Fight of His Life: Danny Jacobs
Danny Jacobs has fought through poverty and cancer to become WBA Middleweight champion.
Photographs by Andrew Lichtenstein
“It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with Him.” – The Book of Daniel
In the lion’s den known as boxing, when a fighter has his fist raised by the referee, there is a feeling that goes beyond glory. It is an overwhelming sense of relief. Relief that the fighter has survived another physical confrontation. Relief that he will likely be healthy enough to fight another day. And relief that he will have better leverage in negotiating his next fight. From a fan’s perspective, the glory of victory lasts forever. But for the boxer, often in less than a week, he will be back to training, searching for his next opponent and payday.
On this cloudy spring day, Danny Jacobs enters the New York City Fitness Club alone with a large duffle bag slung over his shoulder. The gym, which resides in the shadow of an elevated subway train in Brooklyn is home to over a dozen up-and-coming local fighters. While the gym Jacobs usually frequents in the Bedford-Stuvvesant section of Brooklyn is under construction, the WBA (regular) middleweight champion has arrived at NYCFC to get his training in. “I’m sorry I’m late,” he says, shaking hands. “But I’m ready to work.”
It’s been several months since Jacobs’ last victory, a stunning first-round knockout of well-regarded middleweight contender Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Though Jacobs already held a share of the middleweight championship, the fight elevated him in boxing to a more elite status. And now he is itching to get back into the ring.
This Saturday, Jacobs will enter the ring to enter his second toughest opponent to date, middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin. Jacobs has been anticipating the fight for over a year. While many in the division have been accused of sidestepping Golovkin for fearing a negative result and a career setback. But once terms were made for the fight that Jacobs could live with, he signed the contract. “I’m not afraid of anyone,” he says. “I welcome the challenge.”
If Jacobs does have one fear, it is complacency. So he is here to meet his longtime trainer, Andre Rozier, not only to elevate his conditioning back to championship form, but to work on new weapons in his boxing arsenal. Rozier and Jacobs were both born and raised in Brownsville, perhaps Brooklyn’s most dangerous neighborhood. Rozier worked alongside Jacobs’ original trainer, Victor Roundtree, until Roundtree passed away in 2013. Rozier has remained a strong and steady influence throughout Jacobs’ life.
Jacobs skips rope for a few minutes, then begins his pad work with an assistant trainer, while Rozier sits ringside in his corner, always in his corner, offering advice.
For several rounds, Jacobs works on his timing and combinations, fists moving at a feverish pace to help his conditioning. “C’mon, Dre, get in here and work on the pads,” Jacobs beckons. Soon, Rozier raises himself off his stool and rolls his way below the bottom rope into the ring like a professional wrestler. “Here he comes, rollin’ in!” Jacobs yells.
Once Rozier puts the hand pads on, Jacobs immediately finds more power and rhythm to his punches. Rozier keeps pushing him, faster, faster, occasionally slapping at Jacobs’ head and waist with the pads to remind him not to neglect his defense. As the gym’s ring timer sounds to mimic the end of a three-minute round, Jacobs yells, “Man, I can’t wait to hit somebody!”
After several rounds of pad work at a grueling pace, Rozier instructs Jacobs to get some work in on the speed bag to finish up the session. Once Jacobs has finished his work, well wishers wander by to bump fists and say hello to the champ. Jacobs and Rozier then retire to the showers. When Jacobs returns, duffle bag in hand, he sits next to me at the juice bar in front of the gym.
“So what is it that you want to know about me?” (laughs) Jacobs says.
I ask Jacobs if today he would be willing to show me where he grew up in Brownsville. The place where so many champions were born and so many more were seduced by life in the streets. “I’m not sure if we should go there,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of where I’m from, and I’ll tell you all about it for this story, but if we’re taking photos and such, that’s not my life anymore. I don’t want people to think that I’m using it that way. And besides, it’s not like you can just lie in the cut out there.” (laughs)
Rozier joins us, and we discuss where we should go in Brooklyn that best represents Jacobs’ life today. Maybe it’s the Barclays Center, where Jacobs enjoyed the signature moment of his career against Quillin? Or maybe Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s largest natural setting, where Jacobs likes to go for family events or to just walk and talk?
“Do you really want to see Brownsville?” Rozier asks.
“I do,” I say. Every story has a beginning, and I’d like to understand that beginning.
“OK, then,” Rozier says. “C’mon Danny, we’re going back to the neighborhood.”
When a boxer’s life story becomes its own parable, the spiritual lesson usually arrives too late to save their soul. In this book of Daniel, the fighter once named The Golden Child would eventually become known as The Miracle Man. Yet the themes of the narrative are all too familiar to boxing fans: The young boy who came from meager beginnings. The battle with a giant that demonstrated courage and resolve. A life and death obstacle that put the protagonist’s well being in doubt. But what makes Jacobs’ story unique is not that he fought to survive; he had to battle just to put himself back in harm’s way.
