Lacy can make up for lost time

Kevin Iole

Jeff Lacy and Peter Manfredo Jr. were beaten up so badly by Joe Calzaghe that maybe the fairest fight would be to pit the two of them against the veteran Welshman. That way, perhaps, Calzaghe would lose a round.

But instead, Lacy and Manfredo will be fighting each other on Dec. 8 at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. It is a critical fight in Lacy's career, and it will be the 25th time he steps through the ropes as a professional – a statistic that shows the lunacy of the system.

Lacy, 30, is a good enough talent that he won a world title in his 17th pro bout and was being compared to a young Mike Tyson by his 20th. But it's that 23rd bout – the shutout loss to Calzaghe in a super middleweight title unification bout on March 4, 2006, in Manchester, England – that have many ready to shove Lacy onto the scrap heap.

Boxing consumes its young. Lacy should be a star of the highest order – he has crushing power, an iron chin and an engaging personality – but he had the misfortune of coming along in the most unforgiving age in boxing history, where one loss would cause the sport's power brokers to eye you warily.

Lose another fight? They'd rather embrace a leper.

The system is badly flawed and it's chewing up potentially excellent fighters like Lacy. Fighters these days are no longer allowed to develop, and at the first sign of any promise, promoters and television executives are building them up as the next Sugar Ray Robinson. The problem is most of these prospects aren't good enough, or don't know the sport well enough, to have been Robinson's sparring partner.

It's a system designed for failure. Yet it also can be beaten if a fighter is given enough time.

Take for instance Henry Armstrong, one of the greatest fighters in boxing's history. He once held the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight titles simultaneously, but as good as Armstrong was (he's no worse than No. 3 all time in my book, and probably No. 2), he began his career 1-3 and didn't get over .500 for the first time until he was in his 15th month as a pro.

Remarkably, Armstrong didn't win a world title until he was more than six years into his career. The year he won the featherweight belt in 1937, he fought 27 times. Lacy, who turned pro in 2001 after representing the U.S. in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, fought 24 times in almost seven years.

Unlike boxers in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, today's fighters aren't allowed the time to develop their skills. Often, as in Lacy's case, they're good enough athletes or they have one significant skill that they can use to overcome their lack of development. But in almost every case, that fast-track plan leads to disaster.

Lacy, whose miserable 2006 was typified by a left biceps injury against Vitali Tsypko that needed surgery, is now faced with mounting a comeback at the ripe old age of 30 and with just 24 fights behind him. He didn't deal well with the aftermath of the loss to Calzaghe, when he went in as the favorite and was subsequently drubbed in a bigger landslide than Reagan over Mondale.

As he was rehabbing his biceps, Lacy began to consider how he'd dealt with all the pressure that had been placed on him as a grossly inexperienced world champion.

"Well, the main thing I've learned is that I'm a very emotional person when it comes down to what people read and what people say about you," Lacy said. "I've learned to understand and deal with emotion a lot better than I did before because when you're on that winning stage, it's like everybody's praising you and everybody's doing this and that.

"But when you get a chance to taste a little bit of the bad side of boxing, it kind of really turns your stomach a little bit and keeps you focused on you."

Lacy left longtime promoter Gary Shaw after the surgery and has subsequently signed with Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions. He could be a coup for Golden Boy if it gives him the time in the ring to learn the game. Lacy needs to be kept busy and be exposed to all styles of fighters. If he can get a fight a month for at least a year, Lacy can fulfill the promise he showed as a young pro when he was pulverizing the tomato cans propped in front of him.

Not only is it not too late, but Lacy also has nothing but time. He doesn't even need to think about fighting an elite fighter again for at least 12 months.

It's exactly what Armstrong did. He didn't fight for the world title until more than six years in his career after he had 89 pro fights. In one seven-fight stretch from late 1934 through mid-1935, Armstrong dropped four of his seven bouts. But he was learning what it meant to be a pro and, after a loss to Tony Chavez on Dec. 3, 1936, Armstrong reeled off 46 consecutive victories and won the featherweight, lightweight and welterweight world crowns.

No one is predicting that Lacy will to hold three titles in three divisions simultaneously. But it's about time that he and all of the modern boxers are afforded the opportunity to develop.

If Lacy, or someone like him, actually is allowed to learn the craft, they might surprise a lot of people with what they're able to accomplish.