By Marilyn Cole Lownes, Contributor
June / July 2005
Looking out of a window of the famed Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, John Duddy’s fresh young face lights up with sheer delight at even the sight of a blinding blizzard in early March 2005. Unperturbed, the 25-year-old fighter from Ireland says, “From the moment I arrived in New York I felt right at home here.”
It was in March 2003 that the middleweight boxer left his family back home in Derry to come to America to follow his dream. Today, surrounded by signed photos of boxers including his idol, Muhammad Ali, Duddy, whose boxing record stands at eight knockouts in eight pro fights, is here at Gleason’s to train for his March 18 fight at the Mohegan Sun Casino against Leonard Pierre. Trained by Kevin Rooney, one of Mike Tyson’s former trainers, Pierre, with a record of 16 wins and no losses with 11 knockouts, is Duddy’s toughest opponent to date.
Duddy exercises his neck by standing on his head in a corner of the boxing ring, supporting himself by holding onto the ropes on either side, whilst twisting and turning his head.
Looking on, Duddy’s trainer, Harry Keitt, expounds, “This next fight is a step up for John. John is taking the challenge because he wants to test the person he is. He has such good spirit and is so very focused on what he is trying to do. He’s very humble, not high on himself and he believes in me so he does what I tell him. He may not be the most skilled of fighters but he is the most determined and hardworking.
“He has come here from Ireland for a reason — to be a champion. You’ll have to kill him to beat him.”
After his strenuous workout, Duddy wipes the sweat from his face. His head and neck look quite large and thick on his frame; his square jaw and high cheekbones give his face a sculpted look like you see in Greek and Roman statues.
Gleason’s is buzzing, in part because of the publicity in the media citing the gym as where Hilary Swank trained for her Oscar-winning performance in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, but also because of it’s long history as the training ground for champions.
“I love everything about boxing gyms.” Duddy is passionate. “It’s the smell of leather mixed with sweat and the sound of the gloves hitting the punching bags that reminds me of all the hard work and all the dreams that get left on the floor.”
A wide grin breaks out on Duddy’s face as he recalls, “I remember the times back in our house in Derry when I would go home from the gym and put my gym clothes on the radiator to dry. My mum would yell at me to `put the stinking bag outside.’
“I would laugh and tell her, `That’s the smell of success, Ma.'”
Duddy’s passion for boxing began at the age of five watching his father train as club fighter back in the early ’80’s. “When my dad used to take me with him to the gym, I started having some fun myself and started training when I was five years old.” He smiles. “I had my first fight when I was seven. They made me wear some really big shoes. They put me in the ring against a twelve-year-old lad and after the first round he quit.
“I’ll never forget that feeling when they held my hand up. I was the center of attention and I loved it. I remember it as though I was in a dark room with a bright shaft of light shining down on me. From that moment on all I wanted to be was a boxer.
“My dad didn’t take me back to the gym. He wanted me to get interested in other sports like football or basketball and swimming; he wanted to make sure that I was exposed to other sports. When I was ten years old, he asked me again if I wanted to be a boxer, and I said `Yes.’ It was the only thing I ever really wanted to be. When I was twelve he asked me again and I gave him the same answer.”
For Michael Duddy to see his son, John, fighting must be especially emotional, for his own older brother John Francis Duddy, was killed at age 17 in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972. “They all called my uncle `Jackie.’ He used to box and it was because of him that my dad became a boxer as well. My father was only 12 when Jackie was killed. When I was growing up my Dad never spoke about it. Politics were not discussed in our house, either. I’m lucky because my father never put any pressure on me in any way. I’m not fighting for anyone else. I’m fighting for me. This is my business, no one else’s. Although I’m sure that my Uncle Jackie is smiling down on me watching me fight and thinking I’m doing a good job.”
Never putting pressure on his son, Michael waited until John was certain that boxing was his dream, and then guided him to the tough world of amateur boxing. Duddy fought in 130 bouts, winning 100 of them. After entering international competitions, John felt burned out, which is a common condition amongst those who start fighting at a young age.
