Having recently returned from a seven-month European tour that saw him score two knockouts in Dublin and win a hard-earned and well-deserved 10-round decision over two-time world title challenger Howard Eastman in Belfast, top-rated middleweight contender John Duddy looked locked, loaded, refreshed and extremely calm and confident when he weighed in at 158 ½ pounds today for his bout against Walid Smichet at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, February 23rd.

Although the 10-round bout will not be televised by HBO, which is airing the main event of the evening, a heavyweight unification bout between Wladimir Klitschko and Sultan Ibragimov, this is the most important fight of the 28-year-old Duddy’s life.

Should Duddy, 23-0 (17 KOS), beat Smichet, 17-3-3 (13 KOS), a 28-year-old Tunisian who has relocated to Montreal, he is all but guaranteed a June 7th date against Kelly Pavlik, who is universally regarded as the middleweight champion of the world.

If that fight is to take place, it would not only probably be the Fight of the Year from an action standpoint, the revenue and fan support it would generate would be dizzying.

The always entertaining Duddy and Pavlik are as close as you are going to get today to the all-action fighters of yesteryear.

“If they ever fight, it would be like the old days when fights were scheduled for much more than 12 rounds,” said promoter Cedric Kushner, who was speaking only as an objective observer. “With these two guys, you’d probably run out of rounds. That’s how much they like to fight.”

Both Pavlik and Duddy are offensive whirlwinds whose tremendous power is only rivaled by their mutually strong belief in their ability to beat anyone who is put in front of them. But as exciting as a Pavlik-Duddy fight would be to the masses, and as much as it’s being talked about in the media, Duddy is much too sensible to look past Smichet.

“John’s attitude throughout his career has always been for him to take one small step at a time, and, if successful, he would eventually fight for a world title,” said Jim Borzell, the longtime matchmaker for Irish Ropes Promotions, the company that has been handling Duddy’s meteoric career.

Moreover, said Borzell, Duddy has thus far ignored any and all talk related to Pavlik. While tucked away in camp for four weeks in New Bern, North Carolina, Borzell said that Duddy proved, as he always does, to be an extremely focused worker.

Under the watchful eye of his trainer Don Turner, who has worked with nearly 20 champions, Duddy tangled daily with such rugged sparring partners as Antwun Echols, who challenged for the middleweight title three times, and Ross Thompson, who once went the distance with Pavlik.

On the few occasions where the conversations would drift to Pavlik, Duddy would make sure the subject was changed.

“When John trains for a fight, he has one thing on his mind, and that’s the person he’s training for,” said Borzell. “The amazing thing about him is that he was not schooled to have such a mature attitude. He is just a very poised man. He has the most poise I have ever seen in a fighter. He doesn’t let any outside distractions take away his focus or poise.”

While it is hard to imagine Duddy losing to a fighter from North of the Border who few New Yorkers have ever heard of, it’s hard to forget that Team Smichet, which includes head trainer Howard Grant, brought undefeated but unheralded Joachim Alcine to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in July 2007 to challenge undefeated WBA junior middleweight champion Travis Simms before Simms’ hometown crowd.

At the time Simms was 25-0 with 19 of his victories coming by knockout.

Although Alcine was given virtually no chance of winning, he knocked Simms’ down in the eighth round, won a unanimous decision, and left town with Simms’ belt around his waist.

Anyone who doesn’t think similar history repeat itself would be foolish. And while most bookmakers would make Duddy an overwhelming favorite to beat Smichet, you can bet that Duddy, who is nobody’s fool, isn’t taking any chances by looking beyond the here and now.

Although he is not involved in Duddy’s career, Kushner has nothing but praise for the 5’11” Duddy, as both a fighter and a person. Unlike a lot of others who believe that Pavlik, on the basis of his two recent victories over Jermain Taylor, would steamroll Duddy, Kushner says that the hard-hitting Irishman would be more than competitive.

“No fight with John Duddy that takes places within his weight division would be a mismatch,” said Kushner. “Pavlik was able to back Jermain Taylor up in the second fight, so I think he looked better than he did in their first fight. But to say he would walk through Duddy is ridiculous. Nobody is going to walk through him.”

“Big” George Mitchell has served as Duddy’s cut man for nearly all of his fights. He received high praise for keeping Duddy in the fight after he was badly cut in several places by Yory Boy Campas.

“John is in a great frame of mind for this fight,” said Mitchell. “He’s in great shape and raring to go. John would never look ahead to anybody, but it’s hard for people not to think about him and Pavlik.

“Let me tell you something,” added Mitchell. “I never saw John come back to the corner in trouble. We all know that John and Pavlik have great chins, and John has the heart of a lion. If they ever meet, the fight will be better than Hagler-Hearns. Nobody will have to look for each other; they’ll be right in front of each other.”

Once again, it is obvious how easy it is for talk of Duddy-Smichet to turn to talk of Duddy-Pavlik. After all, news reports are already circulating that promoter Bob Arum, who handles Pavlik, has already asked promoters of the February 23rd fight for permission to announce the Pavlik-Duddy bout at the end of the night.

Although Smichet has defeated several unbeaten and once-beaten fighters, it seems that the only people giving him a chance to win are Duddy, who trains with equal zeal for all of his opponents, and Smichet’s tight-knit team which has already pulled one rabbit out of the hat with Alcine.

Asked if Duddy would be foolish to be thinking of Pavlik on the eve of his fight with Smichet, Smichet’s assistant trainer, Otis Grant, who once challenged Roy Jones Jr. for the light heavyweight title, was unequivocal in his response.

“He’d be making a big mistake,” said Grant. “Walid didn’t come to New York to lose.”