When it dawned on Danny Jacobs, sometime in early 2018, that a rematch against Gennady Golovkin or a shot at Saul Alvarez would not happen anytime soon, the Brooklyn native did not despair. Yes, he had signed a three-bout contract with HBO with the understanding that one of them would involve either Golovkin or Alvarez, the top middleweights in the world. But given that the ballyhooed rematch between those two fighters had been pushed back to September 2018, thanks to Alvarez failing a drug test, Jacobs knew that he would have to wait a bit longer for his turn. Meanwhile, Jacobs made something very clear to his handlers: no tune-ups. For his next couple of fights, Jacobs wanted legitimate opponents, fighters in their prime who would pose a threat. The sort of no-hopers Jacobs had thrashed around for the better part of eight years stretching back to his professional start in 2007 were now effectively banned.
“Ever since I signed with HBO I’ve been on this fast track,” Jacobs, thirty-two, told Hannibal Boxing at a recent news conference in Manhattan. “For my last three fights, I went out and got respect by fighting undefeated fighters, back-to back-to-back-to-back. Those were fighters that could have given Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin tough matches.”
In his inaugural HBO appearance, in November 2017, Jacobs cruised to a wide, if ugly, points win over a clingy Luis Arias. The following April he went toe-to-toe against Maciej Sulecki and earned a decision in a tight contest. Then, last October, Jacobs battled sparring-mate Sergiy Derevyanchenko—with whom he shared a manager and trainer—in a vacant title bout that oddsmakers had up for grabs, and he scraped through with a split decision. With his paycheck guaranteed by the now-defunct network, Jacobs had the option to fight anyone else besides Derevyanchenko for the same amount of money. No one would have begrudged him otherwise, not in this era when fighter pay is grossly disproportionate to caliber of competition. But Jacobs wanted a title desperately, and he was more than willing to fight a top-shelf adversary for it. As Jacobs prepares to face Alvarez in the most significant bout of his career on May 4 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, his confidence can be in part explained by his recent trials in the ring.
“In my early career I’ve been knocking out a lot of guys,” Jacobs admitted. “I didn’t really have that experience going twelve rounds with a Floyd Mayweather-type of fighter or doing all these different things to improve and learn. It was very, very rare for me. Going the distance at this particular point in my career is essential. Sergiy Derevyanchenko? I know him through and through, so I expected a tougher fight than what I actually experienced. It definitely prepped me (for Alvarez).”
For Jacobs, the lack of a knockout in these fights was not so much a shortcoming as it was an opportunity to learn a few things that years of soft matchmaking did not allow.
“Learning and engaging at the top level from one-to-twelve rounds, from a mentality standpoint and a physical standpoint, it’s priceless,” Jacobs explained. “You learn how to balance yourself because you can’t go full-fledged every second for all twelve rounds. It’s an experience thing for me and I’m grateful for it because I look back at the tapes and I can see exactly where we need to change things and move forward. It was necessary.”
In his pursuit of a major middleweight fight since his loss to Golovkin, Jacobs has also managed to reinvent himself to a certain degree. For a while, there seemed to be no appropriate way to discuss Jacobs without bringing up his fifth-round knockout to Dmitry Pirog nearly nine years ago. It has presided over his career as powerfully as any of his most notable wins. Of that loss, Jacobs chalked it up to his “emotional state at that time in my life,” stemming from the death of his grandmother. “I don’t think of that all,” he said. “My mentality now is that of a grown-ass man.”
The Pirog kayo, however, was far from his nadir.
In 2011 Jacobs was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. If his doctor liked his chances for survival, they were much less sanguine about the possibility for him to continue as a professional athlete. And yet not only would Jacobs end up making a full recovery, but he would go on to mount a stirring comeback in the ring, topped by a first-round knockout of crosstown rival Peter Quillin in 2015. Dubbed “The Miracle Man,” in his return from illness, Jacobs also offered a new hook for the PR flacks, a storyline that could perhaps woo all, from Madison Avenue to the heartland. But as irreproachable as Jacob’s new commercial identity was, defeating cancer is not an achievement recognized by the Boxing Hall of Fame. Which is to say that Jacobs has been striving to sell himself on the merits of a fighter for some time now, even as gate receipts and viewership numbers have not borne him out to be the star that his promoter Eddie Hearn has long claimed that he is. Indeed, the Pirog jibes have been harder to come by and the once-obligatory mentions about his medical recovery were noticeably absent at the press conference last week. The speeches from his team were short, shorn of unnecessary hype, and focused on the legitimacy of Jacobs’s credentials to face the biggest draw in North America. What makes the opportunity even sweeter for Jacobs is that he knows he will be facing Alvarez at his absolute prime.
“I don’t want to be one of those guys where people say, ‘Well, he fought this guy and he was like (Miguel) Cotto,’” Jacobs said. “You know, when Canelo fought Cotto there was a lot of talk that Cotto was past his prime and that he had no chance (to win). And that was evident when they fought. I don’t want that to happen. I want to be respected for beating Canelo at his best.”
In front of the ever-dubious Vegas judges and a hostile partisan crowd, Jacobs will have to be no less than perfect to come away with a win over Alvarez. Already he can make out some of the plaudits. “Hall of fame, best fighter of my generation, best fighter in the middleweight division at that particular time . . .” Jacobs mused. But accolades, much less posterity, are not something he has given much thought to in the past few years; to have done so would have diverted him from the very chase that has brought him to this crux. “Things have just been moving and moving and moving for me,” Jacobs observed. “That’s kind of been my life for the last three years. I can’t get too comfortable about my little successes when I have big goals. It’s all been a blur.”