John Duddy: 'I was tired of sitting in rooms full of people who knew me and I knew nobody'
John Duddy left the kind of mark on Madison Square Garden that most boxers can only dream of, capturing the imagination of fight fans on both sides of the Atlantic throughout an all-action career. Ten years after he last stepped through the ropes, Neil Loughran talks to a man who is still in love with New York, even if life is a little different these days...
YOU’D see the blue vans all around the place most days, even moreso in the run up to Christmas as the city that never sleeps marches frenetically towards a new level of insomnia.
Dodging in between the mayhem of the Manhattan traffic, parked up on side streets in Greenwich Village and out into New York State, men in navy jumpers hulk furniture up and down stairwells - carrying out removals, packing, unpacking, hoisting. You name it, they do it.
John Duddy has worked for The Padded Wagon since 2014. It got so busy through December that he hadn’t even the time to get into the festive spirit.
“How many days is it now – seven? A week to go and there’s still no tree,” he laughs.
“I’m going out to get it here today, definitely. We just haven’t had a chance… the days and weeks are flying by really bloody quickly.”
He waits for Grainne to come back from work before they decorate their Queens apartment. The couple, both from Derry, are married just over 10 years, soul-mates for a whole lot longer.
In 2016 they featured in Colin Broderick’s independent film release Emerald City. Set in the place they now call home, the story follows the fortunes of a group of friends and colleagues, Irish construction workers, in a city built upon the labour of their forebears.
The opening scene shows Duddy’s character, Podge, lying conked out on a bed the morning after the night before. Stirring from sleep, the naked blonde beside him sits up and strains her eyes towards a dog-eared fight poster on the wall.
She stares at the handsome, smiling face of the fighter, fists raised in victory, ‘Madison Square Garden’ in capped green letters below, then back at the ordinary Joe catching flies.
The image was, of course, Duddy’s – a nod to his past, in what had become a part of his future.
Now 40, this summer will mark 10 years since he last walked to the ring and ducked beneath the top rope, the final stop on a remarkable rise from obscurity that led to the boy from Galliagh Park capturing the heart of the Big Apple and beyond.
Acting is his passion nowadays, has been since the gloves were hung up. Like boxing, though, there is nothing given away for free.
Duddy counts Liam Neeson among his friends. He has worked alongside heavyweights of the game like Robert de Niro. But there are also times when the phone doesn’t ring for months.
His ego has long since acclimatised to the whimsical demands of his chosen craft.
Lifting furniture, like the occasional shift pulling pints, not only pays the bills, it sustains the dream. Every now and again though, like the poster on the wall, comes a reminder of a time, a place and a life he once knew.
“I was dropping something off a few weeks ago there and I goes up to the door man to sign for it. He looks up at me, like, ‘oh my God, John Duddy, what are you doing man?’ And I’m like ‘I’m dropping off your Christmas box!’
“It turned out he’d been to a load of my fights back in the day. You still get that every now and again. Ten years seems like a long time ago in some ways, but like nothing at all in others...”
JUNE 26, 2010. The card is stacked with Mexican fighters but there is only one man those pouring through the doors of the Alamodome are here to see.
Julio Cesar Chavez jr, despite his 41 fight unbeaten record, remains something of an unknown quantity, his résumé fluffed up with a fair smattering of middling opponents.
Not that it mattered to the punters in San Antonio. The son of a bona fide legend, the name alone was always going to be enough to command top of the bill treatment, as US boxing writer Bart Barry observed.
“Chavez built his following the old fashioned way,” said Barry, “he inherited it.”
His opponent, in contrast, had taken the back roads to the big time.
John Duddy is the son of a boxer too. Mickey Duddy had a record of 3-4-0 during a pro career that spanned just over two years in the early 1980s - he taught his boy the fundamentals of the noble art.
“When I was five he took me up to St Mary’s Boxing Club and there was Charlie Nash, Damien McDermott, Roy Nash...
“One night Eugene Duffy brought me over to the speedball and said ‘get wee Duddy a chair’ - I’d have stood on that and worked away all night, my heart content.
“I had my first match when I was seven, a ‘smoker’ just by chance. I tried a lot of different sports growing up and I wasn’t great at any of them; I don’t even think I was great at boxing.
“But there was just something about it that fit me. I loved the responsibility that everything laid on me.”
As one of the early High Performance “guinea pigs”, Duddy represented Ireland at the 2002 European Championships during his days in the vest, but the amateur game only ever felt like marking time.
