COVID-19 did to onetime journeyman heavyweight David Jaco what Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Buster Douglas, Tony Tucker, Oliver McCall, Tommy “The Duke” Morrison, Mike Weaver, Alex Stewart, Alexander Zolkin, Bert Cooper, David Bey, Jose Ribalta, Elijah Tillery, and Adilson Rodriguez could not do.
The virus knocked him on his ass and kept him on the canvas for 15 days.
A few months back, Jaco, who compiled a deceptive record of 24-25-1 (19 KOs), against a veritable who’s who of champions and contenders between 1981 and 1994, accompanied a friend to a Florida casino.
Within a few days, he felt lightheaded and collapsed in his bedroom. He got up, pulled himself together, and walked into the kitchen of his bungalow in Bradenton, Florida, where he passed out again.
After a third fall in his bedroom, he noticed a pillowcase covered in blood and immediately called his daughter Madison and his sister Mary.
Madison raced to her father’s home and had him dispatched to the hospital, where his oxygen level, which should be in the high nineties, was hovering in the sixties.
For the next 15 days, the normally outgoing, eternally positive, and always cheerful Jaco was confined to the hospital. He was put on oxygen and slept for two full days.
During his waking hours, Jaco’s emotions were teetering between hope and gloom. The latter was exacerbated when a fellow COVID patient in an adjoining room, with whom he communicated through a thin wall, passed away at the age of 62.
Jaco, who will be 68 in January, could not help but think that he might be next.
“There were times I thought Corona would take me out,” said Jaco during a December visit to his home, the walls of which are adorned with remembrances of his whirlwind career, which took the Dayton, Ohio, native to numerous states, as well as China, Brazil, Denmark, Germany, South Africa, and Cameroon. (Click here to familiarize yourself with Jaco's arc of life, from NYFIGHTS in April 2020.)
“The aches and pains were terrible – and I still have them today.”
About five days into his hospitalization, Jaco said his appetite returned, although the food had no taste, and the body aches were often unbearable.
Although the nurses told Jaco he “ate like a horse” he did not enjoy the food and was unable to move his bowels for 14 of the 15 days he was hospitalized.
Despite that gastric hindrance, Jaco entered the hospital at 235 pounds and was discharged at 208.
Jaco returned home, where he slowly resumed his daily regimen of walking three miles daily. He is feeling better by the day.
At the time of my visit, he was hosting Karen Free, a lovely woman eight years his junior who hails from the same Toledo neighborhood as Jaco.
Because of the age difference, they knew each other only peripherally as youngsters. Jaco left Toledo for the Sunshine State in 1986 after his bout with Tyson.
When they reconnected on Facebook earlier this year, they learned that Free had also lived in Bradenton, close to Jaco, until a recent divorce resulted in her moving back to her hometown.
Some of her kids and Jaco’s daughters even attended high school together.
“He private messaged me and we kept on talking,” said Free. “He told me he had COVID, and I said I’d be praying for him.”
Free described their Toledo neighborhood as being bookended by closed automobile plants and refineries. When Jaco was fighting professionally, he was enough of a local hero for Free to follow his career.
Jaco did not start boxing until the age of 24, when he and many others were laid off from Interlaken Steel in Toledo. Like so many of his friends and co-workers, he began working there straight out of high school and assumed he’d be employed for life.
After being let go, Jaco, who by then had a wife and twin sons, Aaron and Adam, found himself in dire straits.
At the time, the Toughman craze was sweeping the nation and Jaco, who was a natural athlete with a powerful right hand, was lured by the opportunity to earn quick money. Before long he developed such a fearsome reputation on the Midwest circuit that no one would fight him.
His Toughman promoter, Art Dore, turned him pro in 1991, and Jaco won his first 12 fights, 10 by knockout.
In his next bout Dore foolishly matched him with Carl “The Truth” Williams, a sensational New York amateur who was undefeated in 10 pro fights. The more experienced Williams stopped Jaco in the first round.
“Williams was in the prime of his life,” said Jaco. “I was still learning. I shouldn’t have been fighting him but didn’t know any better. He caught me in the body, and then an uppercut flattened me out. When the fight was stopped between rounds, I remember thinking, ‘What kind of shit is that? If you’re gonna stop the fight, stop it when I’m fighting, not resting.’”
A few fights later, in April 1985, Jaco scored the biggest win of his career, a seventh round TKO of previously unbeaten Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, who later gave Tyson all he could handle in two epic bouts.
