20 February 2009 – By Mark Doyle
John Duddy returns to the ring at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night knowing that he has been given a second bite of the cherry.
For if the unbeaten Derryman looks good in disposing of opponent Matt Vanda, he looks a sound bet to be announced as a summer opponent for World middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik provided The Ghost can return to form against Marco Antonio Rubio on the same night following his humbling defeat to Bernard Hopkins last time out.
It is a similar situation to the one Duddy found himself in 12 months previous when, at the same venue, on the same weekend, he simply had to secure a clean victory over the unheralded Walid Smichet to get a crack at the middleweight number one.
Duddy went in to the Smichet fight just two months after a career-best victory over Howard Eastman a contest that saw him box his way to victory in front of a sell out King’s Hall crowd. The world was his oyster.
But rather than employ the same tactics, what transpired was all out war. Sustaining horrendous cuts, Duddy could count himself lucky to have escaped with his unbeaten record intact.
Owing to his injuries and indeed his poor performance, his shot was gone. Pavlik moved on and cruised to victory over Welshman Gary Lockett; Duddy looked on from the outside.
A sound return victory over Charlie Howe in June implied that the New York-based Irishman had learned his lesson, but as speculation grew that he would challenge then IBF light-middleweight champion Verno Phillips on Halloween night at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, his relationship with promoter Irish Ropes was crumbling.
A bitter split ensued and, as the months rolled on and the ring rust gathered, it looked as if one of the most marketable men in boxing would become just another contender whose shot would never come.
Finally, with legal issues put to one side, Duddy returns with a new managerial team led by Craig Hamilton in his corner. In the opposing corner is solid, if uninspiring Minnesota native Vanda (39-8, 22KO). Despite falling short when mixing at a higher level, the 30-year-old is expected to give Duddy rounds, something he badly needs after such a long absence.
We know Duddy can box and we know he can fight, but if he is to secure the biggest opportunity of his career surely he must do the former on Saturday night?