One year ago, Jeff Lacy didn't know if he'd ever fight again.
On Dec. 2, 2006, the former super middleweight titleholder was facing Vitali Tsypko on HBO on the undercard of his buddy Winky Wright's fight against Ike Quartey in Tampa. It was Lacy's comeback fight after a brutally one-sided defeat at the hands of Joe Calzaghe in a unification fight nine months earlier.
A victory would have helped Lacy, from nearby St. Petersburg, begin to pick up the pieces after that difficult defeat and start him on the path back to a title shot. But in the second round, Lacy severely injured his left shoulder -- which is certainly not good when your nickname is "Left Hook" and your money punch is delivered with your left hand.
Lacy knew he was injured, but he didn't know how badly. But he sucked it up, fought for eight more rounds, barely able to use his left, and emerged with a hard-earned majority decision.
"Every time we were in a clinch, that's when I was grimacing. I was in pain, but I didn't want to let him see that I was in any pain," Lacy said. "The fact that I had already suffered a loss to Calzaghe is how I got through that fight. I told myself right there that there is no way I am going to lose another fight. For eight rounds I had to outhustle Tyspko. He was scared of my punching power, but you have no idea how little I could do. The first couple of rounds I really didn't feel that much pain, but by the sixth, seventh rounds I felt the pain and I knew I had to do whatever I could to win this fight."
Lacy won it on pure guts and a few days later learned the extent of the damage. He had torn his left rotator cuff and also torn a tendon in his shoulder almost completely away from the bone.
"It was a big injury," trainer Dan Birmingham said.
Following surgery, Lacy embarked on six months of intense therapy. He also took time for himself for some good, old fashioned rest and relaxation before resuming training over the summer.
Lacy also settled his promotional situation following an acrimonious fallout with promoter Gary Shaw after the loss to Calzaghe by signing a contract with Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions that will take him through 2009.
Now, his shoulder feeling strong and his mind and body well-rested, Lacy, 30, is ready to return to the ring. He'll face first-season "Contender" star Peter Manfredo Jr. in a 10-round fight at 170 pounds Saturday night (HBO PPV, 9 ET) at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on the Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton undercard.
"I'm very eager to get in the ring," Lacy said. "I've been ready for the last month in a half. I cannot wait."
The winner will be in a great position for a big fight at super middleweight or light heavyweight. There has already been talk that a Lacy victory will propel him into an April fight in Tampa against former light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver.
"All the attention is at super middle and light heavy," Lacy said. "Jermain Taylor is moving up, Bernard Hopkins is out there, Tarver is there, there's the Roy Jones-Felix Trinidad winner, there's [Kelly] Pavlik, you got 'The Contender' series with 168-pounders. You name it and it's there for me. There's so much to do. I don't' know what route we go after Manfredo, but it's the perfect time for me to be returning."
Lacy (22-1, 17 KOs) and Manfredo (28-4, 13 KOs) have much in common. Like Lacy, Manfredo also suffered a loss to Calzaghe, getting stopped in the third round on April 7. After two comeback wins in May and June, Manfredo, 27, also needed arm surgery. His was to clean up bone spurs and chips in his left elbow in August.
"He's coming off surgery, and so am I. Neither of us have taken a tune-up fight," Manfredo said. "We're both fighters and we'll fight each other because this is what the public and boxing fans need. Jeff and I both come to fight, so you're going to see an action-packed fight for 10 rounds, if it goes that long."
Lacy's injury was far more serious than Manfredo's, though. Coming back from the injury was one of the most difficult things Lacy has ever endured.
"It was a real challenge. I kid you not 97 percent of the tendon was torn off the bone in my shoulder," Lacy said.
Lacy said that during the surgery, the doctor tore the remaining 3 percent off the bone and reattached the entire tendon so it would heal properly.
"So they had to reattach everything and I was going through therapy," he said. "It was like starting over as an infant. I couldn't lift my arm. I had no strength in it. It was very challenging to overcome knowing where it was before to where it was at the time. It was a slow, slow process but I had a great therapist."
Lacy said he always believed he would be able to fight again.
"Being that I work how I work in the gym, I never let any doubt stop me," he said. "All I had to hear was the doctor say there was a chance that I could fight again and that is what I focused on. Now, my shoulder is stronger than it was before."
About three months ago, Lacy was finally ready to go all out in sparring with Wright and Joey Gilbert.
"When I started to hit the pads and spar, [the injury] was in the back of my mind the first couple of times; I was in the ring throwing it, but in the back of my mind I was worried," Lacy said. "But as I got more confident throwing the hook, it was like it was before. Now, I don't even think about it. About three months ago I finally let it rip. When I finally got a chance to throw it and saw the result of it, it made me very happy. It made me happy and confident. Before that I was thinking would I tear it again.
"If Peter is thinking I am going in there with only one good arm, he's very, very wrong."
Lacy had a previous problem with his shoulder -- tendonitis before the 2000 Olympics. But instead of surgery or rehabilitation, Lacy took a cortisone shot before the trials and fought through the injury.
"The doctor said that when I have some down time I need to get it looked at," Lacy said. "Over the years it was wearing and tearing, and after awhile it gave way. I think everything happens for a reason. I never had a chance to really take a vacation or take time off ever since the Olympics. I was on the fast track and I never had time to relax until this happened."
After the Olympics, Lacy turned pro with great fanfare and was kept busy. After he won a vacant title in dominant fashion against Syd Vanderpool in October 2004, it was not the time to rest the shoulder either, and he made four defenses in 11 months as one of boxing's busiest titleholders. Then he ran into Calzaghe in a fight that had been delayed by Calzaghe's own injury problems.
Now, Lacy feels like the shoulder is back in shape. So does Birmingham, who has known Lacy most of his life and was with him every step of the way during his rehabilitation.
"He's looking better than ever," Birmingham said. "His shoulder is stronger now I think. And he's mentally ready. He did six months of therapy. He was very diligent. When I did some research on the injury, it takes a year to heal. Jeff was able to cut the time down. It's been a long training camp and he's ready to fight. He is so focused and determined to get back on top.
"I knew he'd come back. I think he needed that rest. It really rejuvenated him mentally. He's gonna beat this guy and look spectacular doing it."
Dan Rafael covers boxing for ESPN.com.