Ahead of Conor McGregor and UFC’s debut at Madison Square Garden, Peter Carroll spoke to three Irish boxers who have competed at the iconic venue
The picture hanging in John 'The Derry Destroyer' Duddy’s New York residence says a lot about his accomplishments in boxing, and particularly, Madison Square Garden.
Presented to him by one of the managers of the iconic venue, the caption reads 'John Duddy 9-0 at Madison Square Garden,' as well as underlining his 'four knockouts' in the hallowed arena.
"It felt like home," he remembered his run at The Garden. "It was brilliant.
"I had been living over here for a few years before that and there hadn’t been an Irish boxer that had based themselves in New York for quite a while.
"There was a long time spent building my name on the Irish shows around Brooklyn and Queens, and I think because I had established myself with those Irish societies, that’s what made it possible for me to fight in The Garden nine times.
"When I made it there the whole city turned green. The last time it had been like that was when Ireland played Italy in the 1994 World Cup.
"The thing is, there are many Irish people in New York, but there are even more people who want to be Irish. Everyone comes out together and celebrates when an Irish fighter or team are competing, and I definitely got a taste of that from my time in the ring."
John Duddy, right, of Ireland, in action against Matt Vanda during their fight at Madison Square Garden in New York on Saturday, Feb. 21, 2009. Duddy won a 10-round decision. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
Although Duddy believes the prestige of fighting at the King’s Hall in Belfast may have eclipsed competing at The Garden, he still understands that on an international level, the visibility that comes with fighting at the New York landmark puts it on a completely different level.
"It’s the ultimate honour. I grew up watching the legends fight here – Jake LaMotta, Rocky Graziano, 'Sugar Ray' Robinson, Tony Zale, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier – they all fought there.
"The only thing that came close to it for me was fighting in the King’s Hall in Belfast. I see it as our version of MSG. Back in the 20s, 30s and 40s, there were three fights there every week. In places like that, it feels like you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
"The difference between the King’s Hall and MSG is, the whole world knows that you fight when you fight at The Garden.
"I fought some huge fights in the King’s Hall and I would come back to New York a week later and everyone would ask me when I was fighting again. They didn’t even know that I had fought the week before. Every corner of the world knows about it when you fight at The Garden.
"I can remember the first time I had my hand raised there, it was on a Miguel Cotto undercard. My hand got raised and then I just started thinking to myself, 'Holy shit, Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier here.'
"Then I looked out into the crowd and there was this massive green army there. Honestly, it was a sea of green, white and orange."
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that UFC star Conor McGregor's debut at Madison Square Garden on November 19 could produce the biggest fanfare for 'The Notorious' given the city's links to the Emerald Isle.
Thousands of Irish are set to make the journey to The Big Apple for the November 12 event. Duddy was recently able to take in Carl Frampton's capture of the WBA super featherweight title in Brooklyn, and based on what he saw, we could be in for some magical moments next month.
"The atmosphere was unbelievable when Frampton came to Brooklyn. Again, you just got the feeling that there was an immense amount of pride in the arena, Irish people just love to see one of their own doing well.
"The night Frampton fought in Brooklyn I saw three drunk lads singing 'The Fields of Athenry'. One lad had a Northern Ireland flag on him, another had a Union Jack and the last lad had an Irish tricolour.
"Only in New York would you get that. When you’re in New York and you’re Irish, we’re all one. We’re all at home."
Joe Frazier was among a host of famous names to fight at Madison Square Garden, including this bout against Jerry Quarry in June 23, 1969. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Because he was so involved in his own fight nights, Duddy never really got the chance to sit back and smell the roses when it came to the atmosphere that surrounded his bouts.
Six years on from his retirement, he is beginning to understand what it meant for the Irish back home to see a man from their country competing at the pinnacle of the sport.
"I just used to see some of my fights in New York as an excuse for another night out on the town, but it means a lot more to the people than that," he said.
"My father used to tell me often, and Andy Lee even said it, we never really saw people travelling over to the US for three days to see a fight, but they would come over in their droves from Ireland to see me. It was an incredible honour.
"My uncle Patrick, God rest him, I can remember him saying something to me over a few pints of Guinness with my Dad and the rest of his brother after one of my fights. It really forced me to acknowledge the situation.
