John Duddy Boxes Clever for City of Culture

The former prizefighter comes home to Derry~Londonderry on April 8 to star in For Love at the Playhouse Theatre

31 fights, 29 wins, 18 of them inside the distance. Galliagh man, John Duddy, had a formidable record as a professional boxer: no wonder they called him ‘The Derry Destroyer’.

Two years ago, however, Duddy decided he had simply had enough of hitting people for a living, and being hit (hard) by them. ‘I no longer have the enthusiasm and willingness to make the sacrifices that are necessary to honour the craft of prizefighting,' he commented at the time, with refreshing honesty.

Duddy’s decision baffled boxing’s self-styled cognoscenti. Why walk away from big matches and big purses, when still in prime form physically, and a genuine contender? Duddy was, and is, unmoved by such arguments.

John Duddy

 

Does he miss boxing? ‘No. Not at all.’ And why? ‘You have to look at it like this. I’d been boxing since I was a very young kid, five years of age, and I retired at 31. That’s a long time, and I’m happy with what I achieved. But you know what? That chapter’s over, and I’m looking forward to writing a new one.’

How do you fill the gap left when there’s no more gym work, road runs, or punishing training sessions to fill the daily schedule? How do you match the adrenalin rush of combat? What replaces being in the spotlight, and the thrill of victory?

These are questions that many ex-fighters have struggled a lifetime to answer. Not Duddy. For him, the adjustment to life in civvy street has not been unduly difficult. He has, simply, swapped one type of performing arena for another.

‘I was very fortunate that I was good friends with a former Irish fighter, Seamus McDonagh,’ explains Duddy. ‘He happened to be doing a play about a month after I retired. He used to talk a lot about acting, and he knew that I was interested in it as well. And then, when I announced my retirement, he called me and asked was I still interested.’

McDonagh’s prompting and encouragement was the only stimulus that Duddy needed. Before long he had started training again, but this time for a different occupation – that of the professional actor. ‘I go to a great studio here in New York City,’ he says over the phone, ‘called the T. Schreiber. It’s been running since the late 1960s, and actors such as Ed Norton and Maggie Gyllenhaal have come through it.’

Duddy is bracingly unpretentious about the training he is doing – it’s virtually impossible to imagine him suddenly morphing into a theatrical 'luvvie'.

‘You know, it’s like anything else,’ he comments. ‘When I was boxing I had to go to the gym and learn my craft. Whenever you’re training for fights you hit the bag quite a lot, you hit the pads, and you spar. You practice all the combinations that you’re doing over and over again. Acting’s very similar. To get the lines you’ve got to keep going over them and over them.’

Duddy sees other parallels between boxing and the theatre. ‘Being a fighter,’ he says, ‘I’m not shy of performing in front of crowds. And from our neck of the woods, sure we’re all storytellers. And then the nerves and excitement of getting ready to go onstage is just like getting ready to walk into the ring, when you’ve got the fans, and the crowds, and the audience waiting to see what’s going to happen.

‘You want to do it to the best of your ability, and you want the people that have paid money to go and see it, to enjoy it. And there’s nothing more gratifying than to have a really good performance, whether it be in the ring or on a stage.’

Duddy’s determined, no-nonsense attitude towards his new profession has already paid dividends, with a starring role in an off-Broadway revival of Bobby Cassidy’s boxing play, Kid Shamrock, and an appearance in the Bon Jovi video for ‘Because We Can’.

Duddy is currently garnering plaudits for his performance in For Love, a new play by Dublin actress, Laoisa Sexton, which is currently running in New York’s Irish Repertory Theater. Described in the New York Times as ‘a riotously tart and fiercely energetic production’, For Love chronicles ‘the urban sexual experiences of three women in modern-day central Dublin’.

The play arrives at the Playhouse in Derry~Londonderry on April 8, running to April 13, as part of the UK City of Culture 2013 programme of events. For Duddy, it’s his biggest challenge yet, theatrically. He multi-parts in the play, ‘smoothly inhabiting all the male roles’, as the New York Times put it.

‘I’m really looking forward to going home,’ Duddy adds, ‘to seeing all my friends and family. The feelings I have when I get on the stage, you know, it’s exhilarating and I really do love it. Hopefully the people at home will like the play as much as I do.’

Duddy has been following the City of Culture celebrations from a distance, and has characteristically forthright views on the subject.

‘It’s great to see so much positivity, and hopefully more prosperity,’ he comments. ‘To come back and be a part of that, and help promote Derry and the City of Culture, and see that the future is bright and optimistic, and be part of a play, doing something which is brand-new for me too – it’s great that we can all turn over a new leaf, and look forward to a positive future.’

For Duddy himself, the transition from the rough trade of the boxing ring – a school of hard knocks if ever there was one – seems virtually complete, the future a place of rich, exciting new professional possibilities.

‘I go to school, I go to classes,’ he explains contentedly. ‘I’ve been involved in about ten plays already off-Broadway in New York, and I’ve got a few projects lined up for after we’re finished in Ireland. So this is certainly not a one-off. I’ve been doing acting for the last two years. I’m enjoying it, and I’m going to pursue it as far as I can take it.’

For Love runs at the Playhouse Theatre, Derry~Londonderry, from April 8 - 13.