“I barely got out of there alive. I was almost killed. Hundreds of locals were chasing us across the soccer stadium. They were gonna rob us and kill us. They were just gonna take us apart.”
Former Ohio heavyweight Dave Jaco was recounting one of the wildest moments in a colorful boxing career that began with an early fight at Hara Arena and eventually took him to Europe five times, Africa three times, China, South America and all across the U.S .and into Canada.
Along the way, he fought some of the biggest names in boxing: Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Buster Douglas, Tommy Morrison, Razor Ruddock, Oliver McCall, Tony Tucker, and Carl “The Truth” Williams.
It was one of those bouts – against former heavyweight champ Mike “Hercules” Weaver – that brought him to that ill-fated fight show in Yaounde, Cameroon.
“They put it on in a soccer stadium and charged too much money for the local people,” Jaco said. “It turned out to be a real sorry (expletive) show. When it was over, they locked the gates around the stadium and all of us Americans on the card were waiting inside for the bus to take us to the hotel.
“The locals were yelling: ‘Give us your stuff!’ And then they started climbing the fence. We just made it to the bus when they started throwing rocks and bottles. Mike Weaver was scared to death. We just got away with our lives.”
Jaco – a great raconteur with a lovable roguishness, an easy laugh and an unvarnished honesty – told me this story a week and a half ago as we sat in lobby of the Westshore Grand Hotel in Tampa.
We were both there for the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame festivities and when he first saw me, he asked about Hara Arena, where he’d raised his record to 8-0 with a second-round knockout of Harold Johnson.
Although he’d had 50 pro fights all over the world, he still recalled that bout from March of 1982.
“I remember taking Needmore Road,” he said of the I-75 exit.
When I told him the old arena had been heavily damaged by a Memorial Day tornado, he was stunned: “Damn, that place had quite a history.”
Just like when he connected with Johnson’s chin, he was right on the mark again.
Over the years, Hara drew headliners from all walks of sports and also was the home for 15 minor league hockey, soccer, football, basketball and roller derby teams. It hosted the rodeo and Toughman.
Wayne Gretzky played his first pro hockey game there and some of the greatest wrestlers ever – from The Sheik and Bobo Brazil to Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant – performed there.
Boxing greats Sugar Ray Leonard and Aaron Pryor fought there, as did local heavyweight, Tom “Ruff House” Fischer.
And when it comes to music, the stars on stage ranged from the Rolling Stones and Grateful Dead to James Brown, Prince, Nirvana and Guy Lombardo.
Yet few have a more fascinating story than the now 65-year-old Jaco. And he did outdraw the Stones, whose November 1964 show at Hara brought in just 648 fans.
Still Jagger and Jaco had one thing in common:
Neither could get “Satisfaction.”
Although he started his pro career 12-0 – with low-paying wins in Toledo, Lima, Columbus, Findlay and Dayton — he soon ran into the truth.
That would be Carl “The Truth” Williams, the unbeaten heavyweight contender who stopped him in one round in 1983 in Atlantic City.
Two years later, Jaco was 18-3 when he pulled off his biggest upset ever. Brought into Nova Scotia to be a stepping stone for unbeaten Donovan “Razor” Ruddock, he stopped the Canaan heavyweight in eight rounds.
Later Ruddock claimed respiratory problems cost him the fight, but the victory propelled Jaco into a several bouts against the divison’s biggest names.
He was sought after because he was big – 6-foot-6, though rail thin – white and he could fight. Most appealing to promoters was his willingness to fight anyone on short notice.
We’re talking a one-day prep to fight Morrison, five days for Tyson and just a week to fly to California and meet Foreman.
After Ruddock, Jaco lost nine fights in a row, seven by knockout.
The New York Times featured him in story about journeymen boxers and ABC TV did a Prime Time Live profile simply entitled “Palooka.”
He was painted as someone who never refused a fight for money and when we talked he didn’t disagree:
“The bottom line, I had to take care of my sons at the time. So when the phone would ring, I’d say ‘Yeah, how much? Send me a ticket.’”
Before he retired in 1994, he explained the term palooka, which he later used in the title of his book:
“I was a palooka, one of those guys who basically goes in looking for a big payday. I made thousands when I fought, but I didn’t consider myself a palooka. I was a decent fighter.”
Along with the Ruddock win, he knocked out heavily-favored Zambian heavyweight Michael Simuwelu (17-0-1) in one round in Dusseldorf, Germany and went 10 rounds with McCall and Douglas.
But the biggest exclamation marks in his career often came in his losses. He was down three times in the first round again Tyson and four versus Foreman. Each time the ref had to step in and stop the bout.
“I’d go down, but I’d always get back up,” he said. “I never quit. It’s about how much you’re willing to sacrifice out there. It’s about your heart.”
And he had plenty of that former manager Rick Conti once said: :
“David fought on guts. That was his biggest strength. He was never the strongest or the quickest fighter, but he ALWAYS gave everything he had.”
From Toughman to boxing
Jaco was born in Oregon, a Toledo suburb and graduated from Clay High School. Soon after he got a job at Interlake Iron, married young – his wife was from Budapest, Hungary – and they had twin sons.
He was laid off in 1979 and to make money for his family, he entered a pair of Toughman contests, one in Michigan and another in Toledo, which he won.
Soon after, he turned pro and the success continued. But once he left the confines of Ohio and Michigan, he found himself farther from home than he imagined.
Before a 1985 fight with Pierre Coetzee in Johannesburg, South Africa he drank the water and became “sick as a dog” and was KO’d in six rounds.
When he fought 18-2 Magne Havnaa in Denmark, he dropped the Norwegian favorite in the first round but said his opponent was given nearly a minute to get up.
Jaco said when he went down in the fourth, the ref came over, pressed him to the canvas and told him to stay there as he counted him out.
His highest profile fight was against the then seemingly-unstoppable 19-year-old Tyson, who was 15-0 and had just destroyed Michael Johnson in 39 seconds and Robert Colay in 37.
Jaco didn’t care. His ex-wife had moved with their sons to Florida and he wanted them back. He got $5,000 for the Albany, N.Y. fight in which Iron Mike flattened him three times before the bout was stopped at 2:16 of the first.
When he fought Foreman, Jaco had no real cornerman, just a friend who’d made the trip and had no boxing knowledge.
“Foreman weighed over 300 pounds when I fought him and he hit me with a haymaker above my (butt ) bone,” he said. “I went numb from the waist down, just lost all feeing. I think I have a vertebra out back there now. I’ve still got a bad back.
“My guy in the corner didn’t know what to do. One of Forman’s guys, stopped the fight.”
As he once explained: “He probably saved my life.”
Jaco retired with a 24-25-1 record. Over his career, he said his nose was broken six times and he got 97 stiches in his face. A few years ago he suffered a near fatal heart attack and was revived twice at the hospital.
Just like in the ring, he said: “I got back up.”
Still in the boxing scene
Remarried in 1992, Jaco and his wife – a registered nurse – had four daughters, all of whom ended up college volleyball players. His twin sons were standout amateur boxers in Florida and had decent pro careers. Both now run gyms in Sarasota.
When he retired, his wife had a good job so he said he became Mr. Mom. He did that for 13 years and that prompted the title of his book: “Spontaneous Palooka and Mr. Mom: The Story of a Man’s Love for his Children and Prizefighting.”
After 22 years of marriage, he and his second wife divorced and today he lives in Bradenton, drives a limo and remains around the boxing scene.
In 2017 he was inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.
When asked to pick the music that would accompany him in his walk up to the podium, he made the perfect choice.
It was Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.”
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