By Tim Smith
They called James Braddock “The Cinderella Man.’’ They call Paulie Malignaggi “The Magic Man.’’ They call Daniel Jacobs “The Miracle Man.’’
How else to explain that three years ago Jacobs was flat on his back, paralyzed with a fist-sized tumor pressed against his spine and battling a life-threatening form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma and now he is back in the ring fighting for a world title?
That will be just one of the many thoughts that will flood Jacobs’ mind before the steps into the ring against Jarrod Fletcher (18-1, 10 KOs) in a 12-round match for the vacant WBA middleweight title at Barclays Center on SHOWTIME on Aug. 9.
“Needless to say not only it is an amazing opportunity, but it’s mind blowing. My life has been a movie. We just sit back and watch it unfold,’’ Jacobs said.
If Jacobs hadn’t starred in this movie, he wouldn’t believe it himself. It is the kind of story that is even more unbelievable in the retelling.
It is inconceivable to think of how far Jacobs (27-1, 24 KOs) has come from a physical standpoint to be standing at the front door of a world championship. Oddly enough the same fortitude that helped Jacobs overcome paralysis and fight his cancer prolonged his getting treatment.
Because he was a fit athlete in the prime of his career, the 27-year-old Jacobs ignored the physical warning signs that something was attacking his body. He was fatigued and he was dragging his legs just a little. Andre Rozier, his longtime trainer, even chided him in training for not giving 100% during the run up to his two fights after the loss to Pirog.
It wasn’t until the paralysis had incapacitated Jacobs that he sought medical attention. His godmother came to his apartment to check on him. He had to drag himself to the door on his elbows to let her in. His legs weren’t working anymore.
“I went in on a Friday and I was supposed to go to the hospital on Monday,’’ he said. “My godmother forced me to go. They did the surgery [to remove the tumor] immediately. The doctors said if I had waited two more days I would have died because of the rate that the tumor was growing it was slowing down my heart rate.’’
The biopsy on the tumor showed that it was malignant. But it had not metastasized. Still Jacobs had osteosarcoma and would need radiation treatments to combat it.
“It went from him complaining to me and me telling him to shut up and get back to work to him being on an operating table and removing a cancerous tumor from his spinal area. It was that fast,’’ Rozier said.
Boxing was the last thing on Rozier’s mind when he saw Jacobs following the spinal surgery.
“I was concerned with him being all right,’’ Rozier said. “He came up and he was in a wheelchair because he couldn’t walk. He was smiling and I asked him if he was alright. The smile on his face at the time told me that maybe he’s going to be alright. I always believed in him. I saw him progress one day at a time.’’
Boxing was always at the forefront of Jacobs mind. The doctors told him to forget about boxing. They told him that the nerves in his legs and feet would be damaged and he might end up dragging them if he walked again.
“Me being as healthy as I was [before the disease] allowed me to get through the therapy and the mind frame that boxing has allowed me to have allowed me to get over the radiation treatment,’’ Jacobs said. “I was able to get through all the pain and the treatments because that’s what boxing taught me. In boxing you raise your level of performance to meet every challenge.’’
Although the radiation treatments made his throat dry, zapped his energy and made him lethargic, the paralysis was his biggest battle.
“Being paralyzed is no joke. To learn how to walk again is a hard process,’’ he said.
After he made it back on his feet and was mobile, one of his first stops was the Starrett City Gym in Brooklyn where he had cut his teeth as one of the most decorated amateur boxers in New York City, finishing with a record of 137-7. Rozier was pleasantly surprised to see him make his way through the door, his back supported by a large black brace that went from his neck down to his waist.
“I put some hand wraps on him and gloves on him and took him over to the heavy bag and he did that for about three rounds,’’ Rozier said. “He said, “That’s my workout for the day.’’ And he left. But he kept coming back day after day. It was like a steady progression from there. He kept working hard and pushing and pushing until he was cleared by the physician to participate in boxing.’’
Jacobs was declared cancer-free following his last radiation treatment in August 2011. He said his gait still is not straight and doctors have told him that even though he is cancer-free there is a 50-50 chance that it could come back.
He made his ring comeback against Josh Luteran at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Oct. 20, 2012. They were building the arena while Jacobs was undergoing treatment and the Brownsville, Brooklyn-born Jacobs often dreamed of fighting there before his hometown crowd. It was a triumphant return as Jacobs scored a victory over Luteran via first round TKO. He has scored five straight victories since then.
Returning to the ring, Jacobs can’t help but think about Omar Henry, a promising super welterweight who died after a short battle with bladder cancer in 2013.
“We were both amateur prospects coming up together and he lost his battle and I didn’t,’’ Jacobs said. “I look at myself as being blessed and take this story and do something positive with my life.’’
Jacobs has stopped asking himself why he was stricken with the tumor, the paralysis and the cancer. He believes he has an answer. He recalls being at training with Freddie Roach at the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood, Cal., after the loss to Pirog. He had a conversation with God.
“I asked God to allow me to be meek,’’ Jacobs said. “I wanted to understand what it meant to be meek and humble and appreciative of my life. A month after that all this happened to me. I started to think about it on my hospital bed. That was my frame of mind that God was putting me to this test that allowed me to be me.’’