We arrive at an address on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn, where Jacobs’ mom, Yvette, still lives. As a young boy, while his mother was having difficulties with his father, Jacobs and his older brother would live with his grandmother, Cordelia.
“She was a woman of God,” Jacobs says of his grandmother. “We didn’t have anything, but we always had love. She made sure of that. She was so full of love! For a child growing up in Brownsville, you have no idea what that means. She used to have this cane she called George. If you stepped out of line, George was right there beside you (laughs). She made us accountable for our actions. She meant the world to me.”
When Jacobs reached the seventh grade at PS 332, just three blocks from where we are currently standing, he encountered the school’s bully. “That day, it was my turn,” he says, “and I decided to fight back.” Jacobs discovered that the other boy was learning to fight at the local PAL, just a few blocks from home. “I went down there and learned how to box.” Jacobs says. “We both boxed inside the gym. I beat him, he never returned, and I stuck with it. In only a year, I won my first national championship. Everyone knew I was talented, that I had this gift. But this was something that was keeping me out of trouble and it was making me happy. I started traveling and seeing so many different states and eventually a few different countries.”
Jacobs found success in boxing very quickly. While he was a student at Erasmus High School (the alma mater of a diverse range of Brooklyn luminaries including Bob Arum, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond), he joined Team USA and juggled boxing activites while playing for the school’s football team. “One game, someone sacked the quarterback and we lost,” Jacobs remembers vividly. “That was it for football. I said to myself that I never want to be in a situation where someone else dictates where I win or lose. I want to control my own destiny.”
Dedicating himself to boxing brought more than just glory to Jacobs. It brought financial support to his family. “Fighting at the higher levels in the amateurs, you could receive a monthly stipend,” he says. “That $500-$1,000 a month made a huge difference to us. That’s what I was really fighting for. I was fighting for my family.”
The titles also began to pile up. “We won everything there was to win,” Jacobs says. “Four New York Golden Gloves, two National Golden Gloves, two PAL championships, the US Amateur championship. The only thing I didn’t win was an Olympic gold medal. I had that rep coming out of the amateurs. When we went pro, there were so many people that wanted to get a piece of The Golden Child.”
Jacobs was earning enough that by age 18, he was living on his own. By 20, he was a professional fighter scoring impressive early knockout victories. At age 23, with a record of 18-0, Jacobs signed to fight undefeated Dmitry Pirog for the WBO middleweight championship. “At the beginning, my career was the skyrocket everyone thought it was going to be,” Jacobs says.
Then, as it does in many of boxing’s greatest stories ever told, tragedy struck, repeatedly. “The week of my championship fight, my grandmother passed away,” Jacobs says. “And the fight was one I wasn’t prepared enough for. I had felt pressured into taking the fight to begin with.”
Jacobs entered the ring that night with the words “Lady Bird” sewn on the waist of his trunks, his grandmother’s nickname. The trunks were designed and made by Rozier, who still makes Jacobs’ ring attire for every fight by hand.
With Jacobs ahead on the scorecards in the fifth round, and seemingly on his way to a coronation, a relentlessly aggressive and skilled Pirog landed a right hand that dropped Jacobs’ suddenly limp body to the ground. Referee Robert Byrd stopped the fight before counting to ten, despite Jacobs’ protests from the canvas that he was well enough to continue.
In his television interview after the fight, when asked what happened, Jacobs continually apologized to his family. “I hope my family can forgive me,” he said. “Keep your faith in me. We’re going to make it through this time.” What Jacobs didn’t realize yet was that his toughest opponent was soon to come.
Most fighters can tell you the date of the biggest fight of their career. It’s a memory etched in their mind so permanently that not even the most powerful of left hooks can erase it. “May 18, 2011,” Jacobs says of the most monumental milestone of his life. But it wasn’t the day that he won a world championship or defeated a legend in the ring. It was the day that doctors at New York-Presbyterian Hospital removed a malignant tumor the size of a handball that had wrapped itself around Jacobs’ spine, paralyzing his lower body and squeezing the life out of him.
“I remember being in Baghdad on a USO tour where we went to see the soldiers,” Jacobs remembers. “And my flow wasn’t right. When I would walk, it felt like my stride was off.”
At first, doctors thought he had a pinched nerve. He began walking with a cane in the hopes that he would recover with rest. Within three weeks, he needed a wheelchair. That’s when the tumor was discovered (diagnosed as osteosarcoma) and surgery was scheduled. Less than a year removed from his first title opportunity, he was facing something more grim than losing. “The fight was on from there,” he says.
