Although middleweight John Duddy and junior welterweight “Mighty” Mike Arnaoutis, both 25, are on the same mission, they are a study in contrasts. Neither grew up mired in poverty or was living in a climate of political oppression when, in the last few years, they moved to the United States in search of fame, glory and riches in the squared circle, but both are hell-bent on achieving their own version of the American Dream.
The 5’11” Duddy, a native of County Derry in Ireland, now fights out of New York and is 7-0, with all of his victories coming by knockout. He is a non-stop puncher with bone-crunching power, and should he keep winning he’ll be a bona fide superstar by year’s end. The equally exciting Arnaoutis, a 5’10” southpaw with a 12-0-2 (6 KOs) record, is a native of Athens, Greece, who now fights out of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Because his last three fights – a draw with previously undefeated Juan Urango, which most observers thought Arnaoutis won, and sensational knockouts of Jessie Feliciano and Jauquin Gallardo – all took place on Showtime’s ShoBox: The Next Generation, the affable young man has become the hottest prospect in boxing’s hottest division.
“I came here to chase the American Dream,” Arnaoutis said through Mike Michael, a Londoner of Greek descent who now serves as the fighter’s advisor, consultant and interpreter. “I want to win a championship, bring great pride to my home country, and have the whole world love me.”
Unlike Duddy, who says he is an “Irishman at heart” and is only in the United States “on business,” Arnaoutis plans on calling America home once his boxing career is over. He can’t wait to bring his longtime sweetheart, Helen Papapodiou, here to live once his career goals are attained. Having already crisscrossed the country, fighting in such diverse locales as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, and California, as well as in the Ukraine and Indonesia, he is not so sure where or when he’ll settle down. But with his career now on the fast track, it doesn’t look like he’ll be settling down any time soon.
He is scheduled to make his fourth straight appearance on ShoBox on February 18. Whoever the opponent is, he hopes the fight will be the lead-in to the next chapter of his career, where he will begin taking on the division’s elite. “Right now his entire life is dedicated to boxing,” said Michael, who discovered Arnaoutis eight years ago while scouting talent for promoter Panos Eliades. “He is one of the most naturally gifted and hardest working athletes I’ve ever seen.”
Because Greece is not known as a boxing hotbed, Arnaoutis was often overmatched during his 110-fight amateur career. However, more often than not, he found a way to beat much more experienced opponents. “The first day I met him I could tell how much untapped talent he had,” said Michael. “He fought all over Eastern Europe, and was beating guys on raw ability and not much else. When he was getting ready to turn pro [in early 2001], we took him to the Lennox Lewis Centre, which is a world-class training facility in London. We had him spar with Steve Murray, a ranked professional whose record was something like 18-1. Mike dropped him three times. We couldn’t believe it.” Actually, at the time of Arnaoutis’ pro debut in April 2001, Murray was undefeated in 14 fights.
Now that he has settled in America, Arnaoutis no longer has to rely on raw ability. Managed by Gina Iacovou of Cestus Management and trained by the respected Bill Johnson, Little Mike, as he is called within his small circle, lives, breathes and sleeps boxing. Although a puncher by nature, he was mature enough, according to Michael, aka Big Mike, to “feel his way around the pro game before trying to knock everybody out.” As a result, Arnaoutis does not have an enviable knockout record. But make no mistake about it: he can box as well as he can belt. Just ask his last two opponents, Feliciano and Gallardo, each of whom was supposed to provide a stern test for the iron-willed and iron-jawed Greek.
“Those guys had great chins and reputations for going the distance, and Mike knocked them out with no problems whatsoever,” said ShoBox analyst Steve Farhood. “When Mike was fighting six-rounders he looked nothing like a puncher. Unlike most fighters, he’s getting more powerful as he moves up in class.”
Farhood was most impressed with Arnaoutis’ first ShoBox appearance, against Urango in August 2004. The powerfully built Urango had an amateur win over current WBO junior welterweight champion Miguel Cotto, and most observers expected him to steamroll the deceptively strong Arnaoutis. But Mighty Mike displayed savvy boxing ability, fast feet and faster hands, pressure under fire, and the heart of a lion while out-boxing, out-foxing, even out-punching his relentless opponent.
“Urango hit him with shots that would have knocked most junior welterweight prospects out,” said Farhood. “Mike has a real mental and physical toughness about him. He’s as good as any other prospect out there, and the sky’s the limit for him.”
