- Dan Rafael, ESPN Senior Writer
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When middleweight contender Daniel Jacobs fought for a vacant world title in 2010, squaring off with little-known Russian underdog Dmitry Pirog, he was one of boxing's hottest rising fighters.
Jacobs was a standout amateur, undefeated as a pro and had been selected as the 2009 ESPN.com Prospect of the Year. Big things were expected of him.
So when he got knocked out by Pirog in the fifth round many viewed it merely as a temporary setback. After all, Jacobs had gone into the fight with a lot on his mind. His grandmother, Cordelia Jacobs, who had helped raise him, died a week before the fight, and her funeral was the day after the fight.
Jacobs began his comeback a few months later and won his next two fights by easy knockout, albeit against low-level opposition, and was on his way again. Then, suddenly, his career came to a standstill.
Jacobs had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, and he was not sure if he would live, much less continue his boxing career.
While Jacobs was hospitalized and fighting for his life, he learned that the Barclays Center was going to be built in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York, and it planned to make boxing part of its offerings. As he fought to beat cancer, one of his goals was to someday resume his career and fight in that arena in front of his people.
"I remember being on my death bed, and I found out in the newspaper that the Barclays Center was opening and that they were going to have fights here, and me not knowing if I would ever be able to box again, let alone perform here," said Jacobs, who drew motivation from the dream to fight at his hometown arena.
Jacobs beat the odds. He survived the harrowing disease and finally made an emotional return to the ring on Oct. 20, 2012, knocking out Josh Luteran in the first round on the first card held at the Barclays Center. It was a dream come true.
Two fights later, Jacobs, who adopted the nickname "Miracle Man," again fought at the Barclays Center on April 27, 2013 and scored a fourth-round knockout of Keenan Collins. That fight came just days after Jacobs' doctor gave him the wonderful news he had been waiting to hear: He was, at last, cancer free.
Now Jacobs is on the precipice of doing something he didn't even dream of during his illness -- winning a world title at the Barclays Center when he faces Australia's Jarrod Fletcher for a vacant middleweight belt on Saturday (Showtime, 9 p.m. ET/PT, with preliminary bouts on Showtime Extreme beginning at 7 p.m. ET/PT).
"Absolutely not," Jacobs said when asked if he ever thought he would be in position to claim a title in his hometown arena after everything he went through. "That was the furthest thing in my mind. I had hopes and aspirations of one day again being able to get back to the ring at the Barclays Center. Once I found out that the Barclays Center would have a fight, my biggest drive and my biggest motivation was to just participate there in that first event, that inaugural event.
"But to have this opportunity to have a world championship [fight] a year and a half, two years later, I never would have thought this would be possible, let alone to happen in my backyard. To be able to perform in front of my fans and my family, who have been there during my struggles, this is an opportunity of a lifetime. Seriously, I really can't wait for fight night. It's going to be like a dream come true for me."
Said Oscar De La Hoya, president of Golden Boy Promotions, which has promoted Jacobs' fights throughout his career, "They call him the 'Miracle Man' and the 'Miracle Man' for a reason. He is, perhaps, one of the most inspirational figures, not only in boxing, but in any sport today. He's really excited to be fighting for a world title in Brooklyn, his hometown.
"For Daniel Jacobs, this fight will have significance few could ever dream of. Danny has had a battle for life itself with cancer in order to get here."
In the main event, unified junior welterweight world champion Danny Garcia (28-0, 16 KOs), 26, of Philadelphia, faces massive underdog Rod Salka (19-3, 3 KOs), 31, of Bunola, Pennsylvania, in a scheduled 10-round non-title welterweight bout with junior welterweight titlist Lamont Peterson (32-2-1, 16 KOs), 30, of Washington, D.C., defending his belt against New York's 35-year-old Edgar Santana (29-4, 20 KOs), another huge underdog.
"This whole comeback has been a dream so far, and what better way to keep it going than with a world title fight in my borough," Jacobs said. "This is the fight I've been waiting for, and no one will keep me from that belt."
Said Fletcher, "It's going to be a tough fight. He's heavily favored, so I know I have to win the fight clearly. Danny [Jacobs] is a good boxer, and he has the full package. We've prepared well and we think we're ready for him."
While the 27-year-old Jacobs (27-1, 24 KOs) and Fletcher (18-1, 10 KOs), 30, a 2008 Australian Olympian, are excited to be fighting for a world title, the fact is that the belt they will be vying for is a second-tier title because the WBA regularly crowns multiple titleholders in the same weight class -- sometimes as many as four -- in order to drum up additional sanctioning fees. The WBA's top middleweight titleholder is Gennady Golovkin, whom many view as the best 160-pounder in the world.
Despite the lack of respect many have for the belt that Jacobs and Fletcher are fighting for, Jacobs said he couldn't care less.
"It doesn't matter to me. I mean, a champion is a champion," Jacobs said. "A secondary champion or the first champion, it doesn't matter to me."
To Jacobs, all that that matters is having a world title belt wrapped around his waist, not what anyone thinks of it -- especially in light of the adversity he has overcome. It will mean the world to him.
"I have an opportunity to fight for a world championship. It's not my job to make the belt," he said. "It's not my job to put myself in a position to fight for the belt. It's just my job to really go in there and just be ready to fight whoever they put in front of me and whatever title we get, I'm very grateful for it.
"Whether they call me a paper champion or a real champion, I am the champion because each and every time I go inside that ring I give it my all, and that's pretty much all I have to say about that."
Fletcher also has dreams of winning a world title belt.
"I'm hoping this will be the start of big things," he said. "This has been a dream of mine since I started fighting at the age of 10. This is what it all comes down to."
As Jacobs has said repeatedly, it will be a huge deal for him, his family and his supporters if he can win the belt after all he has been through.
But will he be able to contain his emotions should he be the victor?
"Absolutely not," Jacobs said. "I think about it all the time. I envision myself with my hand being raised and, of course, your vision is the announcer saying, 'And the new...' I get emotional just thinking about it.
"So, for me and for my family, that will be a night to remember if we have our hand raised in victory. And it will be historical. I never would have dreamed of this opportunity."