Boxers are essentially freelance contractors. There’s no sick leave. No vacation pay. No medical benefits through work. Every day in the hospital is a day away from making a living. And though Jacobs understood that survival was by no means a given, (the survival rate of osteosarcoma is approximately 70%), he now had to provide for his girlfriend and a two-and-a-half year old son, Nathaniel. He refused to let his mind wander from the ring. And though the surgery was deemed successful, the long term diagnosis of his health was far from certain.
“When you have a six-hour surgery on your back, that’s a lot of damage,” Jacobs says. “They had to put titanium rods in there to fuse my spine together. They got me to a point where I was able to live. The part where I needed to get back to boxing? That was on me. They wanted me to stay out of the boxing gym and just do therapy. I had to get radiation treatments. I was getting stuck with multiple needles every day. I felt sick all the time. They didn’t want anything bad to happen to me at the gym, which was understandable. They wanted me to survive, but they were taking my life from me.”
After the surgery, Jacobs had to spend several weeks in intensive care. When he was able to start moving around the hospital in a wheelchair, Nathaniel would sit on his lap, enjoying the unusual ride, not old enough to understand the gravity of his father’s situation.
“My son’s smile is what kept me going,” Jacobs says. “A good day was rolling to the window and watching people get out at the bus stop. Every day, the bills were piling up, and I had nothing. I was battling all of these bills. I was an elite athlete and I needed people to help bathe me. I had just moved into a penthouse in Park Slope [Brooklyn]. I had everything I could possibly want prior to this, and I lost it all. Eventually I had to sell my car, everything I had. I had to move back in with my mother. It was embarrassing. But I had my family’s love.”
Jacobs explains the working conditions for a prizefighter. “Boxers can get health insurance, but most don’t. If a fighter’s lucky, he has people who have positive influence around him. (Jacobs points to Rozier.) Sometimes people listen, sometimes they don’t. I paid the price for not listening. I had everything at my fingertips. I was a top athlete! You couldn’t tell me that I was going to catch cancer or need health insurance. That was the immaturity in me. Through these challenges, I was able to grow. Who I am is completely different today. Especially the way I take care of my finances. At that time, I couldn’t see a way that I could physically get better. Is this going to be my life? We go our whole life thinking a doctor’s world is golden. And the doctor told me, repeatedly, ‘You are not going to box again.’”
Once Jacobs began to re-learn how to walk, he would badger anyone who would listen to allow him to go back to the boxing gym, especially Rozier. “Obviously, my first concern was about his well-being as a person,” Rozier says. “When he came to the gym, he was walking like this…” Rozier shuffles his feet slowly, moving each foot about three inches forward, as if he were elderly and infirm. “He still had a cane. But I said, ‘OK, you can come, and I’ll keep an eye on you.’”
With cane in hand, and still wearing a back brace, Jacobs would spend nearly 25 minutes a day on the punching bag, using light movements. As more muscle memory returned, he would up his workload. In just a few months, to the utter dismay of his doctors, he was putting on headgear and sparring again.
“Even when Andre came to the hospital and saw me in a wheelchair, he probably would tell you himself that it was over for me,” Jacobs says. “Just seeing my state? This kid is crazy, coming back to a sport where people have fear anyway. People don’t want to fight for a living! People don’t have the heart to do this! Why would you physically come back from all these challenges just to put yourself in harm’s way again? Anyone in my circle understood the determination that I had. There was no point in trying to stop me from going to the gym. Everyone understood that. They thought I was crazy, but they understood.”
For Jacobs, even harder than coming back to the gym was coming back to Brownsville to live with his mother. “There’s a look, you can see it in people’s faces,” he says. “People see you on television and think you are a multi-millionaire. And now, you’re here, back home living with your mother, with nothing. It was a challenge coming back home. I mean, I can live in Brownsville. That’s not the point. I’m not above living here. It was that I had to succumb to this. It was weird seeing people that used to sell drugs on the corner, and they’re still there! I would go to the gym and come right back home. I was so full of positivity, and I didn’t want to surrender to the negativity. I promised myself that if I ever got back to where I had been in boxing, I was going to help other people. There had to be other people out there going through this too.”
Once Jacobs got back on his feet, he started a foundation called Get in the Ring. The mission of the organization is to not only help kids fighting cancer, but to assist kids who battle bullying and obesity on a daily basis. It’s in this context that Jacobs enjoys returning to Brownsville. “You think it’s fun to receive, but it’s not even close to what it’s like to give. To come back and see familiar faces. I saw a kid I went to junior high school with, and he was with his kid! We were giving away toys at Christmas. It was a beautiful thing.”
Jacobs has hosted events at New York City gyms where kids can put on boxing gloves and hit the punching bags. “I know how hard this all is,” Jacobs says. “Cancer not only jeopardized my life, it washed away everything I had. I’ve seen how cancer affects not just the people who have it, but their families. Unless you’ve been through it, you have no idea what it’s like. It’s worse than you can imagine.”
