In 2011, cancer ravaged Daniel Jacobs’ 24 year old body, a softball sized tumor wrapping itself around Jacobs’ spinal cord. His life was in danger, doctors told him. His career was probably over, they declared. A six-hour surgery there was no guarantee Jacobs would wake up from would see to that.

A few months later, Jacobs was back in the gym.

A little over a year later, he returned to the ring.

Seven years later, he’s a world champion.

Jacobs squeezed out a split decision win over Sergiy Derevyanchenko on Saturday, claiming the vacant IBF middleweight belt. He picked up his 35th win and his first world title — Jacobs once held a secondary WBA belt but no one took that title, or the WBA, frankly, that seriously — and punched his ticket for a megafight in 2019.

Few knew what to expect from Jacobs-Derevyanchenko. Longtime stablemates — the two have sparred well over 300 rounds together — it was hard to predict what familiarity would breed. Jacobs was the polished pro with a résumé burnished by names like Gennady Golovkin, Peter Quillin and Sergio Mora. Derevyanchenko was an accomplished amateur without a meaningful pro win to speak of.

In Jacobs’ corner was Andre Rozier, the unhappiest man in the building. Jacobs and Derevyanchenko train in Rozier’s gym; when they fight, Rozier works their corners. For this fight, Rozier had to choose between them. He chose Jacobs, who Rozier has trained since he was 14, who Rozier views as a surrogate son, who Rozier counseled as Jacobs fought for his life seven years back.

“I didn’t want this fight,” Rozier told Yahoo Sports, laughing. “But both of my guys did.”

It was almost a quick one. In the first round Jacobs caught Derevyanchenko with a clubbing right hand, doubling him over and forcing him to put both gloves on the canvas. The flurry that followed couldn’t finish it, but Jacobs appeared to be in a different class.

Said Jacobs, “I wish I had a little more time.”

That momentum vanished in the second, when Derevyanchenko began applying pressure, hounding Jacobs around the ring. Cutting combinations broke through Jacobs’ defense and Derevyanchenko’s volume punching racked up points on the judges’ cards.

At the end of the third round, Rozier said, his message to Jacobs was simple: Let’s be consistent. They knew what they were in for. With Derevyanchenko, Rozier developed a strategy called “the defensive circle.” For months, he has schooled Jacobs on how to break through it. As he watched Derevyanchenko come on, Rozier implored Jacobs to stop looking for the kill. “Back to the basics,” Rozier said. “Back to the jab, back to the quick counters. Keep it moving in that direction.”

Jacobs heard his trainer, but admits he didn’t always listen. He knew Derevyanchenko. He knew he had power. “My biggest fear was him coming over the top with the big shot,” Jacobs said. “I may not have used the jab enough, but that was why.” After years of squaring off with Derevyanchenko, Jacobs knew how to fight him.

“He had his angles,” Jacobs said. “I know from sparring he gets tired once he misses. His goal was to go through to the body. [The sparring] definitely helped a lot. Being inside the ring with him, I was able to use my advantages.”

Daniel Jacobs (R) punches Sergiy Derevyanchenko
Daniel Jacobs (R) punches Sergiy Derevyanchenko
Round after round, each a carbon copy of the other. Derevyanchenko applied pressure, winging punches from every angle, 658 in all, per CompuBox. Jacobs flipped more jabs (44) while both fighters connected on 137 power punches. Neither fighter appeared in serious trouble, and both fired heavy shots all the way to the finish.

“It was the fight we expected it to be,” Rozier said.

In the end, two judges gave the edge to Jacobs with identical 115-112 scores, while a third scored it for Derevyanchenko by the narrowest (114-113) of margins.

“He worked the body and kind of gassed me,” Jacobs said. “But I know I have another level in me, above him. Sergiy is one of the most skillful I’ve ever been in with, and he’s being avoided for a reason. But I wanted the strap, so I had to take it.”

Said Derevyanchenko, “It was a very close fight. I knew that the knockdown could come back to bite me. It was a great fight, he’s a tremendous competitor and I’d like to fight him again soon.”

Jacobs has a piece of the middleweight title now, and there should be plenty of spoils that come with it. The Derevyanchenko fight was Jacobs’ final on HBO. He is likely headed to DAZN, the fledgling streaming service, where his promoter, Eddie Hearn, has a long-term deal. Demetrius Andrade won a piece of the 160-pound title on DAZN last weekend, and Canelo Alvarez — the unified champion and the biggest star in boxing — recently inked a multi-fight deal there.

As Jacobs prepared for a post-fight HBO interview, Hearn, from behind the camera, mouthed one word to him: “Canelo.”

“We absolutely want Canelo,” Jacobs said.

Seven years after the world crashed down on him, suddenly Jacobs has everything he’s ever wanted at his fingertips. An Alvarez fight means millions in earnings and a chance to prove he is the top middleweight in the world. A rematch with Golovkin is suddenly on the table. As he embraced his son, Nathaniel, in the ring, Jacobs savored the moment. Later, he reminded reporters that for the last seven years, he has savored all of them.

“One thing that I learned post-cancer is to enjoy every moment of every day,” Jacobs said. “To find things to be grateful for. This was a dream of mine.

“Just being here living it, to see my son, my family, my loved ones, it’s everything to me.”

Pausing, Jacobs looked down at the belt strapped to his waist.

“This is material stuff,” Jacobs said. “My outlook on life is totally different because my life was almost taken. Being able to see my family … it’s priceless.”

Source: Chris Mannix