Bap. Bap. Bap-bap-bap.
Super middleweight contender Jeff Lacy fires punches at padded mitts worn by his trainer Dan Birmingham. The two feint, duck and bob in a mock boxing dance, part of Lacy's training regimen at St. Pete Boxing Club, a cramped bunker on 49th Street in Gulfport. Routine stuff, until Lacy lets loose with a couple of ferocious rights.
I snap my head toward the ring. Noticing me, Birmingham smiles and says. "No one's gonna get up from that!"
Punching power. It may be the most prized commodity in boxing. Fans like knockouts, it's just that simple; give 'em knockouts and your price tag goes up. Lacy has punching power to spare. In his three-and-a-half-year professional career, the former Olympian is 16-0 with 13 KOs. "I think of myself as a seek-and-destroy type fighter," he says, and somehow it doesn't sound threatening. Ranked a Top 5 super middleweight (168 pounds) in most boxing surveys, Lacy fights for the vacant International Boxing Federation title later this year against Syd Vanderpool, a 31-year-old Canadian with a 35-2 record.
Amid the upsurge in Tampa Bay boxing, many experts think Lacy can become our first true superstar. He has more than just a wrecking-ball punch. His Adonis-like physique turns heads. He possesses a radiant smile. "The fact that he's not in trouble, not done drugs," says his promoter Gary Shaw, picking up the list of virtues. "He's an All-American kid, willing to sign an autograph or stop and take a picture. He's very humble."
Humility and prizefighting often seem mutually exclusive, but, Birmingham says, there's always been a place in the game for the Gentleman Boxer. Look at Evander Holyfield, a soft-spoken, nice-guy pugilist who enjoyed a lucrative, much-admired career. He happens to be Lacy's top role model. About the only thing missing from the Lacy package is a certain personal flamboyance; he'll probably never be a quote machine who dazzles 'em at press conferences. "Jeff lets his hands do the talking," Shaw says. "He's not a reporter's dream."
And yet, in a way, he is. During a couple of interviews, Lacy comes off as a genuinely likeable young man. "Life is good," he says with a disarming sense of wonder. "I don't have to worry about how my next bill's gonna get paid. I'm happy and I'm healthy. That's all you can ask for." Lacy's fond of saying how much he loves boxing, but it doesn't come off as some practiced mantra.
Life is, indeed, good for Jeff Lacy. Largely because of his Olympic experience, he commanded ample paydays as soon as he joined the pro ranks. For his last few fights, he says he's grossed $200,000-$300,000. That's afforded him a nice home in the Brandon area and a prized possession parked a few steps from the boxing club door: a tricked-out Hummer H2, brilliant silver with 24-inch rims and a sound system that can rock the next zip code. He lounges in the vehicle's spacious front seat during one chat, wearing green combat pants and sandals, his shirtless torso highlighting a thick diamond-encrusted necklace with a large cross on the end.
If Lacy continues to rampage through opponents, it shouldn't be long before he starts banking seven-figure purses. Already a favorite at Showtime, he could well graduate to pay-per-view, where the money gets obscene.
Another thing: Lacy's timing is impeccable. He comes along when the sport is due for another breakout star. The heavyweight ranks are in a slump, populated with such less-than-stellar figures as Vitali Klitschko, John Ruiz and Chris Byrd. The glamour division's biggest name, Mike Tyson, is an international joke. Light heavyweight Roy Jones Jr., often called the greatest fighter of his generation, got knocked out in May by Tampa's Tarver. Both are 35. The book on Winky Wright, 32, is that his disciplined style and lack of knockout flair may prevent him from becoming a household name. Storied middleweight Bernard Hopkins is 39. Oscar De La Hoya, the sport's matinee idol, is 32, but slipping. To wit: He's signed on to be the host for a Fox boxing reality show, The Next Great Champ.
The chips keep stacking up for Lacy, yet even though serious fame may soon come knocking, he feels grounded and ready for it. Lacy likes to hang out at home. Although he doesn't drink or smoke, he'll occasionally pop into a nightclub, but only with a handful of close friends. Don't look for him to turn up with an entourage; that's just asking for trouble, he says. "I carry myself like I'm just like everybody else," he says. "It's just that I'm doin' something that I like to do and it's being recognized. It's a good feeling to know that kids look up to me. I like being a role model."