Sometimes you make a hit and you don’t even know how big a hit you made. When you’re a tall, goodlooking Irishman named John Duddy, currently residing in Rockaway, Queens but whose brogans are still fresh from the soil of the old sod, a guy with a smile that runs almost ear-to-ear and a two-fisted, slam-bang style that flattens all in his way—hey, you’re gonna make a hit. And not just with guys whose last names begin with “O’” or end with a “y”. Like the night of November 18th when Duddy fought a prelim at the Manhattan Center on a card headlining Dmitriy Salita, “The Star of David”, and you saw some Orthodox-attired men in beaverskin hats swaying and singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” along with, and with as much fervor as, the boys from McSorley’s and The Shamrock Inn. Nobody saw too much of John Duddy that night because he didn’t hang around very long. It took him all of 39 seconds to annihilate his opponent and send his fans, which now included everyone, into a wild singing and dancing frenzy. Gil Clancy, who is to boxing what Sunny Jim Fitzimmons was to horseracing and Connie Mack to baseball, is not a singer or dancer, but he is big on nodding when he sees something he likes. I’m sitting with Gil at a ringside press table and he is doing some big-time nodding. It is apparent that John Duddy has made a hit.
It is just before the main event that a freshly showered Duddy returns to the arena and having heard that Gil Clancy was there, asks for an introduction. That is how a present-day Rockaway star comes to meet a pre-World War II Rockaway legend and a mutual admiration society is born.
Three weeks later, December 11th, several things are happening at the same time. Vitaly Klitschko is fighting Danny Williams in a big pay-per-view heavyweight title fight, John Duddy is fighting a scheduled six-rounder on a local card at Brighton Beach and Gil and I are both invited to an early Christmas party at the Malverne home of a mutual friend, Tom Benigno, who will also be showing the Klitschko-Williams fight. As I am covering the Brighton Beach card, that is where I go. Tom insists that I join them to watch the Klitschko fight after I am finished with my card. When I point out that it will probably be over by the time I get there Tom promises that he will tape the fight and he and Gill would watch the replay with me. The fact that Tom’s wife, Angie, puts out a very nice spread is a further inducement.
As it turns out, I’m sitting right behind Duddy’s corner that night. It takes him five rounds to catch up with a clever, elusive will o’ the wisp from Cleveland named Glenn Dunnings, but when he does, it’s all over and they’re doing Irish jigs in the aisles. Remembering the respect and admiration Duddy and Clancy shared for each other, and this being the age of electronic wizardry, a sudden inspiration was born. As Duddy and his cornermen climbed down the ring steps, I pulled out my cell phone, quickly punched in Tom Benigno’s number and as Duddy came down beside me I asked, “Would you like to speak to Gil Clancy, John?”
He stopped in his tracks, smiled and said, “Sure, I would be honored to speak with Mr. Clancy.” Tom had just answered the phone and I spoke quickly, like a guy doing a twenty second car commercial on the radio, “Tell Gil to pick right up, that John Duddy would like to talk to him.” I hear Tom shout to Gil over the din of the crowd and I place the phone over to Duddy’s ear. So there’s John Duddy’s procession, all standing like statues as John now tries holding the phone with his Everlast glove and has this conversation with Gil Clancy. “How are you, Mr. Clancy?… Who? It’s John Duddy…No, John Duddy….Where am I?” There is now a slightly bemused look on the youngster’s face. “I’m in Brighton Beach. I’m fine…Let me tell you, I had a tough guy, but I took him out…Nice talking with you, Mr. Clancy. Looking forward to seeing you again.”
I’m driving out to Malverne about an hour and a half later, still wondering about the strange look on Duddy’s face. It is not very long before I think I have figured it out. I walk through the front door at 1:45 and Gil is right there waiting for me.
“Who was I talking to?” These are the first words out of his mouth.
“You gotta be kidding me, Gil. Who do you think you were talking to?”
“Tom told me that John Gotti was on the phone for me. And when I start talking, that’s what he says, he’s John Gotti and he starts telling me that he took this guy out…”
As I explain to Gil and Tom that it was John Duddy, not John Gotti, either the late senior or junior, I try very hard to imagine Gil Clancy’s thoughts while he was talking on the cell phone with John Duddy who he thought was John Gotti. It is almost an absolute that John whoever-he-was scored a big hit that night, although in the mind of Gil Clancy it was a hit of a different kind!