The popular Irish middleweight never won a world title. But John Duddy ennobled boxing, writes Thomas Hauser
ON September 29, 2006, John Duddy fought Yory Boy Campas at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Duddy was never a great fighter in the traditional sense. But that night, he was great.
A native of County Derry, Ireland, Duddy lived and trained in New York. “I feel at home in America,” he said. “But I’m a guest here. My home will always be in Ireland. I’m not Irish-American. I’m an Irishman who’s living now in New York.”
Duddy was gracious and charming with a thick Irish brogue. He wasn’t just media-friendly; he was friendly to everyone. He looked like a fighter from an old-time movie. In other words, he didn’t look like a fighter. His face was too pretty. His body lacked the clear muscle definition that characterizes many of today’s elite athletes. But his charisma and action style made him popular in the Irish-American community.
Duddy was also linked to a seminal moment in Irish history. On Sunday, January 30, 1972 (a day known as “Bloody Sunday”), fourteen unarmed demonstrators were shot to death by British soldiers during a civil rights march in Northern Ireland. The march had been organised by Derry MP Ivan Cooper to protest a policy of internment without trial that the British government had introduced on August 9, 1971. One of the dead was seventeen-year-old John Francis Duddy.
“He was my uncle,” John said. “That’s my history, and there’s nothing I can do about it. His name was John Francis Duddy, and my name is John Francis Duddy. He was a fighter and I’m a fighter, but I didn’t become a fighter because he was a fighter. My father never talked at length about my uncle when I was growing up. It wasn’t a political home. We were taught to treat people with respect regardless of race, creed, or colour. My uncle’s death was a tragedy but it happened years before I was born.”
Duddy was an atypical prizefighter. There was no wellspring of anger, no history of parental abuse. He’d never slept on the streets or gone hungry as a child. His interest in the sweet science began with his father; a club fighter who posted a 3 and 4 record in the early 1980s. “He took me to the gym,” John recalled. “I started training for the fun of it when I was five and had my first fight at seven. My father allowed me to do it, but he also encouraged me to play other sports and do other things. He always made it clear that I could stop if I wanted to.”
Duddy had 130 amateur fights and won 100 of them. In March 2003, he came to America. “That was my dream,” he said. “I’d been to America a few times as an amateur and knew this was the place to be.” Soon, he was training at the legendary Gleason’s Gym. He turned pro with a first-round knockout of Tarek Rached on September 19, 2003. Eighteen months later in what was expected to be the first big test of his pro career, he scored a first-round knockout of 16-0 Lenord Pierre to run his record to 9-0 with 9 KOs.
Duddy had significant flaws as a fighter. Too often, he stood upright and was disinclined to bend at the knees which left him susceptible to left hooks. He didn’t move his head enough. When in retreat, he tended to move straight back. And his free-swinging style left him open to counterpunches.
“Watching Duddy,” famed boxing writer George Kimball once noted, “was the first time I saw a guy get hit with every punch in a six-punch combination.”
But the ride continued. On March 16, 2006 (the night before St. Patrick’s Day), 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.
By September 2006, Duddy was undefeated with 15 knockouts in 17 bouts. Within the boxing industry, he’d become a much-talked-about phenomenon. Acclaimed sports artist LeRoy Neiman observed, “He has everything that the crowd favorites of the 1940s and ‘50s had. Good looks, charisma, an exciting style. There’s some real dazzle to him.” Jack McGowan wrote in the Belfast Telegraph, “Duddy is riding a magic carousel. He’s impulsive, high-spirited, and a risk-taker; Irish-handsome and Irish exciting.”
“I’m pleased with where I am right now,” Duddy said. “A year ago, I felt like an amateur in a professional sport. I’m a lot more comfortable being a professional boxer now, and I’ve damn sure left my amateur days behind. It’s like a dream, really. I’m fighting guys now that I used to watch on television.”
