample evidence of cracks in his chin, has long been touted as a future Duddy foe. More immediately, the main hurdle in the Queens-based Duddy’s career is one Luis Ramon Campas, aka “Yory Boy,” his opponent in Friday’s night “Shamrocks & Sombreros” card at the Theater at the Garden.
This stocky Mexican gate-keeper with a slightly pudgy countenance, trademark moustache and soft voice carries brutal power in both hands. His best years may be behind him, but Yory Boy can still crack and he’ll no doubt test the quality of Duddy’s Irish whiskers.
An impressive victory over the 88-8 veteran will be more significant than the trinket at stake Friday night — the obscure IBA belt that McLoughlin admits is a world title in name only. A good win will burnish Duddy’s ledger substantially and raise his stock in a middleweight division lacking oomph.
As outlined by McLoughlin, the Irish Ropes time-table for Duddy, once Campas is respectfully disposed of, entails four to five fights next year “leading up to the big dance for all the marbles, probably in Madison Square Garden’s main arena in March 2008.”
It’s two years since an immigration issue nearly ended Duddy’s American dream and the future now looks very bright.
John Cirillo, the New York PR guru who headed Madison Square Garden’s publicity department for the better part of 13 years agrees.
“John Duddy has all the ingredients to be a superstar. He has a knockout punch, charisma, boxing [ability] and good looks,” Cirillo opined.
Match-maker Jim Borzell, 40 years in the business, sees a world-class athlete with the potential to become world champion and remain champion.
“He’s the best client I’ve had — the best crowd puller,” Borzell adds.
Commercial endorsements have always followed good fighters with looks and charisma such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Oscar De La Hoya and Borzell also spies Madison Avenue around the corner for the photogenic and articulate Irishman.
“Absolutely – Madison Avenue, Hollywood and everything else.”
Self-effacing, Duddy takes it all in stride.
“I don’t take it too serious,” he laughs. “I was a lot uglier when I was younger. Punches gave me character.”
The punches he throws should yield much more.