The Continuing Education of John Duddy

John Duddy holding the IBA championship belt after winning victory over Yori Boy Campas / Photo by Nuala Purcell

By Thomas Hauser, Contributor
December / January 2007

Thomas Hauser takes a look at the Derryman’s biggest battle and the repercussions it may have on his career

On September 29, John Duddy fought Yory Boy Campas at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. The fight was made by Team Duddy with the expectation that it would be the next step up the ladder for the popular Irish middleweight. Instead, it became a harrowing journey and a defining fight in ways that were both good and bad.

To his growing legion of fans, the 27-year-old Duddy is the fourth point on an Irish shamrock. A native of County Derry, he lives and trains in New York. All of his professional fights have been in the United States. Prior to facing Campas, he was undefeated with 15 knockouts in 17 fights.

Within the boxing industry, Duddy has become a much-talked-about phenomenon. Acclaimed sports artist LeRoy Neiman observes, “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.”

Another source of Duddy’s appeal is his apparent vulnerability. He seems too nice and gentle to prevail in a sport as brutal as boxing. He looks like a fighter from an old-time movie. In other words, he doesn’t look like a fighter. His face is too pretty. His body lacks the clear muscle definition that characterizes many of today’s elite athletes. In public, he’s unfailingly cheerful and polite. Not only is he media-friendly; he’s friendly to everyone.

“It’s getting to feel as though, every time I go into a bar, it’s like a question-and-answer session,” Duddy acknowledges. “But I accept the position I’m in and the strings that come with it. I’m thankful that people seem to care about me and are interested in what I’m doing.”

Micky Ward, another favorite with Irish-American fight fans, once warned, “Don’t get into boxing unless you’re serious about it, because it’s a serious sport.” Duddy takes boxing seriously.

Eddie McLoughlin (Duddy’s co-manager) says, “When John first came to New York, he worked for my construction company and I saw the effort he put in. He pulled his load and more. And then, after a full day, he’d go to the gym and work just as hard.” Junior-welterweight contender Paulie Malignaggi shares the floor with Duddy at Gleason’s Gym and observes, “John is one of the hardest-working guys I’ve ever seen.”

Meanwhile, virtually every promoter in boxing wants to do business with Duddy because he sells tickets.

“I’m pleased with where I am right now,” John said earlier this year. “The steps I’ve taken so far have been the right ones. I’ve shown that I’m not just a one punch fighter and that I can go the distance. I’m using my jab more and moving my head. Every time I get in the ring, I’m taking steps. They may be small steps, but they’re always steps forward. There’s a lot more improvement that I need, but I’m progressing nicely. 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 Campas. Yory Boy is 35 years old with the wear and tear of 96 professional fights. But he has been to the mountaintop and is a former world champion whose record coming in against Duddy was 88 wins against only 8 defeats, with 72 knockouts. And five of those eight losses had come in championship bouts against the likes of Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya. It was clear that John wouldn’t beat Campas by just showing up.

On fight night, Duddy entered his dressing room at Madison Square Garden wearing pine-green sweatpants and a black T-shirt. It was 7:30 p.m, three and a half hours before fight time.

Duddy likes a quiet dressing room, and this one conformed to his taste. Wordlessly, he sat on a folding metal chair and took a sip from a bottle of water. For the next two hours, he would sit that way, focusing 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.

Sometimes John 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.

“I hate the waiting,” Duddy has 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 his fighter’s hands. There was virtually no conversation between them. Occasionally, Keitt asked, “How does that feel?” Each time, Duddy 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, John is a flawed fighter. He doesn’t move his head enough or bend enough at the knees. When he retreats, he tends to move straight back while standing straight up. Too often, he carries his hands low.

Campas was aware of Duddy’s 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. Some ring judges score blood more than they should. And in any event, 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 again. 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.

After the bout, Duddy returned to his dressing room. His face was discolored and swollen. Gaping cuts that would require 24 stitches to close protruded above his eyes.

“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 that. 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?’”

“Do you ever ask yourself why you’re doing this?” Duddy was asked.

“Every day. But I love it.” A whimsical look crossed John’s face. “People have been telling me for a long time that I don’t have the face of a fighter,” he said. “I guess now I look like a fighter. Anyone who sees me tonight will think there’s a mutant monster walking around the streets of New York.”

So . . .

What is one to make of Duddy-Campas?

For starters, it brings to mind the thoughts of former heavyweight contender Roland LaStarza, whose forte was slick boxing. “I once fought a perfect fight and nobody paid any attention to me,” LaStarza said after emerging victorious from a knockdown drag-out brawl against Gene Gosney. “This time, I almost get killed and everybody raves how marvelous I am. I was terrible, but I was sensational.”

On September 29th, Duddy fought courageously but there were times when he didn’t fight well. And while he was euphoric afterward, Harry Keitt was critical of his charge.

“John has to stop being stubborn and use his boxing skills more,” Keitt said after the fight. “As an amateur, John was a boxer. Then he came to the United States and knocked some people out and forgot about boxing.”

Duddy has the same sort of appeal that Arturo Gatti has. He can lose some fights and keep his following. But against Campas, John took more punishment than in all of his previous fights combined. If getting hit in the head was good for people, we’d all be told to hit each other in the head with hammers instead of going to the gym for exercise. And more to the point, if John keeps getting hit like he did against Campas, he’ll start losing fights.

Duddy had been slated to fight on the undercard of Wladimir Klitschko versus Calvin Brock on November 11th. Given the cuts he sustained against Campas, that opportunity is gone. Most likely, he’ll fight next in January. Eddie McLoughlin is planning another card for The Theater on March 16th, the night before St. Patrick’s Day. “And I’d like to think,” says McLoughlin, “that John will be upstairs in the big arena fighting for all the marbles in 2008.”

Maybe. But for the moment, let’s savor the fact that, on September 29th, John Duddy did the hardest thing to do in sports. He was being beaten up by a professional fighter. He had every opportunity to quit. Yet he came back to turn the tide and win.

And Campas fought just as courageously as Duddy.

John Duddy versus Yory Boy Campas was a reminder that fighters are the tough guys in boxing. Everyone else is soft

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