Middleweight champion John Duddy on hanging up his gloves.
In 2011, John Duddy retired from boxing. Living in New York, the popular Derry native had compiled a 29-and-2 record with 18 knockouts. He’d experienced the thrill of fighting before cheering crowds in Madison Square Garden and also in his beloved Ireland.
Now, at age 35, Duddy is pursuing a new career. He wants to be an actor.
There is a long tradition of boxers trying their hand at acting. In the 1880s, John L. Sullivan realized that, as heavyweight champion, he could make large amounts of money by appearing on stage in vaudeville and legitimate theatrical productions. James Corbett defeated Sullivan in 1892 and immediately embarked upon a theatrical career that was noteworthy for its longevity and success. Corbett began in vaudeville, made numerous forays into legitimate theater, and worked hard to develop his craft. Late in life, he appeared in feature films.
In the 1920s, Jack Dempsey signed a contract to star in ten Hollywood films for a million dollars. Muhammad Ali starred on Broadway in Buck White, appeared in a television mini-series called Freedom Road, and played himself in the feature film The Greatest. Mike Tyson has landed several small film roles and starred in a one-man show on Broadway.
When Duddy was boxing, he was approached from time to time by entertainment types who suggested that he try his hand at acting. His response was always the same: “Right now, I’m a fighter.”
That changed in January 2001. John had been offered a six-figure deal to fight Andy Lee on HBO. Rather than accept the offer, he retired.
“I no longer have the enthusiasm and willingness to make the sacrifices that are necessary to honor the craft of prizefighting,” Duddy said at the time. “I used to love going to the gym. Now it’s a chore. I wish I still had the hunger, but I don’t. The fire has burned out. And I know myself well enough to know that it won’t return. It would be unfair to my fans, my trainer and manager, and everyone else involved in the promotion of my fights for me to continue boxing when I know that my heart isn’t in it. I’ve always given one hundred percent in the gym and in my fights. I have too much respect for boxing and the people around me to continue fighting when I know that I can’t do that anymore.
“Barry McGuigan was one of my childhood heroes,” Duddy continued. “His photograph was one of the first things that visitors saw when entering our home in Derry. He had great influence on me when I was a boy. Barry McGuigan once said, ‘Fighters are the first people to know when they should retire and the last to admit it.’ I know that it’s time for me to retire from boxing, and I’m admitting it. I give you my word; I will not come back.”
Since then, Duddy has taken acting classes and participated in several workshops. His good looks and boyish charm are appealing. He had a scene in a Jon Bon Jovi music video, and was cast in the role of a young fighter in the play Kid Shamrock. While acting, he has worked for The Padded Wagon, a moving company in New York, to help make ends meet. Now he’s on the verge of moving into more rarefied terrain.
Thirty-five years ago, Robert DeNiro played Jake LaMotta in the Academy-Award-winning film, Raging Bull. In 2013, DeNiro returned to the ring – this time, opposite Sylvester Stallone – in Grudge Match. He needed a trainer to prepare for the fight scenes, and Duddy got the nod.
“I was surprised by how fit DeNiro was,” John says. “We hit if off, and I got to know Robert Sale, who was responsible for choreographing the fight scenes. Sale told me what he wanted to have happen in the ring, and I did my best to get DeNiro ready to do it. The training lasted three-and-a-half weeks. When it was over, DeNiro said I could stay around, so I watched them work until they left New York to film in New Orleans.”
Then opportunity struck.
In September 2013, Sale telephoned Duddy and told him, “You’re going to get a call on your cell phone from a number you don’t recognize. Answer it.”
“I got the call,” John recalls. “I answered it. And it was DeNiro. He was starring in a film called Hands of Stone, and the actor who was supposed to play Ken Buchanan had just pulled out. Did I want the role?”
Hands of Stone chronicles the career of the legendary Panamanian boxer Roberto Duran, known to the world as “Manos de Piedra.” DeNiro is cast as Ray Arcel, Duran’s trainer. Edgar Ramirez plays Duran. Buchanan is the Scotsman whose two-year reign as lightweight champion ended in 1972, when he was dethroned by Duran at Madison Square Garden.
“Filming Hands of Stone was an incredible experience,” Duddy says. “A lot of it, including the fight scenes that were supposed to be at Madison Square Garden, were filmed in Panama. Obviously, it was important in terms of my career. But one of the things that meant the most to me was, I never saw Muhammad Ali train or fight, I never saw Sugar Ray Robinson train or fight, but now I’ve watched Robert DeNiro prepare for a role and then perform that role in front of the camera. That was very special for me.”
Hands of Stone will be released in late 2015. It’s anyone’s guess where Duddy’s acting career will go from there.
“I enjoy acting,” John says. “Being onstage is a bit like boxing. You rehearse; you prepare. You go over your lines again and again until they’re ingrained in your memory. At times, it’s monotonous the same way that training for a fight and doing the same things in the gym again and again is monotonous. And when you’re onstage in a play, like with boxing, there’s an element of fear. There’s no safety net. You’re living in the moment. If something goes wrong, you have to fix it in a hurry. Films don’t have the same element of danger, but I like films too.”
Does Duddy miss boxing?
“No,” John answers. “I’m glad I did it, and I’ll never do it again. My goal when I started boxing was to become a world champion. That was my biggest motivation all those years. One of the reasons I retired was that I saw so many ex-champions who aren’t doing well. Physically, mentally, they’re having problems. I was getting into my thirties. I always got hit more than I should have as a fighter. And I realized that being a world champion wouldn’t necessarily make me happy in the long run. Damage is a strong word. But in boxing, every time you fight, you lose a piece of yourself that you can never get back again. I didn’t want to go on longer than I should. One of the things I love about acting is that, with each role, instead of being damaged, I’m adding to who I am. Even when I’m in a play and have the same role night after night, it’s new every time. That’s part of the fun.”
So, in Duddy’s fantasies, would he rather win an Academy-Award for best actor or be the undisputed middleweight champion of the world?
“That’s a damn hard question,” John answers. “One would have been nice before. The other would be nice now. I hope I have a future in acting. But for the moment, I’m taking things one step at a time. I’d like to get a good agent. I’d like to be a working actor. But whatever happens, I’ve done some pretty cool things so far.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book – The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens – was published in November by Counterpoint.