Daniel Jacobs is the epitome of a fighter.
The 27-year-old “Miracle Man” from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York, will challenge for a world title on Saturday night at the Barclays Center, attempting to cap an improbable comeback that seemed impossible just three years ago.
That was when Jacobs, at the time considered a surefire future world champion, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a highly aggressive form of cancer.
The illness threatened more than just his boxing career, but he maintains that the sport, and particularly the chance to fight in front of his hometown fans, helped motivate him to not give up.
“Boxing was probably the second-most motivating factor. My family was first. Boxing always stayed in the back of my mind. Once I found out that the Barclays Center was going to have fights, I said I’ve got to get back,” Jacobs told Bleacher Report.
“Every day I would think about it. Through the hardest part of my therapy and learning how to walk and my treatments, I always had that in the back of my mind. No matter how much it was hurting me, I just wanted to one day be able to perform. Being a world champion and having this opportunity I have now was furthest from my mind.”
At the time of his diagnosis, Jacobs was on the comeback trail, rebounding from an upset loss to Dmitry Pirog in his first world-title challenge.
That upset, which came via Round 5 knockout, was a huge setback, but it paled in comparison to what he would face next.
Jacobs initially sensed something wrong when he began feeling weakness in his legs. The condition seemed odd for a young professional fighter in peak physical condition.
The weakness would eventually lead to paralysis, the result of an aggressive tumor wrapped around his spine.
But Jacobs says that, at least in the early days, the full extent of his condition was withheld from him by family members.
“Initially, throughout the whole process of going to the hospital, my godmother hid the fact that the tumor was cancerous and that I had cancer until I had to get radiation treatments, because it would be too much on my mind. I had the impression that it was benign until maybe a week later when I found out I had to get radiation treatments,” he said.
The decision to hold back the seriousness of his condition is one he believes was correct.
Facing the prospect of losing his boxing career and his ability to walk, adding in the life-threatening nature of his condition would have made an already overwhelming situation worse.
The dam finally broke when Jacobs found out he needed radiation treatments. This confirmed his worst fears and shook him to the core.
“It was hard. Even though, at the time, I thought I was a mentally strong person, it broke me down. At my worst point, I never knew that this opportunity [to fight for a world title] would be possible. I just had faith, and faith is believing in what you can’t see. I just had faith and trusted in God that this opportunity would present itself.”
The opportunity to compete for the WBA Middleweight Championship—the regular title as opposed to the super title held by Gennady Golovkin—comes against Jarrod Fletcher, a once-beaten Australian.
It’s the summit of years of the hardest work imaginable, and Jacobs will be looking to become the first Brooklyn fighter to capture a world title at the Barclays Center.
Jacobs was in the midst of his battle with cancer when he became aware that the new arena would be opening in his borough.
From that point on, he set a goal of being ready to compete when the arena opened its doors for boxing.
With that goal in mind, he returned to sparring late in 2011, just months removed from major surgery and against the wishes of his doctors.
His goal was reached in October of 2012.
Fighting on the undercard of Danny Garcia’s title defense against Erik Morales, Jacobs returned to the ring, cancer-free, and stopped Josh Luteran in the opening round of his first bout in 19 months.
It was a quick but satisfying conclusion to an emotional roller-coaster ride, and the outpouring of love and support received confirmed for Jacobs that his struggles had been worth it.
“It makes me feel alive. It makes me feel like I’m somebody. I had a hard time growing up, and boxing kind of served as my second family. When I was making my way to the ring and when I fight, to see people cheering for me, it makes me feel that I’m somebody special,” Jacobs said.
“That first night coming back at the Barclays, even though it was quick, was very emotional. It made me feel like all the hard work and dedication I put into my whole life, and boxing, and my recovery, that it wasn’t in vain.”
His bout with cancer, obviously trying, changed everything in Jacobs’ life, much of it for the better.
From what he values, to who he is as a person, the man you see today inside and outside of the ring is totally transformed by the experience.
“Absolutely. It’s so different now. The fact that I can wake up every day. Before, I wouldn’t say I was reckless, but I definitely took a lot of things for granted. Whether it be just walking in the park or being able to tell my family I love them. Whatever it is, it’s the little things,” Jacobs said.
“The little things I used to take for granted before I don’t take for granted anymore. This whole situation has evolved me into a better person. Mentally, I’m much stronger, I’m more loving. I’m a man now. Cancer has played a huge role into making me into this person.”
And now he has the chance to walk into the arena that kept him going and walk out as a world champion on Saturday night.
His opponent, Fletcher, will be stepping into some hostile territory. He’s the underdog, but so was Pirog, and nothing can be taken for granted.
A single punch can change the fortunes of both men in the ring.
Jacobs knows better than most of us that nothing is a certainty in life, but his confidence is at a zenith. He doesn’t believe he can be denied this time.
“With any opponent there’s always a challenge and something to watch for. The hard work is already put in, and that night, I’m not looking forward to seeing anything he has to offer. I feel that it’s going to be all Danny Jacobs that night.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen August 9, but I do know that I can’t see a way that I’m going to be defeated. It’s going to take a lot for him to get the victory over me that night. I don’t see how he’s going to beat me.”
Kevin McRae is a featured boxing columnist for Bleacher Report and an auxiliary member of the Boxing Writers Association. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained via a one-on-one interview.