It’s rare for unproven European boxers to be portrayed in a positive light by the American fight media, but John Duddy and Felix Sturm are recent exceptions.  Without one noteworthy victory between them, the two middleweights have carved out followings in the U.S. and are regularly linked with marquee matchups.

But the two 28-year-olds have garnered recognition through vastly different means.

Duddy has attracted the masses to his fights since his early pro outings, even though he entered the paid ranks in 2003 on the back of an unfulfilling amateur career.  And while his technique would remind no one of boxing’s great middleweights, his Irish background, rugged fighting style and unassuming personality resonate with the type of East Coast fans that appreciated the likes of Terry McGovern, Tommy Loughran, James Braddock and Billy Conn.

Conversely, Sturm’s nationality had little to do with his U.S. breakthrough in 2004.  The German of Bosnian parentage is an intelligent fighter who likes to keep drama at a minimum by employing a ram-rod jab and nifty footwork.  And even though the former economics student has only made one in-ring appearance stateside, he earned the respect and sympathy of the boxing community after losing a highly debatable decision to Oscar De La Hoya.

The unfavored Sturm absorbed “The Golden Boy’s” best shots and kept his composure to continually out-land his more celebrated opponent.  But the three Las Vegas judges deemed that De La Hoya deserved the win, much to the ire of many fans.  Still, Sturm instantly enjoyed an exponential increase to his fanbase and seemingly positioned himself for a future crack at the big time.

But while the careers of Duddy and Sturm have been riding a cusp on the wave of stardom, there have been signs that the fighters are entering choppy waters.   And to the puzzlement of many American observers, both men have momentarily neglected the bright lights of the U.S. scene to perform in front of their native fans.

Following his success in attracting a sell-out crowd to The Theatre at Madison Square Garden to see him bludgeon Shelby Pudwill in 111 seconds and his dismantling of Freddie Cuevas in the main arena, Duddy ran into an immovable object named Yori Boy Campas in 2006.  The faded veteran of 96 fights dragged Duddy into a bloody war that left the Derry native with severe lacerations above both eyes.  Duddy was awarded a unanimous points victory, but his skill set looked limited, even if his penchant for exciting fights did not.

Two less-than-stellar victories against journeyman opposition followed before Team Duddy decided that the introduction of Don Turner as trainer and a spell in Ireland would add some gloss to the fighter’s career.  But Alessio Furlan failed to follow the script for the homecoming parade in Dublin last July and exchanged blows with Duddy for ten gruelling rounds before crumpling from a heavy barrage of hooks in the final seconds.

Duddy was expected to dispose of Furlan with relative ease, but instead the Italian helped underline the technical flaws that have been a staple of Duddy’s free-swinging style: sloppy footwork, a lack of head movement, and an overly upright stance.    

Duddy, 21-0 (16), has generally been perceived as a popular fighter who could develop into a serious world championship contender, but a growing number of critics have become more vocal in their assertion that the Irishman is an over-hyped product waiting to be exposed.

While Sturm proved his excellent boxing technique against De La Hoya, his marketability has showed signs of stagnating.  After marking time in Germany against capable practitioners such as Robert Frazier, Bert Schenk and Hacine Cherifi, Sturm was offered a fight with Maselino Masoe for the vacant WBA title in March 2006.

The man formerly known as Adnan Catic put on a boxing clinic, using adept defensive skills to decisively out-point Masoe.  But there was little celebration for Sturm as the Hamburg crowd voiced their displeasure at his safety-first display against a limited 40-year-old opponent.

The public’s reaction to the title-winning performance seemed to convince Sturm that he needed to adopt a more exciting style if he wanted to get another big-time opportunity.  But disaster struck when Sturm’s unusually aggressive approach led to defensive lapses and a shocking tenth round stoppage loss to the aging Spaniard Javier Castillejo in July ’06.

Given that Castillejo was clearly beaten by Fernando Vargas eleven months earlier, the defeat makes an ugly blotch on Sturm’s 28-2 (12) record.  The Leverkusen native did rebound to win a unanimous decision and the vacant WBA belt in the rematch last April, but it was a relatively hollow triumph considering Castillejo was upset by the unknown Mariano Carrera in the interim.  Sturm followed up the win with a relatively straightforward decision victory over the durable Noe Tulio Gonzalez Alcoba in June.

Ever since the first Castillejo bout Sturm hasn’t resembled the audacious rookie that dared to dent Oscar De La Hoya’s middleweight aspirations.  Instead, he has appeared hesitant in the ring, while showing little inclination for a showdown with the German-based Arthur Abraham. Yet since his post-De La Hoya outings have occurred away from the glare of the U.S. media, Sturm’s reputational damage has been limited.    

Coincidentally, Duddy was scheduled to meet the same Noe Tulio Gonzalez Alcoba this Saturday at the National Stadium in Dublin, but the Uruguayan was forced to withdraw from the bout last Monday due to the discovery of a detached retina.

Now Duddy will face the unheralded Prince Arron, who carries a 10-2 (0) slate.  Arron figures to be a fairly light puncher, so Duddy should have little fear in trading with the 19-year-old Englishman.  A win over Arron won’t silence the skeptics who claim Duddy is overprotected and it will do little to enhance his U.S. box-office appeal, but given the atmosphere generated at his last outing in July, the Irishman seems content to please his hometown fans.
“I’m delighted that we made the decision to come home for my last fight and I’m already looking forward to this next one,” said Duddy earlier this week. “Fighting in New York is something special and for a guy from Derry to headline at Madison Square Garden is amazing, but at the end of the day it’s just not home.
“As soon as the referee stopped the last fight at the Stadium [against Furlan] I turned and looked out into crowd and it was amazing. Everyone was going nuts and it’s just an incredible feeling.”

And if Duddy can come through Saturday’s bout unscathed he will likely fight at the King’s Hall in Belfast on December 8, despite murmurings of a January showdown with new middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik.

“John doesn’t have the luxury of looking beyond his next fight but obviously we need to have long terms plans in place for him and the 8 December date at the Kings Hall would set us up perfectly for the New Year,” said his manager Eddie McLoughlin last week.

Over in the Gerry Weber Stadium in Germany on Saturday, Sturm will be looking to make the second defence of his WBA title against Kentucky’s Randy Griffin, 24-1-2 (12).  Defeating “The Gentleman” on German TV won’t do much to enhance Sturm’s global profile either, but that doesn’t seem to be his major concern.

“There are many young fighters like Alcoba out there who are determined to reach the top,” said Sturm last June.  “So I can’t focus on the other belt holders or on the big names only. Definitely, it would be great to fight a unification bout or against a big name opponent but if it doesn't happen, than it’s okay. I won’t worry about that anymore.”

While defeating an overmatched opponent on home soil may appear futile, Duddy and Sturm seem content to continue to perform away from the spotlight.  Each fighter’s respective management is apparently at ease to bide their time and enjoy home cooking while waiting to cash in their golden ticket.

Only time will tell whether they are employing this strategy to benefit the fighters’ development or merely protect a fragile asset.