My Friend the Enemy: Sergiy Derevyanchenko gets Danny Jacobs in the Ring

Sergiy Derevyanchenko vs Danny Jacobs
Sergiy Derevyanchenko faces Danny Jacobs for the vacant IBF middleweight belt at the Hulu Theater at MSG on October 27.

One notion that Sergiy Derevyanchenko would like to debunk is that he is somehow friends with fellow middleweight contender Daniel Jacobs. They do not meet up regularly for brunch on Saturdays in Williamsburg or play poker on Thursday nights down in Brighton Beach. Though both fighters share the same trainer in Andre Rozier and have engaged in numerous spirited sparring sessions with each other (close to three hundred rounds, to date, Jacobs guesses), they are hardly what you would call friends. “He’s just someone I see in the gym,” Derevyanchenko recently said of his stablemate, in between rounds of shadowboxing at the Park Hill Boxing Club in Staten Island. “We say ‘Hi, hello, how are you’—that’s it.’”

In other words, when Derevyanchenko, of Ukraine, and Jacobs, of Brownsville, meet in the ring at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on October 27, expect to see them throw punches with the usual impunity required of blood sport participants. Expect the trainers, however, to break out in a cold sweat.

Together, Stark and Rozier run one of the more cohesive and legitimate prizefighting stables in New York, a roster that includes young prospects as well as more seasoned fighters such as Sadam Ali, Curtis Stevens, and Richard Commey, not to mention both Jacobs and Derevyanchenko. “It’s awkward for ‘Dre, it’s not awkward for us” insisted Gary Stark Sr., who has assumed head trainer duties for Derevyanchenko for the upcoming fight; Rozier, naturally, will be in Jacobs’s corner, as he has been since the beginning of the fighter’s amateur career. “‘Dre never wanted this fight, obviously,” Stark continued, “but this is Sergiy’s opportunity.” Asked if he took it personally that Rozier would be cornering for Jacobs, Derevyanchenko answered, “No. I said, ‘Andre, I understand, you worked with Daniel since he was a kid.’ If I’m Andre, I would do the same thing.”

In many ways, the stakes here are too high to entertain mixed feelings. The winner of what figures to be a violent affair will get to claim the vacant IBF middleweight strap and perhaps, more important, put himself in the running for a unification bout with the other elite 160-pounders, a reality that may come to fruition quicker than anticipated. A rare winnowing-out process of the division begins on September 16 with Saul Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin’s rematch, and on October 20, the talented but strangely self-injurious Demetrius Andrade will confront Billy Joe Saunders for his portion of the middleweight title. “I want belt, Danny want belt…” Derevyanchenko said, shrugging as if the situation could not be any simpler. He added that he has long suspected that he would have to fight Jacobs someday—just not this soon. “I saw this coming, but I thought, maybe in the future, when we both have belts…”

For Stark, the knotty prospect of having to see his fighters inflict damage on each other could have been avoided if Jacobs had bypassed his bid for a title. Jacobs, after all, has plush deals with Eddie Hearn and HBO. If anybody could use a title, Stark argues, it is Derevyanchenko, whose thirty-two years of age and paltry twelve professional fights over five years indicate a rather rudderless career. His best win, a twelfth-round technical knockout of Tureano Johnson in the main event of a PBC card on FS1 in 2017, led to a sorry tune-up eight months later, buried, no less, at the bottom of a Showtime undercard. “You’re getting a million dollars regardless, you’re on HBO,” Stark said of Jacobs. “You could fight any Joe Schmo and get that money! You know what I’m saying? It’s Sergiy’s opportunity to get this belt.”

“I honestly agree with Gary,” Rozier would concur later in the week at a press conference for the fight. “Danny is like a son to me, but Danny also has more opportunities (than Sergiy). For whatever reason, they both agreed to it. So now, here we are.”

In a sport that, in microcosm, often reveals the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots, Derevyanchenko understands he is on shaky ground. A career aligned to promoter Lou DiBella—and his shadow partner, the vapidly named Fight Promotions—has so far yielded tepid results. (As things stood a week ago, Derevyanchenko has one year left on his five-year deal with DiBella; he has no wishes to renew it). And though he has also, in recent years, retained the services of influential powerbroker Al Haymon, it is apparent that his place in Haymon’s pecking order is considerably low. “I don’t know,” he muttered, when asked how he viewed the Jacobs fight from a career standpoint. “Maybe it is the last (chance), maybe it is the one chance in my life. I understand this.” Which is why Derevyanchenko also understands that beating Jacobs has less to do with the bragging rights that come with a title, and more about how the purchasing power that title will bring to negotiate his next fight. “If I have belt, everybody will want that belt,” Derevyanchenko, who lives in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, stated. “Guys will say, ‘ok, let’s fight,’ because they want the belt. If you don’t have belt, they don’t want to fight.” As a matter of course, he lists the fighters he would like to face most, after Jacobs: “I want (Gennady) Golovkin, (Saul) Alvarez, Billy Joe Saunders, (Demetrius) ‘Boo Boo’ Andrade, Jermell Charlo. These five fights are all tough. This is good company.”

“You get that belt, you can get all those fights,” Stark added. “Changes your whole life.”

In recent years, certain amateur standouts from Ukraine entered the professional ranks ready to lay waste to conventional notions of career building and fast-track their way to a title shot. Both Vasyl Lomachenko and Oleksandr Uysk, for instance, required no more than 10 fights under their belt to earn a title, so seasoned were they by the time they shed their amateur credentials. Though his career so far can hardly compare to that of his countrymen, Derevyanchenko nonetheless shares with them a similarly vast amateur background that partially makes up for his limited professional experience: he was on the 2008 Olympic team, amassed an amateur record of 390 wins to twenty losses, and went 23-1 in the World Series of Boxing, the professional-style tournament that permits amateurs to maintain their status. As his moniker, “The Technician,” suggests, there are few looks in the ring that will leave him flabbergasted. “You know he beat Usyk in the amateurs?” Stark put forward. “He beat (Oleksandr) Gvozdyk, too. He beat a lot of good dudes in the amateurs. He has the resume to beat Danny.”

He may also have the right style, considering that Jacobs’ two losses — one tends to forget that amid the perpetual hype — have come against fighters (Dmitry Pirog and Golovkin) who pressed the action. Though he may be undersized for a middleweight at just five foot nine, Derevyanchenko fights in a way that is in sync with his physical attributes: he keeps his hands high and chin tucked to maximize his stout frame, to go along with a genuine offensive sensibility and a solid chin. At the same time, Derevyanchenko is hardly a senseless pressure fighter. He knows how to work behind a jab and fight off the back foot. On the inside, he frequently shifts angles and puts together combinations that target both the body and the head. “Danny likes to throw those overhand rights,” Stark pointed out, “so we’ll be looking for ways to counter that.” For his part, Derevyanchenko seemed confident of what to expect from Jacobs. “I don’t care about his style,” he said bluntly. “Danny, he moves and jabs, jabs, does a combination, then moves, moves.”

But what should happen, say, if Derevyanchenko were to pull off the upset? Would he reunite with Rozier moving forward? “We’ll see,” Derevyanchenko said, shrugging. Stark, for his part, looked straight at his charge and said, “Man, if you beat Danny, I’m gonna give you a hundred kisses!” Derevyanchenko grinned, then chortled: “Just not on the lips.”