Jacobs' direst fight: for career, life

Originally Published: October 17, 2012
By Kieran Mulvaney | ESPN.com

Danny Jacobs wasn't ready.

He thought he was, convinced himself he was, and spoke with plenty of swagger about what was expected of him.

"When you're from Brooklyn, you've got to rep, and you've got to perform, like it's your last fight on earth," he said two days before his July 2010 showdown with Dmitry Pirog.

He even spoke of the added motivation provided by the death only days previously of his grandmother, Cordelia, who had helped raise him as her own son. He dedicated his fight to her, and entered the ring with her nickname -- "Lady Bird" -- stitched into his trunks.

And then he lost.

"Emotionally, I just wasn't ready," he admits now. "Emotionally, I wasn't steady."

The tough talk, the promises, the assertion of motivation all disappeared in the dressing room at the very time he needed them the most:

[+] EnlargeDaniel Jacobs
Al Bello/Getty ImagesDanny Jacobs, right, won his first 20 professional fights and fought for a middleweight title by the time he had turned 23.

"I remember even crying before the fight, and I remember before the fifth round came, I was praying to God, 'I just don't want to be here, I want to be home with my family,'" Jacobs said. "And the next round, that's when it happened."

That's when Pirog landed the right hand that dropped Jacobs on his back. That's when the first world title attempt of the "Golden Child" came to an end and brought his undefeated record down with it. And, inevitably, that's when the naysayers came out of the shadows.

"I got criticized after that fight for being exposed," Jacobs said, "but what people don't understand is, when you have an emotional attachment to someone you've been with for years -- I mean, my grandmother, she was like my mom -- and then you're fighting the hardest fight you could possibly fight and at the hardest possible time in your life …"

With time, Jacobs began to get his feet under him. In the ring, he put together back-to-back wins designed to build his confidence. Out of the ring, his promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, maintained faith in him, keeping him in the spotlight and taking him on a USO tour to Iraq. It was upon returning from Iraq, however, that Jacobs was unexpectedly forced to confront the specter of mortality again. This time, however, it was not that of a close relative.

It was his own.


Jacobs returned from Iraq in mid-March 2011. The very next day, he was cycling to the gym when he noticed that his feet kept missing the pedals. A small thing, enough to elicit a furrowed brow, a realization that something was amiss, but not enough to cause any great consternation.

"I was a little nonchalant about it, thinking it was from not training," he said.

But the symptoms worsened rapidly enough that within weeks he was walking with a cane, yet steadily enough that no single escalation sounded any alarm bells. The initial medical opinion, in fact, encouraged the nonchalance.

"Doctors told me I had a pinched nerve, and they gave me some meds for it," Jacobs said. "So I was believing their word and believing that the pills they gave me would heal me, and even though it was getting worse and worse, in my mind I knew that it would get better eventually."

The magnitude of everything was sky-high. It was very, very emotional for me. My not being to take care of myself or provide for my family was something very hard to cope with. I spent many nights questioning. I spent many nights secretly crying. My girlfriend was there, my family was there, and we spent many moments with tears.

-- Danny Jacobs, on the difficulties he faced after being diagnosed with cancer

But it didn't. It did keep getting worse, so that the cane gave way to crutches and the crutches yielded to a wheelchair, and when one day there was a knock at the door and Jacobs had to drag himself across the floor with his arms to answer it, he found himself in the emergency room, which led to the revelation that a large malignant tumor had wrapped itself around his spinal cord.

Cancer.

His mind immediately returned to his grandmother, whose death less than a year previously had been caused by the same disease. Was it hereditary? And then he flashed forward, inevitably and fearfully, to the future.

Would his fate be the same as hers? Was he going to die?

Ten months previously, Danny Jacobs had been a professional athlete on a fast track to the very pinnacle of his career. Now, not only was that career in jeopardy; so was his life, his future with his girlfriend, Natalie, and his young son. In the space of six weeks, he had progressed from being one of the fittest men on the planet to being an invalid in need of life-saving surgery that itself entailed enormous risk.

"It was dramatic. It was something we never expected," he said with what is surely understatement.

