Photo: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
NEW YORK - On Sept. 1, 2012, in his 24th professional outing, Gennady Golovkin punished Grzegorz Proksa, dropping him in Rounds 1, 4 and 5 before stopping him in the fifth. For the Kazakh-born middleweight, it was a watershed moment. Stories of his skill and power had been spreading around U.S. boxing circles, but fans previously had no way to see for themselves other than resorting to sketchy streams and YouTube videos of his victories in Ukraine, Panama, Germany or his native land. The Proksa win, at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y., was his U.S. debut and his first appearance on HBO; since then, Golovkin has stopped a further 12 opponents and become widely regarded as not just the best middleweight in the world, but one of the planet’s very best fighters, pound-for-pound.
The following month, about 260 miles to the south, Daniel Jacobs walked to the ring for his 24th professional contest. Unlike Golovkin, Jacobs had had no problems showcasing his skills in front of American audiences. His pro debut had been on the undercard of Floyd Mayweather’s knockout of Ricky Hatton at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas in December 2007. Four fights later, he was victorious on the same night and at the same location as Joe Calzaghe’s win over Bernard Hopkins; he ran his record to 12-0 with a stoppage win in November 2008 over Jimmy Campbell at the Mecca of Boxing, Madison Square Garden, in a supporting bout to Calzaghe’s defeat of Roy Jones.
Jacobs racked up victory after victory, slowly increasing his level of opposition. He stopped fringe contender George Walton in June 2009; two months later, he scored his most impressive win to date, outpointing future titlist Ishe Smith over 10 rounds on HBO. Another three outings and he was back in Las Vegas, his record now 20-0, facing unbeaten Russian Dmitriy Pirog for a middleweight title. He was “The Golden Child,” groomed for success and ready to take his place atop the division and the sport.
And then he lost.
He entered the ring talking a good game – “When you're from Brooklyn, you've got to rep, and you've got to perform, like it's your last fight on earth,” he proclaimed – but inside, he was broken. His grandmother, Cordelia, who had helped raise him as her own son, died during fight week; Jacobs vowed to win in her memory, but, he later confessed, “Emotionally, I just wasn't ready.”
Like many a young fighter before him, Jacobs picked himself up and prepared to start all over again. He rattled off a couple more wins against opponents of the sort who are designed to make a comebacking contender feel good about himself. He joined some other boxers on a goodwill tour of Iraq, but left early because he felt unwell. Back home, he noticed his feet kept missing the pedals when he was cycling to the gym. He started using a cane. Then crutches. Then a wheelchair. And then, when he had to drag himself across the floor to answer the doorbell one morning, he was admitted to the emergency room and rapidly prepared for surgery.
He had cancer – specifically, osteosarcoma, a type that grows in the bones. A tumor had wrapped itself around his spinal column; on May 18, 2011, he underwent surgery to remove it.
The surgery was successful, but the treatment had barely begun. It took 25 counts of radiation, with associated mood swings, nausea, and loss of appetite and weight, before he began to truly regain his footing and his strength. One thing remained missing from his life, and Jacobs was anxious to discover if he could ever reclaim it. So just a few months after having a cancerous tumor removed from his spine, Jacobs put on some headgear and boxing gloves and stepped into a ring for some light sparring.
“I wasn't ready,” he laughed later. “I looked horrible.” When his doctors discovered what he had been up to, they were not pleased. But Jacobs kept going, inch by inch, punch by punch, until the muscle returned to his ravaged frame and the quickness returned to his hands, and one day he felt that it was all coming together and knew that he would be able to do it, after all.
And so, a little more than one month after Golovkin splattered Proksa -- and 15 months after he had gone into surgery not knowing if he would live or die -- Jacobs heard the bell ring to begin the first round of the rest of his life. Seventy-three seconds later, Josh Luteran had been duly dispatched, and the journey was underway again.
With one difference: Jacobs was no longer “The Golden Child.” Henceforth, he would be “The Miracle Man.”
Since Golovkin defeated Proksa, he has gone 12-0 with 12 knockouts. Since Jacobs beat Luteran, he has gone 9-0 with nine knockouts. Their records are similar; the paths they have taken to achieve them are not. On Saturday, those paths will converge, when the two men meet in the ring at Madison Square Garden in a battle to determine who is, at worst, the second-best fighter in the middleweight division.
Golovkin, undefeated, is the favorite. Jacobs, once beaten, is the underdog. But he approaches his task with a confident serenity born of the events of six years ago.
“As far as I know, people who have osteosarcoma, who are paralyzed from the waist down, wondering if they will walk again, very rarely survive,” he said this week. “What we do for a sport, people fear it. So for me to walk again, just to come back to a crazy, dangerous violent sport. It’s crazy. I’m out of my mind. What am I thinking about? But I love it. This is who I am. I’m a Brooklynite. A New Yorker.
“And when my back is against the wall,” continued Jacobs, “I know I’ll prevail.”