Duddy still centre stage

HE lights dim and the audience is hushed. Former middleweight contender Bobby Cassidy is led to the front of the stage.

Gingerly, he sits on a stool, clears his throat and starts to read from Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight”.

The 67-year-old speaks slowly, his voice laden down by a 17-year career and the alcoholism that hampered his time in the ring before almost destroying him and his family. After he finishes his monologue he leaves the stage and the part-tragic, part-redemptive story of his life begins to take shape in this Off-Broadway production of “Kid Shamrock”.

Seamus McDonagh, a Birmingham-born, Meath-raised, New York-trained pro heavyweight who fought Evander Holyfield in 1990, is back for this third run of the play, which finished up last weekend in Chelsea.

McDonagh portrays the washed-up Cassidy, working as a bouncer and reluctant to discuss his glory days with a fan who recognises him.

Then there’s John Duddy. The “Derry Destroyer”, who retired in January, carries the play’s dark heart, bringing his own trademark intensity to the younger Cassidy who is preparing to fight at Madison Square Garden on the 1974 undercard of Ali-Frazier II.

When Duddy first accepted this role, he had just quit the ring for good, turning down a six-figure sum to fight fellow expat, Limerick’s Andy Lee, in what would have been an attractive top-billing HBO fight in the US.

Many questioned his surprising decision, not just from a financial point of view but also given his relatively young age: 31. He still had a few fights in him but to this day, Duddy is at peace with his choice. He wasn’t prepared to take the money to be a half-hearted punching bag. That would have been a lie.

As soon as his decision became public, the phone rang. McDonagh knew of an acting role that might interest him.

“There was a lot of attention on me because of what I’d done so the buzz carried over into the play,” Duddy recalls of the February run.

“What I love about acting is that we all rehearse together. When I was training, the cornerman would be there by the side of the ring pushing me and telling me what to do. But I’m not going to do it unless I want to do it. You’re constantly battling yourself.

“But in a play, you’re practising together. If I’m good, you’ll be good. If you’re good, I’ll be good. And it’s fun. I get beat up seven times in a week and I never get a black eye.”

When it ended, Duddy was taken by an ambition he never knew he had.

“It isn’t as intense a feeling as in boxing where you’re conflicting with yourself. The opening night (in February) I was just thinking, ‘I hope I don’t forget my lines.’ But once the lights came on, you’re like a robot. Just like when the first bell goes.”

Duddy is a born actor. His large, expressive personality rides in tandem with his striking good looks, slightly beat up (“a lot of smacks to the nose”) but all the better for it.

It’s difficult to quantify Duddy’s success as a boxer in a city which has traditionally treated its boxers like tattered deities. He fought nine times at the Garden during his seven-year professional career having left Derry in 2003 to chase his dream. He has lived in New York ever since and now that he has swapped the canvas for the boards, his location is as vital to his career as it was when he was heading towards an impressive 29-2 record with 18 knockouts.

In the summer of 2007, he finally fought professionally on home soil, twice in Dublin’s National Stadium (high-profile wins against Italy’s Alessio Furlan and the UK’s Prince Arron) and then in King’s Hall, Belfast with Guyana’s Howard Eastman in the opposite corner.

He won on that latter bout on points but it hardly mattered. For someone who had lost an uncle (Jackie Duddy, 17) on Bloody Sunday, this was the unifying power of boxing.

“That has to be one of my proudest moments. Seeing all them people there. No matter how bad the Troubles were — and don’t get me wrong it was nothing like that in 2007 obviously — there were people there from both sides of the community, standing up singing and cheering me on. That’s class.

“Even before that fight, I was going to places in the Waterside that I’d never been before. Schools, youth clubs. Belfast too. Ballymena. I signed gloves for policemen. That’s priceless.”

His unbeaten record finally ended in April, 2009 and soon after he began to fall out of love with the fight game. He recalls lonely nights at training camp in North Carolina. He remembers so many frustrating missed opportunities, like a rumoured Kelly Pavlik fight.

“People were saying it was signed and sealed. (Legendary boxing promoter) Bob Arum told me it was done “I was tired of being on my own. You know what… it’s like sitting in a room full of room and feeling completely alone. That’s how I felt. You’re in a crowded room, everyone knows your name, it’s the loneliest you’ll ever feel.”

But he got back to winning ways. Beating Michi Munoz in the Garden in late 2009 and Michael Medina in Cowboys Stadium in early 2010 on the undercard of a Manny Pacquiao fight.

He didn’t know it at the time but three months later, he would step into the ring for the last time, losing on points to Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.

“I can sleep at night. I gave it my best. At that stage, I was already on the wrong side of the sport emotionally. I wasn’t as close to it anymore. I gave it 110% at training and on the night but I was fighting myself every step of the way.”

Bobby Cassidy never drank again after he lost that 1974 fight under the influence of alcohol. His path to redemption is what attracted Duddy most to this role.

“It’s a positive message about leaving the sport. Boxing’s always got these sad stories about guys being broke and punch drunk. It’s not about that.

“It’s about a guy figuring out, not only what’s better for him but for his family. Giving them a life that he never had.”

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