One of those guys was Luis Ramon “Yory Boy” Campas. Campas was 35 years old with the wear and tear of 96 professional fights on his body. But he’d been to the mountain top and was a former world champion with a record coming in against Duddy of 88 wins against only 8 defeats with 72 knockouts. Five of those eight losses had come in championship bouts against the likes of Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya. John wouldn’t beat Campas by just showing up.
Duddy entered his dressing room at Madison Square Garden on September 29, 2006, wearing pine-green sweatpants and a black T-shirt. It was 7:30 PM, three-and-a-half hours before fight time.
John liked quiet in the hours before a fight. Wordlessly, he sat on a folding metal chair and took a sip from a bottle of water. Sometimes as the minutes passed, he clasped his hands, then separated them and ground a clenched fist into the palm of his other hand. At times, he rotated his head and shoulders slightly. His eyes were closed. He talked to no one. For the next two hours, he sat that way, focussing his thoughts on the violent world that was growing ever larger in his mind. Soon, only the man standing across the ring from him – the man who would try to beat him senseless – would matter.
“I hate the waiting,” John once said of the hours before a fight. “I want to get it started. I don’t want to get it over with, but I want to get it started. There’s a difference.”
At 9:30, trainer Harry Keitt began taping Duddy’s hands. There was virtually no conversation between them. Occasionally, Keitt asked, “How does that feel?” Each time, John answered, “Good.”
At 9:45, the taping was done. “Let’s get dressed,” Keitt said.
Duddy put on gold-trimmed kelly-green trucks and began to loosen up in the center of the room. As he moved, Keitt talked to him softly in the manner of a hypnotist. “Back him up. Break him down. He’s too short, too slow, and too damn old. Break him down. Nice and smooth. Turn your punches over. Put him on his back. Break him down.”
At 9:55, Duddy sat down on the folding metal chair again, closed his eyes, and rotated his head in differentiating arcs. No one spoke.
At 10:20, he gloved up, then went to an adjacent room to hit the warm-up pads with assistant trainer Orlando Carrasquillo. “Speed and power,” Keitt intoned. “Break him down. Nice and smooth. Break him down.”
Then it was time.
Great fights don’t require great fighters. They require good fighters with great courage and heart. Duddy-Campas was a great fight. In round one, Duddy seemed faster, younger, bigger, and stronger. He was the aggressor and won the round. Then everything changed.
Defensively, as earlier noted, Duddy was a flawed fighter. Campas was aware of those flaws. And in round two, he took advantage of them. John was rocked by punches from all angles. A right hand opened a horrible gash above his left eye. Another right wobbled him at the bell.
From that point on, Duddy-Campas was a brutal bloody war. Cutman George Mitchell struggled valiantly to stem the blood that was flowing from above Duddy’s left eye. But every round, as soon as the bell rang, Campas rained punches on the eye again. John was taking a beating.
In round five, a head butt opened up another ugly gash, this one above Duddy’s right eye. Round after round, the fighters stood their ground, punching hard and punching back harder when hit. Both men were hit flush more often than a fighter should be hit. Each man seemed impervious to pain.
In round six, it appeared as though Duddy was on the verge of succumbing to exhaustion. His legs seemed rubbery and his stance widened. In round seven, Campas continued his assault. Blood streamed over John’s swollen face. He was getting beaten up.
Then, in round eight, the tide turned. Duddy staggered Campas with a big righthand and rocked him again at the bell. In rounds nine, ten, and eleven, he poured it on. Like Duddy earlier in the fight, Campas refused to fall. In round twelve, incredibly, Yory Boy staged a rally of his own.
This observer gave Duddy the nod by a 115-114 margin. The judges confirmed his triumph with a more generous 117-111, 116-112, 115-113 decision.
Duddy had done the hardest thing to do in sports. He was being beaten up by a professional fighter. He’d had every opportunity to quit. But he came back to turn the tide and win.
