International Herald Tribune
Ireland's John Duddy a throwback fighter with a modern message
The Associated Press
Friday, February 15, 2008
NEW YORK: John Duddy broke into a wide grin, yanking the fluffy white beard off his chin. Here was Ireland's own, back home in Derry last December, dressed in a ridiculous Santa Claus outfit and smiling like a 3-year-old just woken up on Christmas morning.
This is the promising fighter with the punishing punches and the unblemished record? This is the guy who sells out Madison Square Garden whenever he steps between the ropes, who's built a following in America's biggest city that reminds old-timers of a bygone era?
Turns out there's more to this middleweight contender than meets the eye which, at the moment, would seem like quite a statement.
"He does so much for other people," said Adele McCourt, who works for the city of Derry, recalling the Santa getup to benefit charity. "Everybody loves him, very much so."
Similar sentiments are felt across Atlantic, where the adopted New Yorker has created a massive following among the city's Irish immigrant population.
Duddy is a reminder of boxing's "Golden Era," when big fights would draw tens of thousands to Yankee Stadium and Chicago Stadium. When Sugar Ray Robinson waged his epic battles against Kid Gavilan, Jake LaMotta and the toughest opponent of all, racism. And perhaps most importantly, when the city's melting pot would magically divide for a big fight, with Italians, Portuguese and Germans each backing their own.
"It is like a throwback, when New York was really the center of the earth," said Duddy, who will fight unheralded Walid Smichet on the undercard of the Wladimir Klitschko-Sultan Ibragimov heavyweight title fight on Feb. 23 at Madison Square Garden. "I think whenever I came along there was nothing there at all for the Irish American and the Irish man to support.
"The night before the soccer match (last year), when the Republic played at Giants Stadium, New York was green for a week," he continued. "I came along at a time when my people wanted to see one of our own. They have a good drink, a good sing and a good laugh."
That unabashed love is one of the reasons Duddy has thrown his support to the New York-based Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, attending meetings and wearing a T-shirt into the ring promoting the group's Web site, legalizetheirish.org.
The group estimates there are 50,000 undocumented Irish workers in the United States, lost in the shuffle of illegal immigrants from other parts of the globe and the bureaucracy that comes with applying for green cards and citizenship.
In 2006, the Irish were granted 2,038 green cards and 1,754 became U.S. citizens, according to the most recent data available from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Those numbers are on par with countries like Armenia and Belarus, and pale in comparison to the nearly 84,000 naturalized Mexicans and 47,500 from India.
"What we're seeing now is 20,000 immigrating to Australia each year that would come to the U.S. if they could come legally," said Kelly Finchem, executive director of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform. "Irish people come to the U.S. almost reflexively."
The group has political support from both sides of the aisle, and appears well-positioned for the November election. Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both expressed support for immigration reform, as has Republican front-runner John McCain.
It was McCain who attended a rally in the Bronx a couple of years ago in support of a comprehensive reform package that included a temporary guest worker program and provisions that would have allowed undocumented immigrants a chance to work toward citizenship. The bill made it through the U.S. Senate but died in Congress.
Duddy also attended that town hall meeting and was asked to pose a question to McCain.
"The moderator said we have a question from John Duddy, a couple thousand stand up and give him a standing ovation," Finchem said. "I'm sure Senator McCain was wondering what was going on."
Duddy downplays his role in the campaign. He readily admits he doesn't understand politics in the States, but figures if his people support him, the least he can do is support them.
Besides, the dashing young Irishman has had his own problems with the immigration service.
Realizing from a young age he wanted to be a professional boxer, Duddy moved to New York about four years ago in search of better trainers and better competition. When he went home for a visit, he learned he had overstayed his visa. It took months of wrangling to trim the red tape that allowed him to return to the U.S.
"People who come to work and are good citizens and didn't fill out the right paperwork, I look at it as personal," Duddy said through a thick brogue. "But again, I'm not a big influence on it. I wear a T-shirt and appear at some events. I sort of look at myself as everybody else."
But he's unlike anybody else when he pulls on those green Everlast gloves.
Duddy's straightforward, no-messing-around style has ended 17 of his 23 fights by knockout, and extended his cult status beyond just his Irish brethren.
When Duddy headlined the "Erin Go Brawl" card last March, busloads of fans flooded the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Duddy battered and bloodied Anthony Bonsante for nine of the scheduled 12 rounds in retaining the IBA middleweight title and capturing the vacant WBC Continental Americas crown.
"I want to excite and I don't want to hang around. I want to see if he can take what I have to offer," said Duddy, who enjoys an otherwise quiet life, playing the guitar and reading literature. "In the ring, I don't see any point dilly-dallying around."
Duddy might soon be taking a big step up in class, though, and many wonder how that style will translate against more refined opponents.
Promoter Eddie McLoughlin of Irish Ropes said an agreement is nearly in place for Duddy to fight WBC and WBO middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik in June, most likely in New York, assuming his star gets past Smichet and Pavlik's fight against Jermain Taylor doesn't derail the deal.
McLoughlin can't imagine anything getting in the way of his Irish hope.
"It's looking good right now," he said of the deal. "You know everybody wants it."
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