As you step through the red side door at Starrett City Boxing Club, the smell hits you like a glove full of plaster. The odor of sweat, blood and hot air fill the cavernous, cement-walled room, located underneath a parking garage at a housing complex in Brooklyn.
The folks who call this facility home will tell you that’s the scent of hard work, and as you look at some of the fighters this place has produced, many of them world champs, you can’t help but think that maybe they’re onto something.
The list of boxers who got their start at Starrett City is long and accomplished: Mean Joe Green, Monte Barrett, Shannon Briggs, Travis Simms, Luis Collazo, Curtis Stevens, Sadam Ali, Will Rosinsky, Dimitry Salita, Jaidon Codrington — all products of Jimmy O’Pharrow’s gym.
So is Danny Jacobs, better known here as The Golden Child.
Jacobs grew up in Brownsville, the neighborhood that bred former world champs Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe, and started working with trainer Victor Roundtree at Starrett City at age 14. After a quick ascent up the amateur ranks, Jacobs made his professional debut in 2007 as a 20-year-old on the undercard of a Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton fight in Las Vegas.
In December 2009, ESPN named Jacobs — then a perfect 18-0 — its prospect of the year, and seven months later Jacobs took a 20-0 mark into his first title fight, a WBO middleweight bout against undefeated Russian Dmitry Pirog. Jacobs would lose that fight, in large part, he says, because the death of his grandmother earlier that week had taken his focus off the match.
Jacobs knew his career had been dealt a major blow as a result of the knockout, and he was prepared for a difficult climb back to the top of the boxing world. But even he couldn’t have known how treacherous the journey would be. Because shortly after the loss to Pirog, Jacobs learned he wouldn’t just be fighting for another title shot — he would be fighting for his life.
Weird feeling in leg
Jacobs rebounded from the loss with two wins — in December 2010 and in March 2011 — and his career seemed to be getting back on track. But in late March, Jacobs returned from a week-long Middle East USO tour with fellow boxers Oscar De La Hoya, Adrien Broner and Seth Mitchell and noticed a weird feeling in his left leg.
It wasn’t so much that the leg hurt, but it felt weak. Soon, Jacobs began to feel similar symptoms in his right leg, and before long getting around had become difficult. Jacobs often found himself tripping over his own feet when he walked. Doctors told him it was likely a side effect of a pinched nerve.
“I thought it was something like sciatica, where it could be easily fixed,” Jacobs said. “So in my mind, day to day, I didn’t feel like it was a big deal. I was even joking about it with my girlfriend. I’d run and my legs are all over the place while I’m running, so we’re making fun of it, not knowing that I’m dying.”
In a matter of weeks Jacobs’ condition deteriorated into a dire situation. By early May, running and training were out of the question, as Jacobs, then 24, needed a cane or a walker just to get around.
Doctors instructed Jacobs to check in with his godmother, Dorothea Perry, on a daily basis as they continued to monitor his situation. But one night in May 2011, Jacobs left his phone in the car. He decided to wait until morning to retrieve it, not wanting to put additional strain on his ever-weakening lower body to go downstairs. When Jacobs woke up the next day, he couldn’t move his legs at all.
Meanwhile, Perry, having not heard from Jacobs, began to worry. She tried calling, but Jacobs didn’t pick up, so after a doctor’s appointment of her own, Perry decided to drive around Park Slope, scouring Jacobs’ neighborhood in search of his apartment building.
Perry had been to Jacobs’ apartment only once, at night, and couldn’t remember exactly where he lived, but her instincts eventually led her to the right place. She made her way to Jacobs’ apartment and knocked on the door with no idea what she’d see when it opened.
“I heard the knock and I thought, ‘Somebody came to save me,’ ” Jacobs said. “I didn’t know who it was, but I knew no one had heard from me for a very long time. When I realized it was her, I was like, ‘Thank God,’ but she just looked at me and just said, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
Jacobs couldn’t feel his feet and even when he could get upright, it was only a matter of time before he fell back down. He had been scheduled to see a neurologist the next day, but this couldn’t wait. Perry rushed him to the ER.
