Local Boxers Fight For Gold

local-boxers-fightOn fight night when there’s a red carpet rolled out, Lamborghinis in the arena lot and large cats on display inside, you know you’re in Las Vegas. And that’s exactly how the promoters of the coming Friday Night Fights event, dubbed ‘Making History’, want you to feel—even if these boxing bouts happen to be at Robarts Arena in Sarasota. The main events on April 3 will feature two title fights: Local legend China “The Dragon” Smith (35-4) is set to defend his World Boxing Federation (WBF) North American heavyweight championship belt, while Aaron “Jedi” Jaco (17-3) battles for a vacant WBF super-middleweight regional title.

With two titles on the line in one night, the moniker ‘Making History’ is not just a marketing tagline; this fight card acts as a launchpad for bringing the sport of boxing back to Sarasota—a city that hasn’t seen a professional match since 2006, when Smith defeated Benito Fernandez by 1st round TKO. The champ hopes the evening’s grandiose display will help revitalize community interest in one of the world’s oldest sports.

“My dream is to bring boxing to Sarasota, and not just one event, but for many to follow,” Smith says. “It’s a true blessing; we have me defending my title and Aaron Jaco fighting for a title in the same night. That’s why I say we are making history in Sarasota.”

The Sarasota community will benefit directly from the bouts. Several Newtown charities are expected to take home money from raffles and ticket sales, including the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota County. Additionally, the Big Cat Habitat and Trinity Without Borders will also be supported by the event, which promoters say has charity and the advancement of social welfare as one of its primary goals.

Smith was born and raised in Newtown, so for him the fight coinciding with the coming Newtown Centennial on April 17 is a cause for celebration, and being able to give money back to his community only makes this Friday Night Fights all the more special. For the southpaw, it’s a chance to show kids in Newtown that hard work and self respect can lead to real success.

“One of my goals is to encourage kids from all over to live their dreams,” he says. “Dreams don’t have expiration dates, people do.”

Jaco, too, is thrilled to fight in front of a hometown crowd, saying that everywhere he goes he can feel the support of the community around him. The “Jedi” refers to himself as a ‘businessman’ these days and no longer needs to scrap for paychecks; however, despite the success of his Sarasota gym, Uppercut Boxing & Fitness, the chance to fight at Robarts for a regional title was too tempting of a proposition to pass up.

His opponent and he have yet to sign on the dotted line, but Jaco welcomes a potentially younger, bigger guy to take him on. When the bell rings on fight night, “Jedi” will be 38 years old, and candidly admits that he’s slowed down a bit. But the thought of losing a fight in front of a local crowd that’s chanting his name isn’t even an option for the super-middleweight.

“I just hope to show there’s a lot of fighter left inside me … (People are making) a mistake by thinking I’m totally out of this game. Because even if you are a little bit slower or not as young as you used to be, that doesn’t mean you ain’t got something up your sleeve,” Jaco says, noting the cure for aging: “You have to get a little bit smarter about the way you train and what you do in that ring.”

The Jaco family is one with boxing in its roots. Aaron’s brother, Adam, is also a professional fighter and trainer, and their father, David Jaco, saw a pro-boxing career that pitted him against legendary names like Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas, and George Foreman. While Aaron would like to be remembered most for his business acumen and personal training, the urge to fight is in his blood and it’s hard for him to shake.

“If people think they get a rush by jumping out of a plane, they should try walking out to a ring, with thousands of people cheering you on while your music is playing. Because if they think jumping out of a plane is a rush, they’ll never experience walking out to the ring in your home town to fight,” he says. “That is one of the most amazing rushes in the world; it’s absolutely unbelievable, that feeling. I still get that rush and that desire to feel that fix.”

Jumping from a moving plane that’s thousands of feet in the air may not thrill him, but Jaco does fill his need for action outside of the ring in other ways. In his free time, he enjoys shark fishing, comparing the danger of dragging a carnivorous fish out of the water to facing an opponent in the ring.

Priding himself on being the type of person to seize the day, “Jedi” soberly contemplates what a life without the adventure of boxing would mean for his happiness.

“That feeling of walking to the ring, that rush, that excitement, that adrenaline— it’s something you know can only last for a while because you’re going to get old someday, and you’re not going to be able to walk out to that ring,” he says, “and that feeling will be gone. But it’s one of those things you’ve got to chase while you can.”

While every fight could be the one where he decides to hang his gloves up for good, Jaco stays in shape and credits his active lifestyle and clean diet for his career longevity. When he steps into Robarts arena on fight night, it’ll mark 22 years of ranked combat for him, with nearly 12 years as a professional boxer.

For both China Smith and Aaron Jaco, main event status at Robarts Arena is a true homecoming, and not just because the venue is in Sarasota. For Jaco, it means headlining the same stage his dad once held when he fought at Robarts in 1991. For the champion China Smith, this arena signals ‘good luck’ after his previous victory under its roof, and reminds him of the days before he wore gold around his waist.

Like Jaco, the thought of losing in front of a hometown crowd isn’t something China’s considered. Every day at the Team China gym in Bradenton, the champ is putting in hours of training, assuring that he will be ready on fight night.

Though his opponent is still a mystery, Smith, 36, openly admits that, whoever it ends up being, the man is likely to be younger than he, but the age gap is not something he concerns himself with.

The heavyweight stays healthy through strength training and yoga, keeping his body active and ready for battle. He can still throw a solid punch and bob-and-weave like the best of them, but “The Dragon” says his greatest weapon is his positive state of mind.

“Thank God I live right. I surround myself with positive people, and I tell kids—I just believe,” he says. “I believe in god, and I believe I’m young. I feel like I’m in my mid-20s; I’m stronger and faster than ever. “

As he shadow boxes at the gym, listening carefully to the instructions of his head trainer—his dad—Smith looks smooth and agile, like a young, hungry competitor who hasn’t lost a step. Although outside of the ring he is a gentle giant, while training, the champion reacts sharply if his intense focus is broken by anyone. Mentally, he’s determined and confident that he will beat his opponent, and it doesn’t matter who the other guy is.

“I am a shorter heavyweight, but I have speed and power. I’m going to use my god given talent to my fullest ability, escalate, and take it to a whole new level. I don’t care who the other guy is,” Smith says. “Jaco and I, we train our butt off for this opportunity; we live and die by fighting. Mentally I’m feeling better and stronger than ever, because I’m fighting in my hometown. I’m defending my title in my hometown. “

Smith, who speaks highly of Jaco’s talent, says he owes all of the fighters on the card for making the night a success. Both “Dragon” and “Jedi” credit the team working with them out of the ring for making this Friday Night Fights a reality, noting the relief that comes from working with honest promoters and sponsors. After a career that has seen the worst of what boxing promotions can mean for the athletes Smith says he finally has a team around him that is full of nothing but good vibes.

“We’re like family. I’m truly blessed to have this team. Without them, none of this would be possible. I’m so lucky to have them by me, with me. And when I think about it, I get emotional,” he says. “I’m truly blessed and humbled to have this fight in Sarasota.”