Duddy describes it saying, “I couldn’t take the same bad hotels on the circuit anymore; the same bad food, bad buses, and bad plane trips. It just wasn’t fun anymore and, more importantly. I wasn’t getting any better as a fighter.”
It was Eddie McLaughlin, an Irishman who lives in Queens, New York, who changed John’s life. As a friend of Duddy’s trainer back in Ireland, McLaughlin was told that a promising young fighter was interested in coming over to America.
“Send him here and we’ll see if he likes it,” recounts McLaughlin, who is now Duddy’s manager.
“That was my dream,” confirms Duddy, “I’d been to America a couple of times as an amateur and I knew this was the place to be. The best trainers, the best sparring partners, the best of everything in boxing is here. Eddie opened that door for me and he has looked after me ever since.”
Duddy first turned professional when he fought Tarek Rached at Jimmy’s Bronx Caré on September 19, 2003. Fighting as a middleweight at 160 pounds, Duddy is both powerful and tough; he knocked out Rached in the first round. So far the only hiccup in Duddy’s boxing career happened outside of the ring when he was sent back to Ireland for seven months last year. “I overstayed my visa,” he explains. “I was told it would be alright but it wasn’t.”
Faced with the possibility of his dream being over, John became depressed. “Even though my father offered to work with me back in the gym in Ireland, my heart just wasn’t in it,” he reflected. “Nothing could make me pursue my career in Ireland. Ireland will always be home for me. It’s a wonderful country but not for boxing. So I worked as a bouncer, a postman, and a lifeguard until I was able to come back to New York City.”
As far as his life and career goes here, Duddy enthuses, “I’m really very happy because my girlfriend, Grainne, came over here with me. And as far as my boxing goes, I keep it simple. I don’t look too far ahead. The people I have around me are the right people. In this sport a lot of people around boxers put money first. These people put me first. I’m still young. I have a great lifestyle with no responsibilities, like family and mortgages. There is no pressure on me. My friends in Derry all have more obligations. If I wasn’t a boxer I’d be working on the building sites. I feel very lucky. My parents married when they were 17 and 18 years old. They had three of us four kids by the time they were as old as I am now.”
As the eldest of four siblings Duddy describes his family as very sporty. “My younger sister is a jockey, and when I see her tiding those horses I know how nervous my mum must feel when she sees me in the ring,” he laughs. “She tries to avoid seeing me fight. My dad, on the other hand, is even coming over for the Pierre fight.”
“I’m lucky; I’m learning and getting better every day. I’m happy because I’m living my dream, and I’m Irish, so that means wherever I fight I have the Irish fans cheering me on. In Ireland it doesn’t matter whether you are Catholic or Protestant, the crowd cheers for you. Sometimes I daydream of walking through the green fields of Derry, but I really love being here and being a boxer because of all the friends you make.”
One thing you can be sure is John Duddy’s Irish fans will be out in full force in the future to cheer on this likeable and hardworking Derry boy who is following his dream.
Postscript: John Duddy won a TKO in his fight with Leonard Pierre in just one-minute-sixteen-seconds of the first round. He had to chase Pierre around the ring to land his devastating punches, but he landed enough for the referee to see that the fight had to be stopped.
When I talked to John Duddy after his victory against Leonard Pierre, he exulted, “I’ve never experienced anything like it — all those TV cameras and press and so many people around me.”
When he first entered the ring, the TV close-up showed his steely determination, an almost otherworldly expression. John confirmed, “Yes, I was in my own world — just looking at one man, the one in the ring with me. I was only concentrating on Leonard Pierre.
“I was expecting a really tough fight against Pierre, but it’s funny — my coach and manager both had an idea it would play out the way it did.
“My father came over to watch the fight. We celebrated the following evening by Shooting pool and having a few beers together.” ♦