It’s difficult, if not impossible, to tell the story of Daniel Jacobs’ boxing career without delving into his remarkable battle with cancer.
Jacobs is a gracious and thoughtful man, patient with fans and media and willing to share the story of his biggest win, a battle with a life-threatening form of Osteosarcoma that kept him out of the ring for 19 months.
He’s one of a small but extraordinary group of athletes to rebound from such a deadly disease in such a remarkable way. He not only recovered but won a world title after doing it.
Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux had a radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s disease on the morning of March 2, 1993. He then hopped on a plane, flew to Philadelphia and scored a goal for thePittsburgh Penguins that night in a loss to the Flyers.
That’s the kind of company Jacobs is in, but Lemieux was known more for his other-worldly skills than simply overcoming cancer.
As Jacobs prepares to defend his WBA middleweight belt on Saturday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn against friend and rival Peter Quillin, he wishes that the focus would be on his ability and not on his cancer.
But he’s hopeful of moving forward and being recognized as one of the best fighters in the sport and not solely as the guy who beat cancer.
“I’ve said before that there was a time I was eager to tell people my story and that I was extremely excited that the headline was, ‘Jacobs returns to the ring after beating cancer,’ ” he said. “That was the center of attention because it deserved the credit it was given. But I also feel like, as a new champion and a guy who is entering the scene of the elite, I wish my skills would speak for themselves.”
But he’s smart enough to know that he’s an inspiration exactly because of what he’s done. This was no minor out-patient surgery he underwent, no routine procedure.
This was the real deal. His doctors worried whether they could save him. His family was rocked.
“You have to understand, I was on my death bed,” Jacobs told Yahoo Sports in an Oct. 4, 2012, story. “The doctor said that the tumor was growing so fast that if I had waited four more days, it would have grown so large it would have slowed my heart down. I was literally on my deathbed. I escaped death.”
A little more than three years after escaping death, he hopes to boost himself among the elite in his talent-laden division with a victory over the undefeated Quillin.
It figures, he said, to be a sensational fight. He admitted he’s anxious waiting for the days to pass and the opening bell to sound, so he can show how he’s improved.
Never, he said, has he approached a fight like he has this one.
“I’m a little anxious because I’m waiting for the moment,” he said. “I did three extra weeks. It’s like, ‘All right, I’ve done all I can do and I’m going through the motions now.’ I had a pre-camp, the actual training camp and after the fight, we’ll have a post-camp. This is a journey for me, the whole process, and I take it like school. I’m trying to study and learn as much as I can so things come naturally to me when I’m inside the ring.
“I spent the three weeks in the pre-camp getting in shape for camp so I didn’t have any issues. I remember [Hall of Famer] Joe Calzaghe saying his dad didn’t let him spar until he was physically in shape, and that made sense. So I took this kind of academic approach to putting together a camp and being prepared.”
Yet, he knows it’s his past that draws people to him. People who are struggling with cancer, losing hope as the pain increases and the options decrease, see him as a beacon of hope.
And so while he’d rather be known as the best middleweight in the world, he’s happy to share his remarkable story because he gets the impact it can have upon others.
“People who have cancer are desperate and they need a reason to keep up the fight and my story can provide the boost they need,” he said. “The cancer story outshines my boxing because it’s the most significant thing I’ve done to this point. But once I start beating these guys, all these top contenders, I believe I’ll be recognized as Daniel Jacobs, middleweight champion and cancer survivor.
“I want to be known for my accomplishments in the ring, because there are so many great middleweights out there and I’m a competitive guy and I want to beat them all and be recognized as the best. But if the stories are intertwined, that’s fine. I’m Daniel Jacobs, cancer survivor, and I’m Daniel Jacobs, middleweight champion. As long as people say both, in either order, then I’m doing my job.”