Daniel Jacobs defied doctors to beat cancer; now he's out to defy oddsmakers vs. Canelo Alvarez

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

LAS VEGAS — Eight years after he underwent a delicate surgery to remove a malignant tumor that carried a particularly virulent form of cancer, Daniel Jacobs is poised to unify the middleweight titles on Saturday against Canelo Alvarez at T-Mobile Arena in what can only be regarded as one of the most remarkable comebacks in sports history.

In 2012, Jacobs gave Yahoo Sports an in-depth account of his 2011 battle with osteosarcoma that included the chilling line, “I was literally on my deathbed.”

Fighting someone the caliber of Alvarez in one of the year’s hottest fights was a fairytale at that stage. Jacobs vowed at the time he’d come back to box, but he conceded that he never once saw himself taking it so far.

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“Never in a million years,” Jacobs said when asked if he thought at the time he could ever reach this point. “When the doctors told me I couldn’t box again, I knew I would prove to them that I could, but I never thought that I’d be at this level. I only wanted to just enter the ring and have a couple of fights. Never in a million years did I think I would become champion and become the first cancer survivor to be a boxing world champion.”

Fighting cancer puts the patient and his entire family on an emotional roller-coaster. There is a great deal of uncertainty and, particularly with the type of cancer Jacobs had, the ever-looming specter of death.

It’s overwhelming for anyone, let alone a 24-year-old young man who was so gifted and so talented and seemed poised for extraordinary success.

Then, numbness and weakness in his lower back led him to struggle to walk. He was dragging his feet and ultimately needed a walker to navigate his home.

Daniel Jacobs attends a news conference May 1, 2019, for his middleweight title boxing match against Canelo Alvarez in Las Vegas. The two are scheduled to fight Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Daniel Jacobs attends a news conference May 1, 2019, for his middleweight title boxing match against Canelo Alvarez in Las Vegas. The two are scheduled to fight Saturday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

It’s pretty hard to think of challenging for the middleweight championship when doctors are talking to you about a five-year survival rate of 60 to 80 percent.

“The lowest point for me was when I had to move back to Brownsville and live with my mom,” Jacobs said. “I was sleeping on my mom’s couch. At that time, it was hard for me to walk or move, or do all these different things to take care of myself. I had so many sleepless nights. I had times where I’d just cry and cry. There were times where I would even doubt whether I could walk again.”

At the time of his diagnosis, he was 21-1 with 18 knockouts. He’d been stopped in 2010 in a bid for the WBO middleweight title by Dmitry Pirog, but there was a long story behind that.

Regardless of that loss, Jacobs was still considered an elite prospect at the time, an almost certain future champion.

And like many successful young athletes who came from nothing and suddenly find themselves making a lot of money, Jacobs enjoyed the high-life his boxing talent enabled him to afford.

He was promoted by Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions — ironically, now on the other side as Alvarez’s promoter — and was dubbed “The Golden Child.”

He was active, he was successful and he never gave a thought to planning for his future. He never imagined he’d wind up with a life-threatening form of cancer, certainly not at 24. Then, when he was dealt the worst hand of all, he wasn’t able to financially handle his obligations.

“We were fighting every other month, or even every month in some cases,” Jacobs said. “We’d come to Vegas, go back to New York and we were fighting in so many different places. For me, I thought that it couldn’t end. From my spending habits down to so many other things, it led me to a place [after I was diagnosed with cancer] where financially and physically, I couldn’t take care of myself.

“I had to move back in with my mom. I had a child and I had my lady and there were so many things, so many hurdles I had to jump over.”

He cleared every hurdle. He made his dramatic return on Oct. 20, 2012, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, in the shadow of where he grew up. He needed just 73 seconds to stop Josh Luteran. That was a victory for the ages, coming back in less than 18 months literally from his deathbed to score a first-round knockout. If it ended there, he’d have been good. He made it. He defied his doctors, who told him he may not survive, he may not walk but that he definitely would not box again.

Being able to run the streets to prepare, to climb the three steps to get into the ring, and to use his footwork to set up a devastating finish, that was everything that compelled him to push so hard in his battle to recover.

“What an unbelievable feeling that was, such a great sense of accomplishment,” Jacobs said. “At some point, it hits you: You just did something pretty darn incredible against overwhelming odds.”

The odds once again are overwhelming. Sportsbooks have made Jacobs about a 5-to-1 underdog vs. Alvarez in their fight for the lineal, IBF, WBA and WBC middleweight titles.

It’s been a low-key promotion in which there haven’t been sharp exchanges between the fighters and their teams. They’ve appeared almost buddy-buddy, but Jacobs said that will change once the bell rings on Saturday.

He has been almost deferential to Alvarez, but said he will bring it full force when the bell rings.

“I know how to turn it off and on,” Jacobs said. “I have a job to do, and I do my job with mean intentions. When that first bell rings, I’m going to go out there and try to take his head off. It will be no buddy-buddy, no amigos, there’s none of that. I’m going in there and planning to take care of business. He’ll also have, I will predict, the crowd and the fans on his side. I want to go in there and maybe gain a few fans, but I want to go in and do damage in front of his fans. I want to embarrass him.

“This is boxing. There is no buddy-buddy inside that ring. Somebody can go in there and kill you. Somebody can go in there and do real damage to you where I can’t go back to my family and have a normal life. What you see on the outside is me being cool and casual, but at the end of the day, I want to prove I’m the best by being the best version of me. I’m a fighter, man.”

He proved that beyond a doubt without ever pulling on a pair of gloves and slipping between the ropes.

And even if he upsets the odds and defeats Alvarez to score the biggest victory of his career, it will never match the knockout win he had over what is by far his biggest and meanest opponent.

“You hear you have cancer and you may not walk and you won’t be fighting and, hell, you may not even make it, and there are a million and one things going on in your head,” Jacobs said. “Everything is going so fast and you hear all these things and you’re trying to process it all and gather your thoughts and it’s kind of overwhelming at times.

“Through all of this, I learned something about myself. I know when I put my mind to something and I really, really focus and concentrate on it, I can do it. That’s the attitude I’ve had this entire camp. I can do this. I know I can do this.”

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