“It’s so hard to describe, to see this young, healthy athlete be reduced to crawling on the floor and not being able to stand on his own feet,” said Perry, who had reconnected with Jacobs after a falling out more than four years earlier. “He looked like he had been crippled all his life. It was incredible, and it was heartbreaking. He’s not my child, but he was my child at that moment.
“When he left from my presence, I broke down and I was just crying, one of those really deep cries where you’re like, ‘Where do the tears keep coming from?’ I remember telling my mother, ‘You just don’t understand what I’m looking at. How could this happen to him?’ ”
Jacobs said he was calm when he arrived at Brooklyn Hospital, but panic truly started to set in when he couldn’t feel doctors administering an epidural shot. Then the MRIs and other test results came back, and panic turned to fear.
“As we went through them all, I just kept thinking, ‘It can’t get any worse, it can’t get any worse,’ and then it got worse, and then it got worse again,” Jacobs said. “From everyone’s face, I knew something wasn’t right. I knew the first doctors were wrong, and I knew this was something life-threatening.”
The diagnosis was osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that had manifested itself in the form of a small tumor wrapped around his spine. Had Jacobs let the tumor linger a few more days, doctors said it might have killed him. The quarter-sized lump caused extensive nerve damage and led to the partial paralysis in his legs, and it had to come out. So Jacobs underwent two procedures — one to cut off the blood supply to the tumor and another, on May 18, 2011, to remove it.
After the second surgery, Jacobs’ tumor was gone, but the battle was only just beginning.
Re-teaching his body
Becoming paralyzed was difficult for Jacobs, but it wasn’t the hard part — not compared to the physical and mental struggle of re-teaching his body how to do all the things it once could.
The surgery forced Jacobs to wear a large back brace for months, and his pain was worse without the tumor than it was with it. As Jacobs started rehab, he found that immobility had left him a shell of the physical specimen he used to be. All of a sudden, this would-be world champ couldn’t lift an 8-pound dumbbell.
“Rehab was harder than some of the boxing camps I’ve had to go through as a professional boxer,” Jacobs said. “I remember being in the hospital two or three days after surgery, when the pain was at its worst, and in my mind, I felt like I just gave up.”
That frustration took a toll, not just on Jacobs, but also on his girlfriend, Natalie Stevens. The two had been dating since 2005, and she was one of his primary caretakers during his recovery. As a result, she saw the best and worst of the process as it unfolded in front of her.
“I was one of the biggest supporters that he had, so whenever he wanted to snap at me or whenever he wanted to cry, whenever he fell, whenever he was frustrated because he couldn’t use the bathroom alone, couldn’t take a shower alone, I had to take that,” Stevens said. “It definitely was a very bumpy road . . . but we got through it.”
After two months in the hospital, Jacobs returned home, and within three weeks, he was back at Starrett City, doing what he could to get into a routine at the gym.
Jacobs was hitting the heavy bag before he could stand up and sparring before he could walk, but even as he continued to improve, many doubted he’d ever get back into the ring — the doctors who told him he should give up boxing foremost among them. The staff at Winthrop University Hospital, where Jacobs received radiation treatments, told him he shouldn’t fight again, but he ignored their advice.
“Boxing was all I’d known since I was 14 years old, and for someone to say this can’t happen anymore, I couldn’t process it,” Jacobs said. “So that was my motivation to get better, because I wanted to get back in that ring. I missed being there; I missed being in the spotlight. I lived for this, and boxing was what, ultimately, made me happy, so to take my happiness away, I couldn’t live with it.”
By January 2012, the pain in Jacobs’ back was gone, and though the nerve damage was only just starting to heal — Jacobs estimates it was about 20 percent of the way along — he could walk normally. It was then that he set a goal to return to the ring in time for the first fight at Barclays Center. There was a time when Jacobs was supposed to headline that evening, but at that point, he would have just been happy just to be on the card at all.
