On March 16, 2007, the Madison Square Garden Theater looked like the setting of an American Order of Hiberians convention.
At least half the 5,000-plus crowd that had turned out for Irish Ropes' annual St. Patrick's Day celebration was comprised of native-born Irishmen, and there was a decidedly Gaelic cast to the evening's dramatis personae as well.
John Duddy, the undefeated middleweight from Derry, Ireland, was fighting "Contender" alumnus Anthony Bonsante in the main event of the imaginatively titled "Erin Go Brawl" card. The rest of the preliminary-bout roster included Limerick middleweight Andy Lee, brothers James and Mark Clancy from County Clare, and Henry Coyle, a Mayo-born light middleweight who was making his professional debut.
An honorary Irishman named Giovanni Lorenzo played a supporting act on the card as well.
A Dominican native fighting out of New York, the unbeaten Lorenzo made a good-natured pitch for support from the enthusiastically pro-Duddy crowd by entering the ring with a large green shamrock tattooed on his back.
Lou DiBella, the New York promoter whose hands-on experience with Duddy had been limited to a one-round undercard appearance on a 2004 Broadway Boxing show, had marveled as he watched the meteoric rise of what had already come to be known as "The Duddy Phenomenon."
"Just how far he'll go remains to be seen," DiBella said that night, "but John Duddy is already the greatest ticket-selling club fighter in the history of boxing."
Duddy-Bonsante turned on a fourth-round clash of heads. For once, it was his opponent rather than Duddy himself who emerged with blood flowing down his face after the collision. The fight was eventually stopped after nine rounds and Duddy, handily ahead on all three scorecards, was awarded a technical decision.
Lorenzo, for his part, had an easier night of it. Matched against Robert Kamya, a 34 year-old Ugandan who had lost six of his last 11 fights, Lorenzo knocked his foe down in the first round and twice more in the third before referee Benji Estevez stopped the slaughter with 22 seconds left in the third.
Lorenzo's inclusion on an otherwise all-Hibernian card was hardly an aberration. Irish Ropes' Eddie McLoughlin had already reserved the Garden for a September Duddy fight, one he hoped would be against DiBella's then-middleweight champion Jermain Taylor. If the Taylor fight couldn't be made, Duddy-Lorenzo, a fight matching a pair of undefeated young middleweights with devoted New York constituencies, appeared to be the alternative.
Asked about his future that night, Lorenzo replied, "That's up to my managers. But I hear they've been talking to Duddy's people."
The Duddy-Lorenzo New York turf war failed to materialize. Two months later, Duddy outpointed Dupre Strickland at the Beacon Theatre, and then -- he had never before fought professionally in his homeland -- had his next three fights in Ireland, disposing of European opponents in two bouts at Dublin's National Stadium before outpointing veteran Howard Eastman in Belfast last December.
Lorenzo engaged in three more fights over 2007, blasting out a trio of unthreatening journeymen. None of them lasted three rounds.
By '08, Duddy was rated the No. 2 middleweight by both the WBC and WBO, Lorenzo the No. 1 contender in the WBC rankings. Both were in the top 10 of all four recognized sanctioning bodies.
Although no one seems able to pinpoint exactly the moment Duddy lit the spark that produced a devoted and almost fanatical following, by 2006 it was already clear that he could put 5,000 posteriors in the seats merely by showing up.
A career that began in 2003 with an auspicious display of raw punching power (he knocked out his first nine opponents, and 13 of his first 14, eight of them in the first round) had by then segued into a second phase in which he displayed a ferocious, crowd-pleasing, nonstop attack that essentially disdained defense.
"I'm not stupid," Duddy said after one of these performances. "I know that as I move up in class they're not all going to be first-round knockouts."
This was followed by a phase best described as Duddy Phenomenon Part III, one that has lasted to this day. As the quality of opposition stiffened, the very qualities that had made Duddy so attractive to his adoring public increasingly became a liability.
Although he continued to win, not only was he hit with alarming frequency, but he could be counted upon to be cut nearly every time he stepped into the ring.
When he met Canadian-based Tunisian Walid Smichet on the undercard of February's Wladimir Klitschko-Sultan Ibragimov card in New York, promoter Bob Arum had already arranged a news conference the following day to announce a title fight between Duddy and Kelly Pavlik, who by now owned the middleweight title as well as two victories over Taylor.