The fear that grips a person who has been handed a possible death sentence is matched only by the terror and helplessness of being the one closest to that person. Natalie found herself alternating between wanting to scream and wanting to hold Danny and talk it all through, and struggling with her emotions during those times when Jacobs felt the need to be somewhere by himself, away from everybody, to think it all through.

"The magnitude of everything was sky-high," Jacobs said. "It was very, very emotional for me. My not being to take care of myself or provide for my family was something very hard to cope with. I spent many nights questioning. I spent many nights secretly crying. My girlfriend was there, my family was there, and we spent many moments with tears."

On May 18, 2011 -- a date he will assuredly never forget -- Jacobs underwent surgery. His final memory before he went under the knife is something about which he is at least now able to smile.

"I remember them rolling me in to this cold room with nothing but doctors. You know how they put the gloves on and you hear that snap of the gloves?" he said, laughing. "I remember coming into this cold room and hearing the doctors snap those gloves."

And then he went to sleep.


Danny Jacobs wasn't ready.

He had woken up in immense pain, his body recoiling in fury from the violation of being opened up and operated on. He was swollen and hurting, and when he and Natalie locked eyes as he reached consciousness, they both cried with gratitude, relief and pent-up emotion. The surgery had been successful, but the treatment was far from complete.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Jacobs
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesFalling to Dmitry Pirog in July 2010 was Danny Jacobs' lowest point -- until he found himself in a fight for his life when he was diagnosed with cancer.

"I had to have 25 counts of radiation, and the radiation was an obstacle I had to get over, in and of itself. It took away my appetite completely, it changed my mood swings, it would make me feel nauseous all the time. It did so much to me; that was another challenge. So many things kept happening, it was like, when will it stop? When will I be over all this? When will I get better?"

Yet just months after the surgery, he pulled on a headguard and gloves and stepped into a ring to spar, just to see whether he still could, and to get a sense of whether he ever again would.

"I wasn't ready," he said with a laugh. "I looked horrible. But I told myself that, 'OK, we'll evaluate how I look now and we'll do the calculations of when we will get better,' even though in the back of my mind there still was a big chance of me not being able to do it."

His doctors, when they found out some time later about his impromptu sparring session, were not pleased. But by then, several months had passed, and so had the worst. Jacobs' appetite had long returned and brought with it the pounds that had deserted his frame. Once more, he began testing himself. One day, about six months ago, he knew.

"I remember having that particular swag, if you will, having that normal swag and movement that I normally have when I'm in the ring. I remember feeling it just a little bit," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, my jab is snapping just a little bit. I might be able to do this.' From that point on, I started training as much as I possibly could. But it was still taking a toll on my back early on, so I had to make sure that I did it in portions so I wouldn't reinjure myself and this time it would be worse. So we made sure we did training accordingly. And we did, and so the pain went from a 10 to a 5 to a 3, and eventually there was no pain at all."


Danny Jacobs is ready.

[+] EnlargeDanny Jacobs
Ed Diller/Hoganphotos/Golden Boy PromotionsJust 18 months after surgery to remove a tumor that was wrapped around his spinal cord, Danny Jacobs will return to the ring Saturday in Brooklyn.

It has been an astonishingly short space of time, a mere 18 months since he fell into an anesthesia-aided sleep from which he did not know if he would ever wake. But now, after two years of disappointment and setbacks, of death and sickness and near-death and recovery, he is ready to pick up where he left off. On Saturday, in front of a home crowd in his beloved Brooklyn, N.Y., he will resume his life as a professional boxer.

It remains to be seen if Jacobs will ever be a world champion, if his career will ever be what it could have been. If a boxer can take only so many tough fights in his career, then the growth of a malignant tumor, complicated surgery to remove it and follow-up doses of radiation are sure to have put their own miles on his odometer. But any fighter will tell you, for all the physical demands of this most physically demanding of sports, 95 percent of the game is mental. In that area, Jacobs already knows he has no peer.

"Cancer was the biggest fight that I have ever faced in my life," he said. "Mentally, I don't think there's anything that can discourage me. I have a different mind-set now. The determination that I have to be a champion -- whether it's in or out of the ring -- is just so amazing.

"I know there's nothing that's going to stop me."

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com, HBO.com and Reuters, and also blogs for Discovery Channel News.