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It has been a sport scarred by scandal, littered with paper champions and dragged down by bad attitudes, bad decisions and bad matchmaking.

Without a vibrant heavyweight division to drive it, boxing is handcuffed by a shrinking audience that seems to care less and less, unable to find solid ground between its loyal base and Joe Channel Surfer's fading interest.

It is a sport that no longer excites Madison Avenue and whose biggest stars - Oscar De La Hoya, Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman - don't even fight anymore.

Boxing, say promoters and television executives, needs to discover its own version of Michael Jordan, or Tiger Woods.

It needs a hero.

Many think Jeff Lacy might be that man.

"I believe he has the ability to save boxing," promoter Gary Shaw said. "He has the style, the explosiveness, the excitement, and your heart starts to pound when he does his ring walk. He has a fury in the ring, but when he gets out of it, he's soft. The complete opposite.

"I think Jeff is exactly what boxing needs."

He is close. Soooo close. He can feel it.

Toweling off after a few rounds of banging the mitts of trainer Dan Birmingham at the St. Pete Boxing Club, Lacy fidgets on a wooden bench. He smiles, says he is excited about the possibilities, his hands waving about to drive the point home.

"Boxing doesn't have that household name right now," Lacy said. "I'm ready to be that. I'm willing to speak to kids and get out there and do everything I have to do to make that happen."

His popularity has grown with each fight, his knockouts thrilling audiences and his aggressive style winning fans. He

is a jumble of the very best of a prime Evander Holyfield and the young Tyson, the yin and yang of boxing. One, a gentleman champion, the other a feared and vicious slugger.

They were famous but did what few boxers can: crossed over and appealed to nonfans.

Lacy, the St. Petersburg super-middleweight champ, is on his way.

He can just about get there, maybe as soon as Saturday, if he can beat undefeated Joe Calzaghe in Manchester, England.

"I think that it is true, there are probably not as many crossover fighters today that are in the prime of their career," said Ken Hershman, Showtime's general manager for sports. "But I think Jeff is certainly one of those, and he's one fight away."

In Lacy, many see boxing's future. A 2000 Olympian, he has All-American credentials. He is majestically built, quick with a smile and fan friendly, and most important, he knocks people out.

He has been been hyped by his handlers from Day 1 as the next big thing. He has lived up to expectations, winning his first 21 fights, 17 by knockout.

"If people are going to choose that one particular person, I want it to be me," Lacy said. "They want the total package. He has to have charisma, he has to be a role model, he has to be likable. I think I bring all those things to the table."

For boxers, getting it right outside the ring is always harder than doing so inside. Though Lacy has most pieces in place, one is missing: He has yet to fight a big pay-per-view bout or face a serious test the likes of Calzaghe, who is 40-0 and has defended his WBO title 17 times.

"For Jeff to catapult to the next level, it's not enough to beat Scott Pemberton and that ilk," Hershman said. "He has to do it Saturday."

Outside the ring, Lacy is taking small steps toward the fame he desires, but he admits it's not easy.

Though Shaw and adviser Shelly Finkel help, they are not exclusively employed by Lacy, nor does the fighter have a staff to handle public relations. Many of his Tampa Bay appearances are arranged through phone calls to his trainer or friends.

Sometimes, pure luck plays a role.

In November, Lacy was put on the cover of Ring Magazine. That caught the eye of ESPN marketing executives looking to staff a new cell phone commercial.

Lacy was the only boxer chosen to be flown to Los Angeles for the spot, which aired during the Super Bowl.

"We had police there because we were filming in downtown Los Angeles, and at one point I looked over and one of the police officers was on the ground with Jeff standing over him like he just knocked him out," ESPN spokesperson Rebecca Gertsmark said. "Another officer was taking the picture. It was hilarious."

Lacy impressed the ESPN crew with his energy and likability.

"Our guys really couldn't say enough good things about Jeff," Gertsmark said. "He was an absolute pleasure to work with. It's hard to imagine him as not being marketable."

Everlast has an agreement to provide him with his warmup threads and gloves. Lacy also recently started writing an online diary for FHM magazine.

"That's big stuff as far as exposure," Shaw said. "That's where you see people start to cross over. One day, it's FHM. Who knows, the next, maybe it's People?"

Finkel said he may try to line him up with nutrient and sports apparel companies. Soft drinks and fast food joints are years away.

The biggest role in publicizing Lacy's exploits and boosting his image will be played by Showtime. Hershman's network has seen some of its best ratings when Lacy fights. He has been on Showtime 14 times and is the face of its boxing coverage.

Only two fighters have appeared on Showtime more, Tyson and Holyfield.

"Given this relative part of his career, that speaks volumes for what we think of him," Hershman said. "We look forward to Jeff's career. More so than the network, I think it's important for the sport. Our strategy is to put on the best boxing matchups with the best fighters, and Jeff fits the bill on both fronts. He's a great asset."

Attracting fight fans is easy. Attracting the big bucks paid to Foreman and Holyfield (who once hawked Burger King and Coca-Cola, to name a few big-time companies) won't be, for reasons too numerous to list but most related to the poor way boxing has been managed by everyone involved.

"Well, it's not 1951. It's not a particularly popular sport," said Terry Lefton, editor-at-large of Sports Business Daily and Sports Business Journal. "Marketers are very cautious people. They figure, why get into a sport trying to find the unsullied athlete when their first reaction would be to avoid it altogether."

Finkel, who has advised Tyson and Holyfield, related a story about his attempt to get Gillette, which once hosted a popular boxing show, to sponsor one of his fighters.

He was told sure, but only when certain people were out of boxing.

"That was 15 years ago," Finkel said.

There are exceptions. Lefton points to Foreman as "one of greatest endorsement stories ever told."

Foreman got rich on burger grills and Meineke mufflers. Once one of the meanest fighters in the game, he emerged older, wiser and more personable during his comeback, rehabilitating his image. His opportunities, however, were less driven by his success in winning a gold medal and the heavyweight title than his affable personality.

"He was a great story," Finkel said. "But that is an anomaly. He presented himself as a cartoon character. He was a 50-year-old man proving he could still do it in the ring. All his kids were named George. People latched onto that."

Finkel doesn't think there will ever be another Foreman, but he does think Lacy has some of the same ingredients.

It starts with the knockout. It ends with the smile.

"Jeff is All-American," Shaw said. "He has a winning smile and a great sense of humor. Certain people, when they smile, you smile; when they laugh, you laugh. It's a contagious personality. I think after this fight Saturday, he will capture America."


WHEN/WHERE: 9 p.m. Saturday; MEN Arena, Manchester, England.

TV: Showtime.

RECORDS: Lacy 21-0, 17 KOs; Calzaghe 40-0, 31 KOs.

OUTLOOK: Lacy and Calzaghe bring their perfect records into the biggest super-middleweight unification fight in division history, and the biggest since Roy Jones beat James Toney in 1994. Lacy will put his IBF title, which he has defended four times since winning it in 2004, on the line. Calzaghe, the longest reigning champ in the sport, tries for an 18th straight defense of the WBO title he won in 1997. At age 33, Calzaghe is looking for that career-defining fight, while Lacy is hoping to continue his upward trend as one of boxing's brightest young stars.

- JOHN C. COTEY, Times staff writer