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Finding the way back to his corner

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 7, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - By the time Floyd Mayweather and Ricky Hatton get it on Saturday in Las Vegas, the most intriguing fight of the night will already be in the record books.

By the time the two undefeated champions top off the pay-per-view card, we will already have the answers to our questions.

Is Jeff Lacy shot? Did Joe Calzaghe take his heart, or his soul, or both? Did a shoulder injury take away his strength? Did time take away his promise?

Can he come back from the worst year of his life?

"I promise you this," he said, a few days before leaving for Vegas, "I am going to be better than I was before."

***

How bad was 2006 for Jeff Lacy?

How about this: He suffered a career-threatening shoulder injury in December.

And it was the highlight of his year.

"I kid you not," he said, "it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me."

He didn't know it at the time.

It was Dec. 2, 2006, and he had just escaped the St. Pete Times Forum with a victory over Vitali Tsypko. He was headed to the hospital, and later into surgery, the rotator cuff in his left shoulder shredded like coleslaw.

He fought eight rounds with one arm, turning an otherwise unimpressive performance into something much more.

Doctors weren't sure the St. Petersburg native would fight again. They told him to stay out of the gym. So he watched movies, traveled and went bowling, rolling 200 games with ease, he said.

He meditated, usually while driving his 2007 Mercedes, which already has 30,000 miles on it. He reflected. He wanted to know where it had gone so wrong and why a sport he loved so much had broken his heart.

***

Lacy was as bitter as the snapping Manchester air the March, 2006 night of the Calzaghe fight, though he says things had begun to deteriorate months earlier.

Issues with his promoter at the time, Gary Shaw, and a nagging leg injury that had left him looking terrible in sparring had unnerved him. His career had started to unravel outside the ring, and Calzaghe was unraveling it inside the ropes as well.

"I brought so much anger into the ring that night, bad anger," Lacy said. "I put all my skill to the side and decided I was going to knock him out. I was going to knock out everything around me that wasn't good."

He came home bewildered, wondering why that didn't happen.

His father, Hydra Lacy a former fighter himself, thinks his son "thought he couldn't be whooped. But every man can be whooped, if you're not ready."

Lacy said then what he says now -- he needed time off. A nonstop fighting schedule was burning him out.

But he never took the time off. A strange new opponent -- criticism -- was beating him up.

"I was still fighting what people wrote, fighting what people said," Lacy said. "No matter who you are that's going to get to you."

While Lacy read that he was washed up and overrated, his relationship with Shaw became toxic, the fighter convinced he had been financially deceived, a claim the promoter denies.

Lacy sparred publicly with Shaw and the local newspapers. He left trainer Dan Birmingham in Vegas to return home and get ready for his next fight.

By the time his comeback against Tsypko rolled around, Lacy -- one of boxing's nicest, friendliest champions when he reigned -- was a different guy.

"He was angry," said Hydra. "He was different. You could see it."

***

Years of being an Olympian and popular undefeated world champion, a fighter his promoter was touting as the sport's savior, left him vulnerable.

"If you don't face any obstacles in your life, you always feel like I was when I came out on the fast track," Lacy said. "Everyone was on the Lacy bandwagon. I was winning, I was exciting, I was touching audiences, putting 15,000 in an arena.

"Then the emotional door was just opened, from suffering a loss that I never thought I would suffer to seeing a side of boxing ... the ugly side. It was tough.

Lacy stops, for a moment. That door is still cracked.

"It was real tough."

***

Lacy needed a clean break - something real, something solitary.

Surgery allowed him that. He ended his engagement. He did not return calls. Media interest faded.

Jeff who?

"It was not until after the Tsypko fight that I had time to search and find out who I am, and build from that," Lacy said. "I was trying to please too many people, when I needed to be doing what was best for me."

One day, he decided it was time to let 2006 go, to shut the emotional door, to put away the anger. He said it took a year for him to get comfortable with doing that.

When he did, he found peace.

"I think it found me," Lacy said, "and I'm glad it found me."

***

Hydra Lacy, wearing jeans, a plaid shirt and sitting in a white plastic patio chair, is spending more time in the St. Pete Boxing Club these days, watching his son train.

He doesn't say much, tries to stay out of the way.

"I may tell him he needs more speed," he says. "You've got to be fast. Not bap, bap, bap! That's not fast enough. It's got to be baaaaaap."

Lacy knows he has much to prove.

"Mentally and physically, I promise you will see a better man in the ring for this fight," he said.

Despite his rough year, Lacy remains a hot commodity. He was signed by Golden Boy Promotions, he has a prominent spot on what should be the year's second-highest grossing pay-per-view, and the MGM Grand is sold out.

"The perfect comeback fight," he said.

As an added bonus, with Manchester's Hatton headlining, every British journalist that saw him lose to Calzaghe will be there.

They wonder, like most fans do, if Lacy has been ruined mentally by Calzaghe and is physically flawed after the Tsypko fight.

Lacy thinks his opponent, Peter Manfredo Jr. of Contender fame, is counting on it.

"He's hoping and praying that I only have one hand for this fight," Lacy said.

"Everybody is looking at this fight. They're looking to see what I have. To see if they can criticize and say that I'm done. They're wondering if the old me is back."

Soon, Jeff Lacy will give them their answer.

John C. Cotey can be reached at 813-909-4612 or johncotey@gmail.com.