He wanted to be Barry McGuigan; the fact his father was a one-time sparring partner of the ‘Clones Cyclone’ served only to embolden this view. Everything he had read and watched, all of his dreams inside the sport were wrapped up under Saturday night lights rather than in half-empty halls.
“It always felt like a bit of a struggle at home – you’re not really that good, y’know. Are you sure you want to do this? You’re not the best, you’re not an Olympian. I heard those words from the top down, and you soon realise you’re just a number.
“F**k that. I wasn’t getting paid, I wasn’t earning enough money to help my da with the house - I wanted to go pro.”
New York was calling, but then it had been there, lodged in his subconscious since a first visit to the Big Apple a decade earlier told him this was where his future lay.
“I went with a County Derry board team when I was 13. We flew into Newark and came into the city over the George Washington bridge; I’m over that bridge every day with work now but that first time... I dunno, there was just something very optimistic about being here.
“You were looking out the window and seeing the Manhattan skyline, a beautiful sunny day, and all of a sudden ‘get your money for nothing and your chicks for free’ comes on the radio.
“Yer man blares the radio, we put the windows down, and it was just like - ‘I’m in f**king New York’.”
Ten years later, the wheels were swiftly put in motion for a return to the Big Apple.
Tony Smith, a friend from home, was working in construction and knew of brothers Eddie and Tony McLoughlin. Keen boxing men, Smith put in a word, and within months Duddy was heading Stateside.
That association would end in acrimony further down the line but, in the early stages, there was no stopping them. With his good looks and natural charisma, Duddy was an easy sell in a crowded middleweight marketplace, and soon a huge following latched on to follow his journey.
Trained by Harry Keitt, he started his career with four TKO wins in four months, and debuted at Madison Square Garden in his 10th fight.
So began a love affair with the Mecca of boxing, Duddy going on to fight there eight more times around the occasional return home to the National Stadium and the iconic King’s Hall, following in the footsteps of his hero McGuigan.
“I was the only Irish boy around at the time.
“I told Eddie to line them up - I didn’t want to wait about. I liked being busy, because that way you’re never out of shape.
“I never wanted to be one of those guys still fighting in their mid-30s; I knew I wasn’t the best, but I knew I was good enough and that this could give me a good platform to go on and do something else.”
Having climbed the ladder Duddy eventually moved into world title contention, with a shot at Kelly Pavlik on offer if he got past Tunisian tough guy Walid Smichet.
Part of the deal was that he looked good doing it, but by the end of 10 gruelling rounds Duddy’s face resembled a butcher’s block. He won on a majority decision, but both his eyelids had been ripped open, with 32 stitches required to put them back together.
Pavlik disappeared from the radar and, for the first time, Duddy felt disillusioned with the fight game.
“The conversation started changing after, and that’s when I first started thinking about getting out of it.
“My dad came into the changing room and gave me a hug. I was emotional, I told him I tried my best, then he whispered in my ear: ‘Know what John? Give it up. Look at it, you’re in Madison Square Garden, everybody’s here cheering you on. You don’t need this any more’.”
Later that year, he began legal proceedings against the McLoughlins, alleging financial impropriety and breach of contract. It was an ugly but, as he saw it, essential end to that relationship, with the matter eventually settled out of court.
“I don’t know where my head was for a while because I never cared about money, never thought about money, as long as I could pay my bills. Like, I drive a Volkswagen Jetta - I was never into being flash.
“It was always like ‘the money’s gonna come, the money will come’. But then it was always the next one…”
Ten years on, he is philosophical about the split.
“I had a bit of resentment in me but as you get older, you realise things.
“Boxing’s not just about fighting and training, it’s a business and there was meetings I was asked to go to and I didn’t go to them. ‘That’s your job’, I said, ‘I’ll do the fighting’.
“I had the opportunity to be in every one of those rooms myself, so who’s fault is it really? If I knew then what I knew now, but the only one I can really blame is myself.”
That turmoil behind the scenes didn’t seem to matter while Duddy was winning.
But a shock defeat to journeyman Billy Lyell in April 2009 threatened to derail best laid plans, with talk swirling around of a potentially huge dust-up against another US-based Irishman, Andy Lee.
In his next three fights, all wins, Duddy felt as though he was going through the motions.
“I remember my last fight in the Garden [against Juan Astorga]. I knocked him out in the first round, the crowd was going crazy, and all I can do is lift my right hand in the air and walk back to the corner.
