BOSTON -- The brief with which John Duddy had been charged seemed straightforward enough: If he'd hoped to secure a September title date with middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, the Irish pug would need to look spectacular against Charlie Howe in their fight Saturday. Duddy also would need to avoid getting cut, as has been his wont of late.
Though Duddy's work in earning a unanimous decision against Howe certainly was impressive, it would be a stretch to label it "spectacular." And by allowing the Ohio veteran to linger around long enough, Duddy opened the door for a ninth-round clash of heads that left him bleeding from a gash above his right eye.
It appears, nonetheless, that Duddy, now 25-0, may indeed be heading for a September title fight -- but perhaps not against Pavlik.
If new trainer Patrick Burns has his way, Duddy's future may be at 154 pounds.
Irish Ropes, Duddy's promoter, has already been negotiating with Art Pelullo, the promoter of IBF junior middleweight champion Verno Phillips, about a September fight that could take place either in the U.S. (likely New York or Las Vegas) or in Ireland. If the fight were to take place in Ireland, Dublin and Belfast would be considered possible venues.
The cut Duddy sustained required several stitches from Dr. Mark Durfee, the ringside physician. But compared with the extensive stitchery he received after his February fight against Walid Smichet, the wound is comparatively minor and likely won't impede him from a September fight at any weight.
Howe brought a reputation for durability to the Boston fight and won the admiration of the overwhelmingly pro-Duddy crowd at the Park Plaza Castle for his bravery and resiliency in refusing to go down.
"I caught him with a lot of shots and thought he was ready to go a few times," Duddy said, "but [Howe] showed he is a true warrior. He's as tough as they come."
Although there were no official knockdowns, a Duddy left hook in the second did cause Howe's legs to splay and sent him crashing backward, spread-eagled, into the ropes. Had the ropes not stopped him, Howe almost certainly would have landed in the seats, but referee Mike Marvelle declined to rule it a knockdown.
On several other occasions, Duddy appeared to have his opponent in serious trouble late in a round, only to have the bell rescue Howe.
"That's something else we're going to have to work on," Burns said. "He has a tendency to coast a bit in the middle of a round and then come on strong right at the end, so when he got the guy in trouble a couple of times, he hadn't left himself enough time to finish the job."
There is certainly no disgrace in going the distance with Howe, who has been around to hear the final bell against 23 of his 24 professional opponents. And Duddy didn't lose a round along the way, winning by identical 100-90 scores on the cards of judges Bob Kaprielian, Leo Gerstel, and Don O'Neil, as well as that of ESPN.com.
Moreover, Duddy showed enormous improvement over recent performances. Not only did he box patiently behind an effective jab, he also reversed prior form by making himself an elusive target and probably was hit less than in any of his previous 10-rounders.
"I don't have to be brave all the time," Duddy said, grinning. "I decided to stop being so hardheaded and do a bit of boxing."
He can give some of the credit to Burns, who has been working with Duddy for the past month at Miami's Phantom Boxing Club.
"When I looked at films of his earlier fights, it seemed as if whenever he got hit, he had a tendency to get his Irish up and fight like he was coming out of a bar," Burns said. "What we worked a lot on was keeping him patient and fighting under control, using his jab the way he did tonight."
Burns also has managed to succeed where others had failed in persuading Duddy to present a more elusive target, but he said afterward, "I don't want to take anything away from his previous trainers [Don Turner and Harry Keitt]. I've won one fight with John. Those guys won 24 with him."
And if the rest of this year plays out as planned, you also can credit Burns with the inspiration for turning Duddy, a career-long middleweight, into a 154-pounder. Duddy weighed 158½ against Howe on Saturday.
"The more I saw of him, the more persuaded I became that 154 should be his optimal fighting weight," Burns said. "When I asked John about making it, he said, 'No problem.' The final decision rests with Irish Ropes, of course, but that's my opinion, and John is on board with it, too."
Burns' brother, Joseph, is supervising Duddy's weight and conditioning, and Duddy is paying heed to nutritional considerations for the first time in his career. Duddy said he had become stronger even while becoming incrementally lighter during his Miami sojourn.
"If you ask me," Burns said, "the kid just hadn't been eating right."
Of course, should Bob Arum, who has been discussing both Duddy and Sergio Mora to fight Pavlik next, revive the $1.4 million offer that was on the table in February, the decision to reinvent Duddy as a junior middleweight might be revisited. But just as Arum appears to have been playing the Mora alternative as a negotiating position with Duddy, the Irishman now appears to have a viable alternative of his own.
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.