Singularly unimpressive against Smichet, Duddy eked out a majority decision, but incurred three severe cuts (the worst of these, along his left eyelid, would alone require 22 stitches) that would keep him out of action for the next four months. The title fight had probably evaporated even before the final bell, but was in any case deferred indefinitely.
"Duddy looked dreadful," said Arum afterward. "I don't know what happened. He may have been overanxious because the Pavlik fight had already been agreed to, and the cuts didn't help, but what I saw didn't measure up to a world-class fighter. This guy [Smichet] wasn't the fastest fighter in the world, but he was able to hit Duddy with everything he threw."
Although their meeting in the ring never materialized, Duddy and Lorenzo found themselves in the same room again last Saturday at the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla. Duddy, 24-0, was a week away from his own return to the ring against Charlie Howe in Boston. Lorenzo, 26-0, was matched against veteran Raul Marquez in a bout that was supposed to be his rite of passage to a middleweight title fight.
In truth, Duddy would probably have preferred to be in Memphis, where his sometime sparring partner Andre Berto was fighting for the WBC welterweight title on HBO the same evening, but since the Seminole casino is but an hour's drive from the Phantom Gym in Miami where he (and Berto) had been working with new trainer Patrick Burns, he instead found himself in a ringside seat in Hollywood.
In a bout that preceded Arthur Abraham's annihilation of Edison Miranda in their Showtime rematch, Marquez turned back the clock to hand Lorenzo his first career loss. Although Lorenzo had entered the ring a 3-1 betting favorite against a man who hadn't beaten an opponent of consequence in over a decade, his lack of big-fight experience (as Marquez pointed out, despite 26 pro fights Lorenzo had never gone beyond eight rounds) quickly became evident.
Many considered it an upset of the first order, but Duddy, for one, was not surprised.
"On paper our records might have seemed comparable, but he hadn't faced the caliber of opposition I had," said Duddy. "It was about time for him to face a challenge, and when the challenge came, he wasn't able to measure up.
"I stepped up and fought a wily old pro in Yory Boy Campas after 17 fights," Duddy pointed out. "Lorenzo didn't do it until his 27th [fight] and if there's one thing I've learned from fighting guys like Campas and Howard Eastman it's that they make you work every second if you make a mistake, they're going to make you pay for it."
Duddy feels Lorenzo lost the fight more than Marquez actually won it.
"My hat's off to Marquez," said Duddy. "He's a true warrior, but Giovanni played right into his hands. I don't think he took a forward step all night, and he wasn't used to that. And the one thing you need to do if you're going to keep a southpaw off you is use your jab, but Lorenzo had gotten by relying on his right hand for so long that he wasn't able to use his left the way he needed to in that fight.
While Lorenzo was at a loss for answers against Marquez, Duddy points out he has been able to find ways to grind out wins in close fights.
"The other difference between me and Lorenzo is that I am still unbeaten," Duddy said. "People act as if Smichet was a setback, but say what you will, I did win that fight."
Although he has never tasted defeat as a pro, Duddy has experienced enough ups and downs over the past few years that it is not difficult to place himself in Lorenzo's shoes. His advice to his fellow New Yorker would be the same he himself is following after February's disappointment: Get back on the horse as soon as you can.
"You don't want to sit around thinking about those for too long," said Duddy. "You want to get right back into boxing. If I were him, I wouldn't be looking for any soft touches. What you need at this point is to be in with an experienced opponent who'll hopefully give you some rounds, and present you with new problems to solve."
That prescription would pretty much describe his own encounter Saturday night with Howe, a durable 33 year-old journeyman from Ohio with a record of 17-4-1. Howe had gone eight years without a loss before he was KO'd by Joey Gilbert last fall. It was the first time in his career Howe had been knocked out.
For the Howe fight, Duddy will not only have a new trainer (Burns has replaced Don Turner, who lasted just five fights after replacing Harry Keitt), but a new cutman as well.
Mark Vaz will be Duddy's cutman at the Park Plaza Castle on Saturday. The hope is that he won't be needed.
George Kimball, who writes for the Irish Times and Boxing Digest as well as ESPN.com, won the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1985. His new book, "Four Kings: Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, Duran and the Last Great Era of Boxing" will be published in July.