Michael agrees with Farhood’s assessment of Arnaoutis’ resilience, durability and toughness, but is a little blunter in describing it. “Mike has everything a successful fighter needs,” he proclaimed. “He’s got style, determination and balls as big as a [bleeping] rhino. Urango already made him a star. With a few more fights, he’ll be ready for anyone. The echelons of the division—Kostya Tszyu, Arturo Gatti, Sharmba Mitchell—those guys are all in the swan songs of their careers. Down the road his big challenge will probably be Cotto. Not to take anything away from Cotto—he’s a great fighter—but someday he’ll be remembered as just another guy that Mike beat.”
Unlike Arnaoutis, Duddy, who claims he was much more cerebral as an amateur, is all action all the time. Although it is obvious he has better than average boxing skills, he fights with a reckless abandon that brings scores of maniacal fans to his fights, but could have an adverse affect on his longevity. He has been hit, and hit often, in his first seven fights, but has always found a way to impose his will, tremendous physical strength and conditioning, and blistering combinations on his outgunned opponents. The quietly confident Duddy, a former All-Irish senior champion who once lost a 5-4 decision to 2004 American Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward in a 2001 tournament in Dublin, makes no apologies for his style.
“In the amateurs I was a boxer and a counterpuncher, and rarely went for the knockout,” said the extremely affable Duddy who sports a million-dollar smile that looks like it belongs on a cereal box. “My style as a pro has surprised me more than anyone. In the gym I train with runners, sluggers, and fighters, and do well against all of them. I know I can always get up on my toes if I have to. But I’ve been successful in seven fights, so why fix what’s not broken?”
As a fan Farhood appreciates Duddy’s slam-bang style, but as an expert television analyst says he has to learn to at least consider some defense while dispensing his immense offensive arsenal. “For his own good, I hope he realizes a sense of pace and tempo,” said Farhood. “The way he’s fighting now is very exciting, but also very dangerous. His style makes for very exciting fights, but a short career. That said, I wouldn’t want to miss one second of any of his fights.”
Ironically, just three years ago Duddy thought he had given up boxing for good and was scraping by in his native country by working sporadically as a lifeguard and a bar bouncer. “All my life I’d dreamed of being a pro boxer,” said Duddy, a veteran of 130 amateur bouts whose father Mickey fought professionally in the early eighties. “But I was done with the amateurs, and there was really no pro scene in Ireland. I didn’t trust anyone there to foster my career, and I never even thought about crossing the water.”
A twist of fate put him in touch with Eddie, Tony and Martin McLoughlin, New York-based Irish brothers who trained fighters, many of whom were of Celtic descent. Having heard of Duddy’s lofty reputation back home, they convinced him to cross the Atlantic and on his first day here took him for a workout at the fabled Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. As Duddy ascended the gym’s steps, he knew in his heart he was “home” and has never looked back.
“It was bizarre because a friend had told me once you walk up those steps, hear the bags and the people skipping [rope], and the smell of sweat, it’s just amazing,” he recalled fondly. “And that’s exactly what happened to me. There’s so much history there. The place is so alive.”
Although he did not spar that day, he enjoyed an intense workout and was introduced to a number of pro fighters, including WBA junior welterweight champion Vivian Harris, whom he had seen on television and had great respect for. By the time he left Gleason’s, his mind was made up. Not only was going to chase the most elusive of dreams in his adopted homeland, he was going to do it at a breakneck pace.
Although he only turned pro in September 2003, and since that time was inactive for eight months because visa problems stranded him in Ireland after what was supposed to be a brief vacation, Duddy has fought one main event, and is scheduled to fight his second at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, New York, on February 4. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, only one of his opponents had a losing record and three were undefeated. One of them, the lauded stylist Victor Paz was 7-0. When apprised of these informational tidbits, the extremely modest Duddy, who is trained by Harvey Keitt, seemed genuinely surprised.
“I fought a lot of main events as an amateur, so I didn’t think of it as a big deal here,” he said. “I’m a much better pro than amateur, mainly because I just keep learning so much more over here. I don’t get excited by much, but learning new things, and realizing how much more there is to learn, really gets me excited. Right now I don’t know what I’d be doing with myself if I didn’t have boxing. And I’m not going to worry about that. I can always go back to school in my thirties. Right now, I only want to concentrate on boxing.”
Asked if the busloads of his countrymen who journey to his fights are a source of distraction or unwanted pressure, he laughs heartily. “Of course not,” he said without hesitation. “They are a source of great inspiration. I’m lucky to have them. Hopefully I can keep entertaining them for years to come.”