'Palooka' Jaco gained from suffering Tyson pain

Self-described "palooka" David Jaco took the punishment from Mike Tyson in their 1986 fight – and the $5,000 he earned helped change Jaco's life.

Updated: June 9, 2005, 11:58 AM ET
By Tim Graham | Special to ESPN.com

They go by many labels. The polite terms are trial horses, stepping-stones, gatekeepers, B sides. Others would dare to call them palookas, bums, stiffs, pugs, cadavers, cannon fodder – though maybe not to their faces.

These are the sort of men, practically anonymous to all but the staunchest fight fans, who compose the early portion of every champion's career. They build up confidence. They build up a record. And then when their usefulness has been exhausted, they usually fade away.

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Mike Tyson had the most prominent career launch of any non-Olympic fighter. The buzz generated by his early fights – the relentlessness, the explosive power, the don't-blink knockouts – made Kid Dynamite a crossover sensation.

Even so, a quick glance at those early bouts will conjure up memories of … well, not much. Most of the names won't register.

Who are these guys? Where are they now?

Some fighters, like Tyson's first professional foe, Hector Mercedes, are tough to locate. Some, such as Mitch "Blood" Green, are easier. Joe Ribalta won't do interviews without getting paid. Reggie Gross was imprisoned on murder charges.

Tyson will try to patch up his sagging career against Kevin McBride Saturday night in Washington. This will mark Tyson's first appearance since losing to Danny Williams last summer.

So the time seems fitting – since McBride is about the same caliber of fighter upon which a 19-year-old Tyson feasted regularly back in the day – to track down some of those men who gamely stepped into the ring to face a skyrocketing phenom and helped create a legend.

Tyson Foil II: David Jaco

The popular barroom debate generally starts with the following question: "How much money would you need to get in the ring with Mike Tyson?"

David Jaco's figure was not a king's ransom.

He took $5,000 to fight Tyson in January 1986. Tyson was only 15-0 at the time, but he had started to create a global ruckus with his thunderous hands and lightning-quick knockouts. Four months earlier, he had blitzed Michael Johnson in 39 seconds. Three months prior, he annihilated Robert Colay in 37 seconds.

But Jaco didn't care. He needed money quick, or else he would lose his family.

"That $5,000 I made from Tyson changed my life," the 48-year-old Jaco said from his home in Sarasota, Fla. "Who would think that kind of money could do that?"

Jaco was divorced in 1979 but stayed with his ex-wife, who had custody of their twin sons, in hopes of reconciling. He described his ex-wife as a hopeless drug addict, and when she split the Toledo area and took the boys to Florida, he was terrified.

But before he could track her down, he needed cash. And before he could get the cash, he had to survive Tyson.

And I said 'What the hell are you talking about?' He said 'You've been down three times!' I said 'Bull----! I've only been down twice!'
David Jaco, recalling his debate with the referee who ended his fight with Mike Tyson after three first-round knockdowns

Jaco was an imposing presence at 6-foot-6 and 217 pounds. He had a respectable record of 19-5 with 15 KOs and had already issued Razor Ruddock's first defeat.

Jaco wasn't about to spoil Tyson's unblemished record, too.

"He was quick, like a cat," Jaco said. "He came in so low to the ground. I was bent over, trying to hit him. But he just came up and bang, bang. He was for real back then."

The fight ended at 2:16 of the first round because of the three-knockdown rule.

"The referee came up to me and said 'Nice fight, David,' " Jaco recalled. "And I said, 'What the hell are you talking about?' He said 'You've been down three times!' I said, 'Bull----! I've only been down twice!' "

Jaco took his purse and bolted for Florida. He eventually won custody of his sons, met a registered nurse and was remarried in 1992. He and his second wife had four daughters between 1993 and '99.

He retired in 1994 after losing seven consecutive bouts, giving him a record of 24-25-1 with 19 knockouts.

"I went from boxing to being Mr. Mom for the first six years of our marriage. What can I say? My wife pays the mortgage," said Jaco, who last year put 26,000 miles on his Dodge Durango transporting injured workman's compensation candidates to hospitals throughout Florida.

His sons, Aaron and Adam, became prizefighters. A rotator cuff injury prematurely ended Adam's career, but now he trains and manages his brother. Aaron, a light heavyweight, is 13-0 with 4 KOs.

"I don't want to see him get all tore up for nothing," Jaco said. "I hope someone takes notice and helps him make some money so he can get out."

Jaco's ledger also lists defeats against Carl Williams, Tony Tucker, Buster Douglas, Mike Weaver, Oliver McCall, George Foreman and Tommy Morrison.

"People hear all the big names I fought and say, 'Wow, you got money.' I don't got no money because I never made no money," Jaco said. "I'm one of those guys on the B side. I was a palooka. I was put in there as a stepping-stone, for a win.

"But for an old palooka, life is pretty good. I got a nice house, a good woman, four new daughters and a great job."

Tim Graham covers boxing for The Buffalo News and is a contributor to ESPN.com.