In January 1986, Jaco was called to battle a young, rampaging Mike Tyson in Albany, New York. The purse was $5,000.
“I said ‘Hell, yeah’ because that was a lot of money to me,” said Jaco.
Jaco remembers Tyson firing punches from all directions – and not much more.
“I got up from a knockdown and the ref was waving the fight over,” Jaco recalled. “I asked what he was doing, and I reminded him of the three-knockdown rule. He said I just used all my knockdowns up. I thought I only went down twice.”
Jaco’s used his earnings from the Tyson fight to move to Florida and battle his troubled ex-wife for custody of their two sons.
He managed to win that battle and has never looked back.
“I left a blizzard in Toledo and arrived in Florida where it was 75 degrees,” said Jaco. “I immediately tracked down my kids and took them for a few months. I was feeding them, taking them to the beach to play football and swim. I was being their father, which was more important to me than anything.”
Jaco’s nominal record doesn’t begin to describe what a good fighter he was. What he managed to achieve with relatively no effort—like going the distance with Douglas and McCall—is extraordinary. Jaco took the fight with McCall just weeks after McCall was rumored to have dropped Tyson in a sparring session.
Despite eating two hot dogs and drinking two large cokes less than an hour before the McCall fight, Jaco said, “I was down about three times, but at one point I hit McCall with a right hand – my money shot – square in the face. Later, his trainer, Beau Williford, told me his eyes were kissing.”
In Bakersfield, California, in December 1988, George Foreman hit Jaco in the center of the back as he turned away from a punch. He thought his spinal column was crushed because the pain was so excruciating.
“George is a nice guy, but a dirty fighter,” said Jaco. “After he hit me above my ass bone, my only chance was to punch with him. But who can punch with George and get away with it? He got me on the ropes, but my head felt like a tennis ball getting whacked around.”
Jaco beat a Florida-based Swedish Olympian named Hakan Brock, who was being groomed for stardom by Angelo Dundee. (Here is a snippet of Brock battling Tyson in an amateur tourney.) He also blasted out the previously unbeaten Germany-based African Michael (Big Boy) Simuwelu in one round in Düsseldorf in March 1988. Afterwards he celebrated at a local bar, where he took to the stage to regale the patrons.
“I drank about a bottle and a half of vodka, and thought I was crooning the crowd,” he recalled. “While I was singing, I took a fall and took the band out with me. My head was spinning so bad that I vomited about seven or eight times. Somehow, I made it back to my hotel, but slept through my departure time for my flight home.”
Recalling his 1989 bout with Tommy Morrison, Jaco said, “They called me on a Monday night and had me fight Tommy on a Tuesday on ESPN. I was a palooka, one of those guys who basically goes in there looking for a payday.”
Jaco was flattened by a tremendous left hook and said The Duke was an even harder puncher than Foreman.
While living in Florida, where Jaco was employed as an appliance delivery man and a driver for sickly patients to medical facilities, he was active in his sons’ lives. He guided them both to numerous amateur titles, and both Aaron and Adam enjoyed some success in the professional ranks.
Although Jaco incurred 97 stitches, a broken cheekbone, two broken noses and numerous fractured ribs during his career, he is happy with the way things turned out. His four daughters from his second marriage, Kaleigh, Brittany, Madison and Sydney, are all living interesting and productive lives.
Jaco chronicled many of his exploits in his whimsical book, “Spontaneous Palooka,” which was published in 2012. He is refreshingly honest about his skills and limitations, as well as his travels and travails.
Jaco is as honest as the day is long, friendly in the quintessential Midwestern kind of way – the salt of the earth by any standard of measure.
He has big appetite for life’s simpler pleasures, living well by laughing a lot, counting his blessings, believing in himself, and always seeing the best in others.
When profiled on a prime-time documentary many years ago, the host sanctimoniously said of Jaco, “He could have been a contender, instead he is a bum.”
Nothing could be further from the truth.
“I didn’t consider myself a palooka, I was a decent fighter,” said Jaco. “I’m not bragging or anything, but what I lacked in skill I more than made up for with heart. I’m very proud of that.”
Jaco still has a lot of living – as well as giving – left in his gargantuan heart. That was never more apparent than during those lonely days in the hospital as he teetered between life and death.
“I was not ready to die,” said Jaco. “There was no way I was going to give in.”