Friday November 14th, 2008

The interaction between Jeff Lacy and Joe Calzaghe lasted all of 36 minutes. But for Lacy, the aftermath of the one-sided beating he received at the knifing hands of the then-super middleweight champion has lingered for much longer.

Back in 2006, Lacy was regarded as a rising star in the 168-pound division, a perfect blend of power and speed. Factor in his anti-establishment image (in a sport where many fighter résumés include criminal records, his most serious transgression was a penchant for speeding) and Lacy was being anointed by some as the new face of American boxing.

That is, until Calzaghe carved up that face like a Thanksgiving turkey.

Calzaghe did more than take Lacy's IBF title that night; he pummeled the confidence right out of him. After the fight, Lacy (24-1) went into hibernation, vanishing from the boxing scene until finally resurfacing (if you can call it that) nine months later, when he won a lackluster majority decision against the unheralded Vitali Tsypko. It was the type of performance that made you believe Lacy no longer cared. Even the news that Lacy fought most of the fight with a torn rotator cuff didn't change public opinion. It was as if Lacy's meteoric rise that began in earnest at the 2000 Olympics, picked up steam with eight straight knockouts to open his pro career and was punctuated with an alphabet title in 2004 had grinded to a halt.

Another man might have taken the beating by Calzaghe as a sign and used the torn rotator cuff as an excuse to walk away. But Lacy kept allowing his mind to wander back to Calzaghe -- not because he enjoyed reliving the worst moment of his career, but because of the lessons he says he learned from it.

"I learned a lot from that loss," said Lacy in a telephone interview from Nashville, where he will face Jermain Taylor (27-2-1) in a WBC super middleweight-title eliminator Saturday night (HBO, 10:15 p.m.). "I kid you not, the Calzaghe fight was the best thing that could have happened to me. Before that fight, I was blind to a lot of the knowledge in the sport of boxing. I'm talking about the business side -- the promoters, the fans, people who say they are your friends. I'm the kind of guy who wears my heart on my shoulder. It added a lot of pressure."

Lacy professes a newfound education, but in his recent forays in the ring he has looked like a lot like the same fighter. Maybe worse.

A year after his win over Tsypko, Lacy won a narrow decision victory over Peter Manfredo, and last July he won a controversial majority decision over Epifanio Mendoza. Against Mendoza, Lacy looked sluggish and was regularly beaten to the punch by a man who could be charitably described as a journeyman.

Lacy's excuse? Mendoza wasn't good enough.

"I fight to the level of the competition," said Lacy.

If that is true, he'll be at his best Saturday night against Taylor, a highly skilled fighter who is at his own career-crossroads after back-to-back losses to Kelly Pavlik. When Lacy and Taylor roomed together at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, they would stay up at night fantasizing about a future mega-money, title-unification fight between them. It hasn't worked out that way. Officially, a shot at the vacant WBC super middleweight championship is all that is at stake, but both fighters know that a loss could banish them into boxing oblivion.

"Jermain knows how big this is," Taylor's promoter, Lou DiBella, said. "He's very aware. This is the kind of fight that will escalate him back to the top. He has to win the fight."

The same can be said for Lacy.

"This is an important fight," said Lacy. "It's my chance to step out of the shadows. My training camp has been great. My body feels great. I feel confident, relaxed, rejuvenated; it's not hard to get up for this fight."

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