Jacobs continued to rehab over the next eight months, and he was there for the arena’s ribbon cutting in September. On Oct. 20, he finally got to fight for real, registering a first-round knockout of Josh Luteran in his first professional bout in nearly two years.
“I told him, ‘Remember when you were in the hospital and you asked me, ‘Why me?’ ” Stevens recalled asking Jacobs. “This is exactly why. Now he’s not going to be known as a kid with a great talent who can just knock people out. Now he’s known as the man who fought the biggest fight of his life and is an inspiration for the whole entire universe. This is why that happened to him.”
Said Jacobs: “It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Comeback is for others, too
There’s a small tattoo on the left side of Jacobs’ chest, in the shape of a ribbon. Jacobs calls it his badge, and he points to it when he talks about the impact his story has had on others since he overcame cancer. Over the last 18 months, he has come to learn that his comeback is about more than just him.
“I feel like I represent so much more than just getting back to boxing,” Jacobs said. “I represent so many different people in this world hurt by this sickness. I know someone who has cancer, you know someone who has cancer or who has been affected by it. When you go to war, you do it to represent your country, and I felt like I was going to war representing so many patients and their families.”
Jacobs has gotten support from every direction over the past 18 months — from Facebook friends and Twitter followers, fans, old pals and neighbors. He’s gotten letters from all over the country, and he speaks to kids about his story.
“When fellow cancer patients or people who have family with cancer come to me, we talk about it,” Jacobs said, “and that’s when I really feel good.”
But Jacobs also has found his battle to be an inspiration to people closer to home — particularly his son, Nathaniel. Nathaniel turns 4 on Monday, and there will be a boxing-themed birthday party at Starrett City to celebrate. Stevens says Nathaniel idolizes his dad, wakes up each morning asking to watch boxing movies on Netflix and prefers doing jumping jacks and pushups to normal “kid stuff.”
Nathaniel doesn’t fully understand what his dad has been through, but someday he will, and Jacobs takes pride in the role model he’s become.
“I know one day he’ll look back and say, ‘My dad was a champ, and my dad never gave up,’ ” Jacobs said. “All those emotions made that ring walk (at Barclays Center) like cloud nine. I floated to the ring.”
Added Stevens: “It’s definitely going to make him proud to know that his father is not only a great person, but an actual warrior — not because he can go and physically hurt a person in the ring, but because he can overcome something like this, remain positive about it and use it as a voice to give hope to other people who are going through it.”
Back in the ring Saturday
Back at Starrett City, Jacobs is preparing for his next fight, Saturday at Madison Square Garden against Chris Fitzpatrick, on the Miguel Cotto-Austin Trout undercard.
Wearing a shirt that looked like a garbage bag and bright pink boxing shoes, Jacobs jumped rope for 20 minutes, working up a good sweat before slipping on a T-shirt and getting into the ring with another trainer, Andre Rozier, as Roundtree watched from the edge of the mat.
Rozier and Jacobs sparred for almost 45 minutes, with Jacobs firing jab after powerful jab before taking a quick water break and starting right back up again. Each sparring session ending with series of rapid-fire, rhythm punches that went until someone quit swinging. Jacobs was never the one to say uncle, and that’s how it’s been ever since he made it his goal to fight again.
“I’m an eternal optimist, and at one point, I said that if he’s going to give it a shot, we’ll all push and make sure he gets there,” Rozier said. “If we give him positive reinforcement, he should rise to another plateau. Will it be the plateau that he was at before? That has yet to be seen.”
Jacobs is 25 now, and he still isn’t close to where he wants to be. He hopes to soon get back to fighting tougher competition, and he hopes a title fight is in his future. But even if Jacobs never gets back to the level he was once at, that he’s in the ring at all still feels like something of a victory.
“I’m just looking to perform and get in there and have fun,” Jacobs said. “I’m not trying to go and stress myself out too much; I’m looking to enjoy every day as if it was my last. … (When) I was in that hospital, I remember sitting and looking out the window, just looking at people at the bus stop, and that was the highlight of my day. So it really made me more appreciative of every day that I have.”