After the bout, Duddy returned to his dressing room. His face was discoloured and swollen. Gaping cuts that would require 24 stitches to close protruded above his eyes. He’d taken more punishment in the preceding hour than in all his previous fights combined. “I’m under no illusions,” John said. “It was a great fight for the crowd; like one of those old fight movies that goes back and forth, back and forth, ding-dong, ding-dong. But for me, it wasn’t so good. I got hit a lot. I have a lot to learn and a lot of work to do.”
But his eyes sparkled with excitement and he seemed exhilarated by it all. “This is what boxing is all about,” he said. “This was more than I’ve ever experienced. It was one of the best personal experiences I’ve had in my life. The cuts were bad. In the past, I’ve had nicks and scrapes; never a cut like this. But if you panic in a fight, you don’t belong in a boxing ring. So I asked myself, ‘Are you going to run or are you going to stand and fight?’ I’d never been in a position like that before, 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’.”
The cuts that Duddy suffered against Campas kept him out of action for five-and-a-half months. After returning to the ring, he won his next eight fights, bringing his record to 25-and-0 with 17 knockouts. Now the WBC listed him as the #3-ranked junior-middleweight in the world. The WBO and IBF placed him second and sixth respectively at 160 pounds. But there were ominous signs that he’d plateaued as a fighter.
Then, on April 24, 2009, Duddy lost a split decision to journeyman Billy Lyell. He rebounded with three wins before traveling to Texas for a June 26, 2010, crossroads fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr. Chavez was just too physically gifted and strong for him. John lost a unanimous 12-round decision.
One of the hardest things for an athlete to accept is that he loves his sport but might not have what it takes to get to the highest level. Boxing is about more than a good support team, dedication, and heart. It requires God-given physical talent. Duddy was fighting to win the middleweight championship of the world, not to be a contender. But he didn’t have the physical gifts of an elite fighter. “I saw so many ex-champions who aren’t doing well,” John said later, looking back on that time. “Physically, mentally, they’re having problems. I was getting into my thirties. I always got hit more than I should have as a fighter. And I realised that being a world champion wouldn’t necessarily make me happy in the long run. Damage is a strong word. But in boxing, every time you fight, you lose a piece of yourself that you can never get back again. I didn’t want to go on longer than I should.”
As 2011 began, HBO offered Duddy a purse in excess of $100,000 to fight Andy Lee. A win would have put him in position to challenge for a world title. But it wasn’t to be. Instead, on January 18, John issued the following statement: After a great deal of soul-searching, I have decided to retire from boxing. I started watching my father train in the gym when I was five years old. I began fighting competitively at age ten. For more than twenty years, I loved being a boxer. I still feel that it’s an enormous honor to be a boxer. But I don’t love it anymore.
I no longer have the enthusiasm and willingness to make the sacrifices that are necessary to honor the craft of prizefighting. 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.
It would be unfair to my fans, my trainer and manager, and everyone else involved in the promotion of my fights for me to continue boxing when I know that my heart isn’t in it. I’ve always given one hundred percent in the gym and in my fights. I have too much respect for boxing and the people around me to continue fighting when I know that I can’t do that anymore.
I haven’t accomplished everything that I wanted to achieve in boxing. But I’ve had a rewarding career. I‘ve enjoyed the satisfaction of winning twenty-nine professional fights and learned lessons from my two losses. I’ve experienced the thrill of fighting in Madison Square Garden, Cowboys Stadium, and, also, my beloved Ireland with crowds cheering for me. I look forward to finding future challenges that bring as much passion and joy into my life as boxing has over the past twenty years.
Barry McGuigan was one of my childhood heroes. His photograph was one of the first things that visitors saw when entering our home in Derry. He had great influence on me when I was a boy. Barry McGuigan once said, “Fighters are the first people to know when they should retire and the last to admit it.” I know that it’s time for me to retire from boxing, and I’m admitting it.
I’m fortunate to have had the support of many good people throughout my career. To my fans; to the people in the boxing business who have been part of my team over the years; and most of all, to my wife Grainne and the rest of my family; thank you for your love and support.
I give you my word; I will not come back.
And he didn’t.