By Thomas Gerbasi
Honesty is in short supply in the world of boxing. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but most of the time it’s not. In the case of former United States Olympian and world super middleweight champion Jeff Lacy, it’s simply appreciated.
At 36, Lacy is returning to the ring this Saturday, the first time he’ll step through the ropes since a December 2010 loss to Dhafir Smith. At the time of the defeat, he was 4-3 in his last seven bouts, a string that followed a 2006 loss to Joe Calzaghe that has, for better or worse, defined his career.
That’s unfortunate. Because for the five years prior to the Calzaghe fight, Florida’s Lacy was one of boxing’s brightest hopes to transcend the sport. A fighter that treated his moniker “Left Hook” like a mission statement and not a nickname, Lacy always showed up to bang, not to dance.
“I was one of the most exciting fighters coming up in that time, and look now,” he muses. “There’s no one out there now that fights the way I do. There’s no one that puts it on the line the way I do. Even if you have one fighter that don’t want to do it, I still went out and got it. You didn’t have one pick up both sides, but I picked up both sides. If you didn’t want to fight, I’m still gonna bring it. And you don’t see that. And with this down economy, people are being cheated. If you’re not bringing what you’re being aired for, come on. Everything is safety, but you chose boxing. There’s nothing safe about that.”
It’s the perfect segue back to the night of March 4, 2006 in Manchester, England. Lacy was 21-0, four successful defenses into his reign as the IBF super middleweight champion. Calzaghe was 40-0 and the longtime WBO titleholder, but one still largely unknown on this side of the pond. The Lacy fight would change that. Even today, the man on the short end of the near shutout 12 round decision can joke when he says “Calzaghe was 40-0 before I introduced him to the United States.”
The fight was no laughing matter though, at least for Lacy, who was thoroughly outboxed by the future Hall of Famer and sent to the scrap heap as a result. At 28, he was written off as old news, a media creation exposed by an unknown Welshman.
“After one night, less than six hours, my stock plummeted,” recalls Lacy. “Everybody wants to point the finger at someone else, but no, they’re pointing the figure at me. This isn’t the whole world, this is just me. So yes, mentally, it did something to me because what I thought was love was not love. It was me having that first girlfriend, and we’re no longer together. I’m no longer that guy. Wow. It was a reality check. And there were so many things that I learned the hard way. That’s why I got behind the eight ball, trying to fight those things. So Calzaghe did something to me mentally, and it took this time off to gather it and get from behind the eight ball and stop fighting the words that people say. I lost control of who I was in that time, because you go from being the top talked about person that everybody wants a piece of. I was a young champion, and when all of that goes away within hours of a fight, yes it does something to you. But I’m glad it didn’t do anything to me physically. If it had been a physical issue, we wouldn’t be talking.”
Lacy talks about being young and invincible, about feeling so confident that he agreed to not only face the long-avoided Calzaghe, but to do so in the UK. Naysayers will point out that it’s the course of action a true champion takes, and they would be right, but when it comes to the business of boxing, he could have avoided Calzaghe and still racked up win after win on premium cable. But he rolled the dice, and came up snake eyes.
“Walking into a fight with Calzaghe, him being undefeated, and not only that, but me coming to his backyard and being a favorite, I was a young champion, making a lot of noise,” said Lacy. “And for me to be walking in to share a ring with someone who had way more experience than I had, who defended his title more times than I had, and for me to walk into his backyard and be the favorite, my mentality was on top of the world. Walking into that fight and having that same feeling and not having the experience that I needed to take my boxing career to the next level, it was a major thing. So I don’t doubt anyone when they say that Calzaghe did something to me. It did, on the mental game. And because the mental game wasn’t there, it made it seem like the physical wasn’t there as well.”
He never seemed to get his mojo back. Three wins over Vitaliy Tsypko, Peter Manfredo Jr., and Epifanio Mendoza followed, along with shoulder issues, before a 1-3 run from 2008 to 2010 that included defeats to Jermain Taylor and Roy Jones Jr.
The loss to the 23-19-7 Smith clearly spelled the end, but things would get worse before they got better, with his brother Hydra Jr.’s death following a shootout with police that killed two officers in early 2011, leaving Lacy thinking about everything but boxing.
“It had a lot to do with it,” he said when asked the role his brother’s death played in his absence from the ring. “Your heart is your root, and you plant something to the heart, I don’t care how far back or how you try to drown it out, that squared circle finds it, and it deals with you from that point of view.”
Eventually, a ray of light would return to his life - two actually - in the form of the birth of two sons, now two and three.
“They happened at the perfect time in my life because there was everything going on and I needed something else to focus on,” he said. “Boxing was not doing it for me as far as getting behind the eight ball and trying to keep this flair going about me. All the I’s weren’t being dotted and the T’s weren’t being crossed, and I was putting myself in a deeper hole to killing my legacy and not being one hundred percent, so my kids happened for what I know were the right reasons.”
Needless to say, any time you bring a child into the world, it’s a life-altering experience. For Lacy, it was a change he welcomed.
“So many doors open up in front of you and you see so many things that you never thought about,” he said. “And not only that, but you can be so selfish, and not in a negative way, but I was so selfish to myself, and you get to the point where you look at two kids and you’re like ‘oh my God.’ It’s a life change. It’s not like you can do it here and there; it’s a constant change. It’s a different feeling.”
In time, another feeling came back, one that prompted him to lace up the gloves once again. He laughs when asked when he made the decision to return, saying, “I’ve always had the decision made; I’ve been working in the dark. I love the sport of boxing. It’s like that first love with that girl, but I don’t have to answer to boxing. Boxing, the sport, is always going to be honest with me. I’m not talking about the business. But with the genuine love that I grew for the sport of boxing, it could never cheat on me.”
And you can’t cheat on the sport, something Lacy certainly agrees with.
“Exactly, when I don’t do my work,” he said. “I’ve always prepared myself to do my work, but did I always go in with peace of mind like I used to? That’s the biggest thing. Because if I’m dealing with issues and holding them back, that squared circle will find that weakness. That’s the reason for my absence, not because I didn’t feel like I could do it or I lost it. There was too much pressure outside the ring.”
He pauses, as if memories of the last few years have come rushing back to him. Then he continues.
“In boxing there’s a challenge,” he said. “But you didn’t realize it was going to be a challenge from the spectators. You thought it was just gonna be that guy on the other side of the ring.”
The guy on the other side of the ring at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino in Louisiana this Saturday will be 20-16-2 Martin Verdin, but that really doesn’t matter at this point. What matters is the one hailing from St. Petersburg, Florida…Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy.
“I’ve tried to sit on the rocking chair and say I’m gonna give it up, but there were so many things going on in my life that people don’t have any clue about, but they judge,” he said. “And for me to stop because of what they think, it’s not in me that it’s over, that it’s done. And my actions will prove that. There were a lot of things happening outside of the ring with me in my return after the Calzaghe fight. People have no clue about what those things were, but it is what it is. I’m here now and I only can prove this week what I’m feeling inside.”
So what did he miss the most?
“Being in the ring at one hundred percent without having to fight the spectators, the internet. I understand it now and I didn’t understand it then. I think everything in life happens for a reason, and without me saying it too much, people are going to be very shocked and asking themselves why he didn’t do that before.”