Less than 18 months after his life-saving surgery, on October 20, 2012, Jacobs stepped into the ring for the very first boxing card at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The arena had only been open for a month prior to Jacobs’ comeback fight. The sport that had filled social clubs and venues throughout the borough in the first half of the 20th century had returned home. And so had Jacobs.
Headlining the card were popular Brooklyn fighters Paulie Malignaggi, defending his welterweight title, and Peter Quillin who was fighting for the same WBO middleweight crown that had eluded Jacobs. In a bout scheduled for eight-rounds with Josh Luteran, a quick Jacobs left-right combination knocked Luteran out in the first round. The local fans were thrilled for Jacobs, but the boxing world remained skeptical that Jacobs could achieve similar results against world class competition. “I still didn’t feel 100% yet,” Jacobs remembers. “It was all surreal, being back in the ring, in my hometown. It went so fast. But I was back making a living again for my family.”
Jacobs was determined to work his way back up the boxing ladder. A third-round knockout of contender Giovanni Lorenzo in 2013 raised eyebrows that perhaps Jacobs still had what it takes to fight for a championship.
In August of 2014, nearly two years after his comeback fight, it was Jacobs’ turn to headline a card at Barclays Center, this time for the vacant WBA middleweight crown, his first major opportunity since his loss to Dmitry Pirog. Jacobs knocked out Jarrod Fletcher in the fifth round, sending the hometown crowd into a frenzy. The Golden Child had finally claimed his championship belt. He was now The Miracle Man.
But it was Jacobs’ third defense of the title, the impressive knockout of Peter Quillin last December that thrust him back into the control of his own destiny that he sought. The fight, considered a toss-up by most boxing experts was being deemed “the middleweight championship of Brooklyn,” as it featured two of the borough’s favorite sons. When Jacobs furiously dispatched Quillin in the first round of the fight and climbed the corner of the ring to scream with joy at the audience, even the doubters began to believe.
“I was just happy to come back,” he says. “Now, I’m in one of the hottest positions in the sport after a devastating knockout against one of the top guys. This is not a sport like basketball, where you can have a career over 15-20 years. You have to get in and get out. To be in the driver’s seat, to be a respected champion, this is a good thing for me. To be able to know that within a couple of fights, I’ll be able to take care of my family for the rest of their lives, that’s what we fight for. People don’t understand, we’re fighting for our families. We’re in there taking punches, getting our asses kicked, to be able to do something for our kids.”
We turn the corner on Pitkin Avenue, and are quickly greeted by several locals who are sitting outside the local barber shop. Jacobs and Rozier are besieged with familiar faces, offering handshakes and hugs. “When are you fighting again, Danny?” one man asks. “I’m not going to miss it this time!”
“I told everybody Quillin was no match!” another man says. “Triple G is made for you, man! He won’t be able to touch you!”
The scene isn’t a made-for-TV celebrity returning home story, as when Neil Diamond sang at Erasmus High School a few years ago. It’s a scene bursting with pride that a child born in one of the roughest neighborhoods in America has become a man who has ascended to the throne in one of the toughest divisions of the toughest sport in the world.
“Boxing has a lot of stereotypes,” Jacobs says. “You hear them all the time: street, hood, ghetto, ignorant, uneducated, can’t adapt. But boxing also teaches you how to adapt. I think I’m doing a good job of breaking through some of those stereotypes. There’s so much light in this community! So much love! I saw this kid the other day, he’s working on a video game where you can walk through Brownsville and experience what it’s like. The talent is everywhere!”
As the boxing talk at the barber shop continues, Jacobs’ son, Nathaniel, joins us, but only after his homework is done. Rozier greets him with a huge hug.
“Look at how big he is!” one neighbor says. “How old are you?”
“I’m seven,” Nathaniel says shyly.
“Seven? I thought you were 12!” the man replies. “That’s the future champ right there!”
Nathaniel beams with pride, as Jacobs rubs his head.
“Is Nathaniel old enough to understand what you’ve been through?” I ask.
“He does understand,” Jacobs says. “That’s what makes it so special—to know that he knows that daddy had to reach down to find something within himself, not just to get better, but to win the championship. Those are the milestones, the achievements, the qualities that I want him to know live inside of him too.”
Before we part ways, Jacobs leaves me with one final story. “I spent three weeks in Australia a few months ago,” he says. “I was in some suburban neighborhood walking to the mall. As I’m walking down the street, a couple of teens drive by and yell, ‘Jacobs!’ Here I am, a Brownsville kid who comes from this small project in Brooklyn, and literally, all the way across the world, there are these kids who appreciate who I am as a fighter. I feel like I’ve adopted this role. I have kids looking up to me. My life has some kind of meaning now. It’s a plan that only God can put together.”