By Kieran Mulvaney
NEW YORK – Sometimes, it’s personal.
It was always personal for Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales, who loathed each other for a variety of reasons before they exchanged a solitary punch and detested each other ever more with each blow they swapped. It was personal for Oscar De La Hoya and Fernando Vargas, for reasons that years later still seem oddly trivial and petty. If it wasn’t personal between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez the first time around, it certainly was during the build-up to their second meeting, a boiling geyser of resentment, anger and accusation.
Sometimes, though, it is not.
Most of the time, in fact, personal antipathy is not part of the equation. Hard as it may be for lesser mortals to truly comprehend, professional boxers rarely enter the ring with any deep-seated animus toward the person in the opposite corner. Even as they seek to remove their opponents from consciousness, they see them not as hated enemies but merely as rivals: obstacles who must be overcome on the road to success.
It isn’t personal, in other words. It’s business.
It’s the phrase that’s uttered more frequently at pre-fight press conferences than any other except, “Camp was great,” “I’m in the best shape of my life,” and “I’d like to thank [insert promoter/manager/TV network/deity].”
“This isn’t personal. It’s just business.”
Rarely has that aphorism been more appropriate than for Saturday night’s main event, when Daniel Jacobs takes on Sergiy Derevyanchenko in middleweight action from the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden (HBO, 10 PM ET/PT). When Ukraine’s Derevyanchenko came to the United States and elected to base himself out of New York, he was introduced to Andre Rozier and Gary Stark, who train fighters together out of a small basement gym in Brooklyn. Among the boxers who had long been a part of that setup was Jacobs. The two men have sparred 300 or so rounds, by Jacobs’ reckoning, and as they both moved up the middleweight rankings, they knew that the day may come when they had to face each other.
That day will come on Saturday, and once it became clear that it would, trainers and fighters had a decision to make. The decision was that Rozier would stick with Jacobs, whom he’s known since the boxer was 14; and that Stark would work the corner of Derevyanchenko. Rozier has made no effort to hide the awkwardness of the situation, confiding that he speaks to Stark most days and that he has, on occasion, confessed to Derevyanchenko that, “You know I don’t like this, right?”
As if to discourage any concerns that the contest might devolve into a lovefest, Jacobs has emphasized that his relationship with Derevyanchenko is primarily professional – that, in his words, “We’re not friends, exactly.”
But if such concerns do exist, they are misplaced. The ability of boxers to compartmentalize their emotions is borderline superhuman; the risks inherent in their business are substantial, and opportunities to be at the top of the tree come by far too infrequently to allow any relaxation or dropping of the guard. Even friendship has rarely prevented pugilists from beating each other to a pulp.
After all, few uttered the “It’s not personal, it’s business” line more frequently than Manny Pacquiao, who would smile benevolently at his opponent, giggle at the fake antagonism during the ritual face-off, and then leave that same opponent poleaxed, with senses scrambled, on the ring canvas. Micky Ward and Arturo Gatti did not become the best of buddies until their trilogy was completed, but they were friendly even as they battered each other.
For Jacobs and Derevyanchenko, the stakes are too high for either to be less than fully committed to being as effectively violent as possible: possible matchups with Golovkin or Alvarez, or any number of high-profile, lucrative and career-defining fights in the upper echelons of the middleweight division. Jacobs underlined as much at the final pre-fight press conference, even as he acknowledged the unusual circumstances of the matchup.
“To see these guys on the opposite side of the ring come fight night, it’s going to be bittersweet,” he conceded. “We all knew each other for a very, very long time, so it’s almost like we’re family. But this is why we do it. For the love of the sport: for you guys, and your entertainment. You’re not going to want to miss this fight. It’s going to be a stellar fight.”
Weights from New York City:
Daniel Jacobs: 159.6 pounds
Sergiy Derevyanchenko: 159.4 pounds
Alberto Machado: 130.0 pounds
Yuandale Evans: 129.4 pounds
Heather Hardy: 124.6 pounds
Shelly Vincent: 125.4 pounds