“You’re thinking ‘what’s wrong?’ How was I not running around and jumping up in the ring? All of a sudden, I dunno... the tune on me changed.”
The Chavez jr fight offered the winner a way into the world title picture. For the first time on a major card, Duddy would be top of the bill – for the first time too, he would start as the underdog.
Over 12 brutal rounds he battled bravely. He always did. But Chavez jr – at least in this early part of his career – looked the real deal.
Chaired on the shoulders of his famous father, an 8,000-strong partisan crowd cheered as Chavez jr was paraded around the ring. In the dressing room backstage, Mickey Duddy stepped through the door and into the quiet.
“I love you,” he said, proudly throwing his arms around his son.
He didn’t need to say any more.
“ARE you alright?”
Harry Keitt kept asking the same question in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The straight-talking Brooklyn native had known John Duddy since he stepped off the plane seven years earlier.
They had spent countless hours training together at Gleason’s Gym, chatting the clock around too once the pads had been downed. Harry was a friend, a confidante; he could tell there was something up.
HBO wanted to put Duddy v Andy Lee on at the Garden on St Patrick’s Day but, a couple of months out, not only could Keitt not light the fire, he no longer recognised the fighter in front of him.
“In my heart, I was done with boxing before the Chavez jr fight.
“I’d had these phases before but then it would click, I’d feel the nerves again, the pulse rate, but it just wasn’t coming.
“I was in sparring with young fellas getting ready for the Golden Gloves and I was trying to hurt them. Harry was shouting at me ‘John, what are you doing?’ ‘Harry, they’re trying to tee off on me’... my attitude had changed.
“One day this kid landed a few shots and, because my head’s not really here, I’d go and unload a big left hook or a right hand on him. Naw John, you’re turning into an asshole.
“Harry pulled me to the side and asked me what was wrong. I said I didn’t know. ‘What’, he says, ‘do you think you don’t have it any more?’
“Naw Harry,” he replied, “I f**king know I don’t.”
At the end of January 2011, Duddy announced his retirement. There was no going back, and there has been no going back.
Seamus McDonagh, the former heavyweight contender from Meath who went toe-to-toe with Evander Holyfield, reached out to and helped him get set up with an acting studio.
“It was just as terrifying,” he laughs.
“Ah, nobody gets hit anyway so it can’t be that bad. A bruised ego? I’ve no problem with people telling me I’m shite, I can always go back to an acting class and work on it.
“It’s fun, the people I’ve met in and around that world are good people. I was tired of sitting in rooms full of people who knew me and I knew nobody, them all patting me on the back and I have no clue, shaking this person’s hand and that person’s hand.”
Emerald City was showcased at the Belfast Film Festival in 2018, while Duddy plays Tyrone man Matt Donnelly in another Colin Broderick production, A Bend in the River, which is set for release this year.
Memories of his fighting days are never far away, though. Every now and again he drives past Madison Square Garden in the van, the butterflies rising in his stomach every time.
“Look, it’s hard, there’s no point saying otherwise,” says Duddy, who has worked alongside people with Parkinson's disease during recent months, using boxing training to help with their movement and co-ordination.
“I lived the dream and then it comes to an end and all of a sudden I’m lifting up people’s furniture for a living. Sometimes you have moments, but at the end of the day my mammy and daddy raised me well, there’s no job beneath me. I’m not above anything.
“I try to keep myself busy but there are days when you have these depressing moments… like, where we come from, depression’s a huge thing that’s never talked about or acknowledged.
“As I get older, I realise there’s a lot of things we don’t acknowledge, and if we just did it would pave the way to a lot more happy times ahead. Without Grainne in my life, I don’t know where the hell I would be. She’s my anchor, the person I wake up with, the person who’s waiting for me to come home.
“Do I miss it? Of course I miss it. I could still go back fighting, even now. Someone would put me on their card I’m sure if I only asked, but I don’t want to go back. The only thing I have of myself boxing in the house is a gift from Madison Square Garden saying ‘John Duddy, 9-0, four KOs - Garden Great’.
“I did that shit, and it’s nice. I’m proud of that, but I can’t live off it. We’re fit, we’re healthy, I’m enjoying myself and if the movie does well, or if it doesn’t, I’m still going to be lifting furniture or giving people pints, or training kids, or finding some other way of work.
“Because that’s the way life is for all of us, no matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done.”