This boxing comeback story is even better than Tiger Woods

LAS VEGAS — Tiger Woods completed what is considered one of the greatest comeback stories in all of sports last month when he won the Masters at Augusta National. It was his first major championship in 11 years and 15th overall — an improbable accomplishment after his career seemed ruined by a series of crippling back surgeries and subsequent back fusion.

The drama that unfolded as Woods stormed to his fifth green jacket was epic. It was a celebration of adulation shared by millions throughout the world who reveled in Woods’ triumph. But with all due respect, Tiger Woods has nothing on Daniel Jacobs.

“I can’t rate where my story or comeback would be,” Jacobs said this week, “but I know it would be among the best. I didn’t just have cancer. I was paralyzed. That’s a whole different story in itself.”

No matter how many times you hear his story, it is no less amazing, no less a medical miracle — especially when you fast-forward to Saturday night, when Jacobs steps into the boxing ring at T-Mobile Arena and faces Saul “Canelo” Alvarez for the unified middleweight championship.

Just after turning 24 with his career on the rise, Jacobs was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of cancer that grows around the bones. A tumor had attached itself to Jacobs’ spinal column, causing such intense pain he eventually became immobile. He faced death, cancer and paralysis. Jacobs was the only one who thought he would box again.

“They always talk about the cancer,” said Jacobs’ longtime manager, Keith Connolly. “But I think the more impressive thing is that he overcame paralysis. He was literally paralyzed from the waist down for a couple of weeks before they removed the tumor. I don’t know of any athlete that has had paralysis and been able to compete in [professional] sports. He has not only competed, but he’s competed at a high level.”

There is plenty at stake when the 32-year-old Jacobs (35-2, 29 KOs) faces Alvarez (50-1-2, 34 KOs) for the Mexican’s WBC, WBA and Ring Magazine titles. Not only would Jacobs win the belts and the leverage for future mega-bouts, he would also climb the pound-for-pound list and enhance his credentials for consideration as a future Hall of Famer. Still, it’s hard not to believe he’s already a winner considering how dire his circumstances were eight years ago.

“He told me when he was in the hospital before he was operated on that he was going to fight again,” said Connolly, who has known Jacobs since he was a 15-year-old growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. “I just remember saying, ‘Let’s just get you better. Let’s not worry about that right now. That’s a conversation for in the future.’ But I’d never bet against Danny Jacobs.”

The surgery was conducted in summer 2011 at NYU Winthrop Hospital, and after more than two dozen radiation treatments, Jacobs was back in the ring by October 2012. His triumphant return was a first-round knockout over Josh Luteran at Barclays Center.

“Whenever Danny’s back is against the wall, he comes out fighting,” Connolly said. “It was the same thing with cancer and the paralysis. That’s why I think he’s going to do well on Saturday against Canelo. His back is against the wall, and I’m convinced we’ll see the best Danny Jacobs. We’ll just have to see if that’s good enough.”

There have been plenty of crossroad moments getting to this point. There was a pair of wins over Sergio Mora sandwiched around a first-round knockout of previously unbeaten Peter Quillin. He met Gennady “GGG” Golovkin for his middleweight championships in March 2017. Though Jacobs would lose a 12-round decision at Madison Square Garden, he fought well enough in the second half of the fight to know he belonged among the elite.

“I just knew this opportunity would present itself because I gave my very best that night,” Jacobs said, “and I just knew that it wasn’t the end of me. Most times, guys, they reach that level, and sometimes it may take a couple of years for you to see them reach that level again. I owed it to my team to make sure I stayed on the straight and narrow so that I can be at my best each and every time I go out to display my skills.”

Jacobs rebounded by claiming the IBF middleweight title in October with a split decision over Sergiy Derevyanchenko at Madison Square Garden. He also became the first American boxer to sign with UK-based Matchroom Boxing, headed by Eddie Hearn. An exclusive deal with HBO followed, and after the network left boxing Jacobs signed with DAZN, the live streaming service that will present Saturday’s bout.

“It never ceases to amaze me the opportunities that have arisen for me after my cancer scare,” Jacobs said. “I’ve been able to not only fulfill my dreams and become a world champion, but there’s been so many different opportunities that just blow my mind and opportunities that I never thought I’d have. I’ve always just wanted to get back into the ring. That was my main goal. But there has been so much presenting themselves that I’m really blown away.”

Perhaps it’s fitting he’s returning to Las Vegas for the biggest fight of his career. It was nine years ago when he faced Dmitry Pirog at Mandalay Bay for the WBO middleweight belt and suffered his first professional loss in 17 fights. Jacobs shouldn’t have fought that night. His grandmother, Cordelia Jacobs, the woman who had raised him, had died a few days earlier, and Jacobs was in no shape mentally to enter the ring. He was stopped in the fifth round.

“I’m a completely different fighter now,” Jacobs said. “I’m also a completely different person with a mature mind and a lot more skills and a lot more mental strength.”

A constant in Jacobs’ journey has been trainer Andre Rozier, who refers to Jacobs as his son and is confident this is Jacobs’ moment to shine.

“When you fight the hardest fight that you ever can fight in your life, I’m sorry to say, but these events don’t add up,” Rozier said, referring to Jacobs’ bout with cancer. “Danny has been through the worst that anybody could be through, and this is just common fodder, and Danny is going to once again rise to the occasion.

“This is actually a stage in Danny’s career that he has earned and prepared himself for since he was an amateur, to become the No. 1 middleweight in the world [and] destined to be a Hall of Famer. He is destined to show that greatness comes from hard work and dedication.”

Jacobs doesn’t shy away from being a cancer survivor. He adapted the moniker “Miracle Man” and does commercials for the hospital that aided in his recovery. He has become a motivational speaker, a symbol for overcoming life’s adversities.

“With Daniel Jacobs, you have a message of complete hope to anybody who is suffering,” Hearn said. “Daniel Jacobs was paralyzed. He couldn’t walk. He was told he may never walk again and told he certainly wouldn’t ever fight again. I want people to look at this fine young man and realize there is hope. He’s inspirational.”

Jacobs, a former Golden Gloves champion, has benefited from an era when the middleweight division has interest — with Alvarez, Jacobs, Golovkin and Jermall Charlo gaining appeal. Beating Alvarez would put Jacobs on the top of the list.

“Canelo is not only the face of boxing, but he is probably pound-for-pound one of the best in the sport,” Jacobs said. “He’s one of the most recognized fighters in all our sport. I think a victory over him, a convincing victory, would definitely solidify my spot and it would be inevitable for people to know who Daniel Jacobs is.”

He has a comeback story even better than a man named Tiger Woods.

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