Fight Night, with Hamilton Nolan: The Glorious Racism of Boxing

by Hamilton Nolan

Duddy Did It

John Duddy is the fightingest Irish guy in New York. This, as historic stereotypes go, is right up there with being the chop suey-cookingest Chinese guy in San Francisco. Duddy, furthermore, fights with a fists-forward style that lends him a certain resemblance to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish mascot, minus the jaunty little suit.

This is all for the best. John Duddy is a boxer, and boxing is the world’s last respectable cauldron of bloodthirsty racial pride. Soccer is for patriots; boxing is for tribes.

The best boxing tribes are based in places that have been stepped on a bit throughout history-not necessarily oppressed into a tepid stupor, but shoved by a bully just enough to make them mad. Ireland is an angry, underdog place. So, in their own ways, are Puerto Rico, and Mexico, and every inner city of America, and the various ethnic enclaves of New York City, each of which is its own training ground and support group for fighters to go out into the world and do battle on their behalf. The fighters are the warlords and we fans are their willing foot soldiers.

On Saturday night at Madison Square Garden’s underground arena, Duddy fought on the undercard of a nine-bout fight night. The top two fights were carried on HBO. Each of the eighteen fighters came from a recognized boxing tribe. A 6’6″ Puerto Rican methodically mashed a 5’9″ Philadelphian’s face. A young Long Islander managed to pick apart a gangly Mexican, despite a man screaming instructions at him throughout the entire fight in a horrific Long Island accent. A white guy from Queens easily beat an out-of-shape Midwesterner with blond highlights, who clearly took the fight on short notice. (The mushy Midwest is a very weak tribe). Jorge Diaz, out of Jersey City, walked away with an easy win after his opponent’s knee popped out garishly in the first round. An Italian New Yorker with ads for a local nursery on his trunks shook off two rounds of brutal ass-whupping by an angry, muscled South Carolinian belt holder to dance his way to victory in the latter half of the fight. Pawel Wolak, a Polish guy who looks like 85% of the more thuggish young men in Greenpoint, executed his trademark maneuver of wading into the chest of his opponent, crouching down and pounding hooks into the ribcage for eight consecutive rounds. His 30-something opponent, Ishmael Arvin of Baltimore, was too old to spin off, and had no choice but to try to pick off Wolak’s unceasing shots with his elbows while tossing halfhearted uppercuts that succeeded only in knocking out Wolak’s mouthpiece a few times and annoying the referee. Arvin should perhaps consider retirement.

Duddy’s fight was next. The next-next-next pace of the fights slowed. Everything had to be fussy and just so. Duddy brings in the Irish crowd. New York City must always have a resident Irish fighter to be cheered on by all the motherfuckers who pack Irish bars and John “The Derry Destroyer” Duddy is that man, for the moment. His fight was not to be shown on HBO, but he’d sold a lot of tickets, and for that, the crowd was entitled to a grand entrance. The announcer made sure to say the word “Ireland” as many times as humanly possible, bringing rousing hollers from the seats. Duddy came out in his green trunks with the shamrock and a bagpiper and an impressively Celtic-looking mustachioed man waving an Irish flag. (The same impressively Celtic-looking mustachioed man came out two fights later waving a Puerto Rican flag, and I saw him on TV later in Vegas waving a Mexican flag in yet another bout; he is apparently a full-time flag-waver-boxing’s Sean Hannity).

The word among the guys who know was that Duddy-despite selling, probably, more tickets than even the headliners that night-was just here as a warmup for his upcoming and much bigger fight on the Manny Pacquiao undercard in March. Consequently, they said, Duddy had been handed an easy opponent, a warmup guy, a patsy, really, just there to dip and dodge but not very well equipped to challenge the clean-cut Irishman who, while not possessed with the best hand speed you’ve ever seen in a middleweight, does not mind aggressively punching it out all night, a thing that the fans love. Therefore Duddy was paired on this night with a Mexican fighter by the name of Juan Astorga, who I decided to nickname “Grimace” for the expression that involuntarily flashed across his face every time a fist came into his general vicinity.

Astorga took a knee just seconds after the bell as a result of what appeared to be a grotesquely delayed reaction to a jab that Duddy had thrown some time in the last decade. Halfway through the first round Duddy bent to his left and sunk a big huge lefthanded body shot into Astorga’s belly, just as deep as you can push one of those things without taking a glove off and scraping your opponent’s intestines out with your fingertips. Astorga dropped and that was it. Two minutes and Duddy looked as fresh as if he’d just stepped out the shower and cut a nice slice off his Irish Spring soap, smelling like victory.

The promoters had not expected it all to go that fast, so everyone had to sit around for 40 minutes until it was showtime on HBO for the two headline bouts. A young Cuban named Yuriorkis Gamboa, easily the best fighter I’ve ever seen live, brutally destroyed an overmatched Tanzanian named Rogers Mtagwa, despite Mtagwa’s very strong turnout of ecstatic Tanzanian fans dancing in the aisles during the 40-minute pre-fight wait.

Finally, a skinny but tenacious Mexican, Steven Luevano, gave Puerto Rican hot shot Juan Manuel “Juanma” Lopez seven strong rounds before Juanma stunned him with an uppercut, then ran in with a strong right and left hook that sent Luevano, who can certainly hold his head high for his effort that night, tumbling partway through the ropes, knocked the fuck out.

Most of the time we instinctively feel that we should downplay how people look and where they’re from, on the noble and correct principle that humanity is a brotherhood that can only be undermined by highlighting our superficial differences. But another principle that I like to think is well-grounded in human nature says: better to scream for a member of your tribe to do his very best to kill a member of a rival tribe in a clean, ring-based setting, while wearing gloves, than in a war-based setting, with machine guns. Catharsis is a good thing.

The real racism: of the nine fights that night, all nine boxers fighting out of the red corner won. When will we begin to appreciate The Fighting Blues?

Hamilton Nolan is the media editor of Gawker.