I HAD some great wins in my career – Bernard Hopkins, Chris Eubank, Mikkel Kessler – but Jeff Lacy was the No. 1. I was the underdog – I’d been written off by the UK press and the American press, who said I was going to get knocked out – but everything came together for me and it became the turning point in my career.
I was 33 at the time and I went into the fight with an injury so to fight the way I did: it was great to win, be a champion, and put in a great performance that people remember.
I’d beaten Eubank for the vacant WBO super-middleweight title in October 1997 and, like any champion, I wanted to unify the 168lb belts, but unfortunately with boxing politics, fights falling through, and opponents wanting too much money I couldn’t. I was boxing opponents like Robin Reid, Richie Woodhall, Charles Brewer and Byron Mitchell straight after they’d lost their titles, when I had everything to lose and nothing to gain.
Before Lacy I’d boxed Evans Ashira, broke my hand very badly in the fourth round, and fought the last eight with one hand to win via unanimous decision. I remember feeling very low, and then had to listen to Gary Shaw, Lacy’s promoter at the time, mouthing off from America that I was a chicken.
I suppose that’s why they came to Manchester to fight me: they thought I was past it.
Everyone was saying Lacy was the new, super-middleweight version of Mike Tyson. He was very intimidating: he had Sports Illustrated’s Six Pack of the Year, and was an Olympian who was knocking everybody out and coming over to fight what they thought was an ageing champion. He’d battered Robin Reid and people compared our fights, another when I’d injured my hand. It was a huge test for me: I thought it was going to be a tough fight but my dad Enzo, who was also my trainer, thought it was going to be easy, that my speed and movement would bamboozle him.
I wanted to prove to everybody that, having been the WBO champion for nine years, I was the No. 1: not just a world champion, but the world champion. It was my first unification fight: I was very, very nervous in the build-up to it but my fear was never an opponent or getting hurt, it was losing.
I was out running at 1am, 2am in the morning – the fight was at 2am – when it was pretty dark, and freezing, but my timings: I didn’t jog, I ran. I did a five-mile run and my time was faster than it had ever been before; my recovery was brilliant. I had my sweat suit on and my dad was following me up the lanes with the car: I knew I was so, so fit.
Then I injured my right wrist in sparring around eight, nine days before the fight, and was really stressed out. I went to Harley Street in London to have an injection and thought I’d have to pull out, worrying that it’d go in the biggest fight of my life, but my dad said, ‘If you pull out the chance won’t come again. You have to fight this fight: even with one hand’. That was all
I needed to hear.
A few days before the fight I woke up and it was snowing outside. I love snow – it was just surreal, I can’t explain it – I woke up, I was nervous, but something just lifted off me; I didn’t think about my wrist. My dad was asking, ‘Are you okay, Joe?’ because he could see a different person, there were no nerves. After that I just knew it was my time. Some guy woke me the night before the fight with a hoax call, saying, ‘Lacy’s gonna get ya, Lacy’s gonna get ya’, but I was just laughing to myself.
On the day of the fight I was up early, like always. I was doing my best to go back to sleep but as soon as I shut my eyes there were butterflies in my stomach. I was really tired during the day, and thinking ‘S**t, I’ve gotta box
and I’m knackered’. In the evening I walked across to the arena and I was yawning on my way over, but as soon as you walk through – the TV cameras are there; the lights – the adrenaline kicks in and wakes you up.
I remember watching Lacy coming into the arena with his girlfriend, and thinking it was a bit odd: it looked a weakness to me. I liked to get myself psyched up so I couldn’t be hand-in-hand with my girlfriend.
In the changing room it was relaxed; I had the same routine I always did – my earphones in, doing pad-work – and I remember feeling very sharp, really fast, and excited.
I felt awesome walking to the ring: I came in to Spitfire, from The Prodigy, which I used to love. I enjoyed climbing in the ring, and I remember looking at him, trying to get eye contact: he had his big entourage there when it was just me, my dad and my cornermen, and I sensed he was nervous.
He caught me in the first round, but it didn’t budge me at all. He was loading up every single time, and I was just throwing combinations, slipping to my right, ducking under every time he threw, then landing four, five, six punches at a time.
My speed and movement was bamboozling him and my angles were working perfectly: he had no plan B. I think he was shocked at how strong I was – he said I slapped, well I slapped pretty hard – and I think he felt that power, and it was just the combinations: hitting him, hitting him, hitting him. After a few rounds he was like a punch bag, and trying to land that one shot. I set a really high pace but I knew I could keep it going: I knew I was in such shape, and I was enjoying myself.
Every time he hit me it never hurt me: I had so much energy and so much will, everything he threw bounced off me. I felt like Superman that night –
I think I would have beaten any super-middleweight of any era – that’s how good I felt.
I wasn’t thinking about my wrist, either, because I was hitting him so clean, and I wasn’t really loading up. The plan was to use my speed and angles, so if you’re throwing five, six, seven punches in one burst it’s not going to hurt like it would if you’re trying to land one shot.
A lot of it’s a blur, but I remember bossing every round, and when the bell went I always made him walk around me, or said something – ‘Yeah, you’ve got six more of those left’ – or gave him a look or a smile. I was throwing so many punches and the condition I was in mentally and physically: I could have done 15 rounds at that pace. There were a few occasions where it could have been stopped, like the end of the seventh, or when the referee, Raul Caiz Snr, helped him out a little bit because the bandages on his wrist were a bit loose, or I’d have him wobbling and he’d jump in and save him, and I thought I was going to stop him in the 11th and 12th rounds but he was grabbing onto my arms for dear life.
But I just remember being in complete control. To me, the fight went pretty
fast: right until the last round I was so concentrated. I remember wanting to stop him in the 12th but he managed to hang in there.
It’d have been a lot better for Lacy if it was stopped: I ruined his career that night. Psychologically, more than physically, he never, ever recovered from the beating he got.
He was a warrior to stay in it for the 12 rounds – if anything he showed too much heart – and I respect him for that. That’s where his corner should have pulled him out: I thought they might have done towards the end – he looked so dejected at the end of the 10th and 11th – both his eyes were cut and swollen, and he didn’t know what round it was he’d taken such a beating.
I’m glad it went the distance: I enjoyed the 12 rounds. At the end I had such relief, an amazing feeling: I was always my worst critic but I knew I’d done something special.
After nearly pulling out, for it to finally come together like that, against another champion, it was just a beautiful moment. It was vindication for my father as well; a lot of people were ignorant about him because he never boxed but he was the best trainer for me.
I was given tremendous coverage afterwards and it was nice; especially after being written off.
Thank you Gary Shaw, and the people who put that fight on.