"That night he said to me, 'Jesus son, do you know what you’re doing? The only time we get together is for a Christening or a funeral. We’re all here for you. You don’t get to see it because you’re in the changing room and the ring, but there are people that have never met you in their lives that are coming over here to watch you fight.'
"That’s a pretty amazing thing to think about, and I’m very grateful that people did that for me."
Duddy’s resonance with the venue remains today. He recalls being given exaggerated parking discounts by workers who remembered him at the height of his power. His old fights are still played on the MSG channel which often makes people who are unaware of his status ask him when he is fighting again.
In the thousands of memories that he made at the Garden, there is one in particular that stands out for the former middleweight champion.
"I was just after winning the IBA world title and I was a high. Next thing I knew, there was Jake LaMotta sitting in the front row after watching my fight. Beside him was Joe Frazier, so I went over and I started to shake hands with them–two of my heroes.
"What I didn’t notice was beside Joe Frazier, was our very own Martin McGuinness! I couldn’t believe it, I said to him, 'Dear God, Martin. What are you doing here?'
"He said to me, 'I’m here to watch you son'," a memory that forces to the Irish boxer to fold with laughter.
"On the same night, my wife and family were sitting up with Liam Neeson. So I got home and I start to see all of these pictures with my wife and these A-listers, but meanwhile I’m thinking, 'I was the one that they all came to see and I still haven’t f**king met him yet!'
"I finally got to meet him six months later, though."
Conor McGregor enjoyed huge Irish support when he fought Dennis Siver in Boston last year. Image: Gregory Payan AP/Press Association Images
Duddy isn’t the world’s biggest UFC fan, but he doesn’t miss a McGregor fight. The fact that McGregor himself used to come to watch Duddy fight at MSG has nothing to do with it, though. The Derry man actually forgot that he met the Dubliner when he was just a plucky young upstart, but luckily his brother was on hand to remind him about it.
"I don’t know if he remembers it, but McGregor was at one of my weigh-ins before I fought at The Garden. A guy introduced him to me at the time and I didn’t remember it, but my brother was over and he actually has a photograph of it.
"It was 2008 or 2009, Conor had a shaved face and a shaved head at the time. Whoever was with him said, 'Do you know Chuck Liddell?'
"I said 'Aye, the UFC', and the guy turned around to me and said, 'Well this guy here is going to be the future'. He told me his name was Conor McGregor and that he boxed out of Crumlin for a while.
"I remember Conor asked me would I ever try MMA and I told him, 'No, big man. When my arse hits the canvas I want to hear the referee starting to count, not some lad running towards me to box the ears off me while I’m on the ground!'"
Like a lot of people, Duddy believes McGregormania will take over New York in two weeks time.
"The stage is set for it to explode. It won’t be just in the arena, it will be all around the city," he said.
"McGregor was looked at as the same as any other guy starting out. He had a mouth and that’s always interesting, but now he’s put his money where his mouth is.
"The man has made his name. Whether you like UFC or not, you can’t dispute what he’s done. UFC matchmaking forces you to fight the hardest guys. It’s put up or shut up. He has been through the weights too. He’s won everyone’s respect over here."
Given McGregor’s ongoing dispute with the NSAC, Duddy believes UFC 205 could be a launchpad for a long and successful relationship for the Irishman and the promotion with MSG.
"He's going to sell out The Garden and as long as that happens they’ll keep on putting shows on there and he’ll be the guy they want at the top of the card.
"Like any promoter, Dana White likes money, and like any fighter, Conor likes to make money too. There’s a lot of money to be made in New York and I can definitely see this becoming his base after UFC see what it means to all the people over here."
Life after fighting has been good to Duddy. After spending six weeks as Robert DeNiro’s boxing coach for 'Grudge Match' in 2013, the Derry man landed himself a role in 'Hands of Stone' – this year’s blockbuster on the life of Roberto Duran.
There are countless amounts of retired fighters who constantly feel the pull to get back into the ring, but Duddy is content on his new career path.
"You’re away from the boxing world when you don’t fight. I never minded that because it was my decision. Would you miss getting punched in the face? I know I don’t. Now, I much prefer to pretend to get beaten up than actually get beaten up.
"To be honest, I think I get paid better too."
You can read the first interview of the series - Fighting Irish at the Garden: Spike O'Sullivan