Jacobs-Derevyanchenko and the operating room

Danny Jacobs entered dressing room No. 6 at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 27 at 9:00 p.m. In a little more than two hours, he would be fighting Sergiy Derevyanchenko for the IBF 160-pound title.

The room was roughly 11-feet squared, a size better suited for a small entertainment act readying to go onstage than a world-class fighter’s retinue. Six folding metal-framed chairs and two narrow equipment tables were the only furniture. The gray-and-white speckled tile floor, cream-colored walls, and high intensity lights gave the enclosure the feel of a hospital surgical preparation room. That was appropriate because Jacobs will always be defined in part by his heroic battle against cancer.

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In 2011, Jacobs felt numbness in his legs and began having difficulty walking. The diagnosis was osteosarcoma: a life-threatening form of bone cancer that had wrapped a tumor around his spine. He underwent surgery and returned to the ring after a 19-month layoff with titanium rods implanted in his back. It’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of his accomplishments and courage.

There are more than a few parallels between a boxer’s dressing room and a surgical preparation room.

There’s an anxious wait. A select group of family and friends come by to wish their loved one well.

Surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and other medical support staff have specific jobs to do. The same holds true for a fighter’s trainer, cutman, and, other seconds. Everyone understands the nature of the mission as they review their plan one last time.

The hospital patient puts on a gown. An antibacterial solution is applied to his body. For a fighter, it’s boxing trunks and Vaseline. Latex-free rubber gloves are the order of the day for many in attendance.

In each instance, physical danger and life-altering consequences loom. A fighter in his dressing room knows that he will be hurt physically. The question is how badly he will be damaged. For a hospital patient, the threatening physical condition is the opponent.

Jacobs-Derevyanchenko was a significant middleweight bout and a crossroads fight for each man.

Jacobs, a 31-year-old lifelong Brooklyn resident, had amassed a 34-2 (29 KOs) ring record and won what’s politely referred to as a “minor” title when he knocked out Jarrod Fletcher in 2014. Thirty-one months later, he acquitted himself well in challenging Gennady Golovkin for the legitimate middleweight crown but lost a close decision. His resume was thin on victories over quality opponents.

Derevyanchenko, a 32-year-old Ukrainian national born in Crimea and now living in Brooklyn, had a reported amateur record of 390 wins against 20 losses. Despite a meager (12-0, 10 KOs) professional ledger, he had been designated by the IBF as the mandatory challenger for its portion of Golovkin’s 160-pound empire. But Gennady declined to fight Derevyanchenko, opting instead for an easier outing against Vanes Martirosyan and a lucrative rematch against Canelo Alvarez. He was then stripped of his belt which left Derevyanchenko in line to fight one of several possible opponents for the IBF crown.

The most obvious choice was Jacobs. But Danny was locked into a contract with promoter Eddie Hearn and HBO, which limited the home for that fight. Lou DiBella (Derevyanchenko’s promoter) wanted to explore other options for Sergiy including a possible IBF title fight against Englishman Martin Murray. That bout would have been less lucrative for Dervyanchenko, but more likely to lead to his winning a belt. However, Keith Connolly (who manages Jacobs and advises Dervyanchenko) preferred Jacobs-Derevyanchenko and instructed Sergiy to cease all communication with DiBella. That led to a great deal of shouting back and forth with DiBella doing most of the shouting.

Ultimately, Jacobs-Derevyanchenko was made. With a twist.

Andre Rozier trains both fighters with Gary Stark Sr. as his assistant. It was agreed that Rozier would work with Jacobs while Stark would train Derevyanchenko. Asked at the kick-off press conference if he was offended that Rozier had chosen to work with Jacobs instead of with him, Derevyanchenko answered: “No. I said to him, ‘Andre, I understand. You worked with Daniel since he was a kid.’ If I’m Andre, I do the same thing.”

More intriguing was the fact that, over the years, Jacobs and Derevyanchenko had sparred more than 300 rounds together. What were the implications of that for the fight? Former WBO 140-pound champion Chris Algieri, who worked extensively with Jacobs as a nutritionist in the months leading up to the bout, speculated that the many sparring sessions would help Derevyanchenko. 

“Danny has had more professional fights and more big fights than Sergiy,” Algieri posited. “He has learned how to deal with the pressure of those situations. But the unknown is diminished here for Sergiy because he has sparred so many rounds with Danny. That takes some of the pressure off him.”

If Jacobs won, he’d have a marketable belt and be well-positioned for future big-money fights. If he lost, it would be back to the drawing board. For Derevyanchenko, a win would mean that he had a belt and a salable name. A loss would send him back to anonymity.

“I want belt,” Sergiy told the media at the kick-off press conference. “Danny want belt. If I have belt, guys will say, ‘okay, let’s fight.’ If I don’t have belt, they don’t want to fight me. Maybe it is the one chance in my life.”

The normal pre-fight rituals of boxing proceeded apace in Jacob’s dressing room on fight night. There was stretching, the taping of hands, gloving up, padwork. In another room off the same corridor, Derevyanchenko was preparing for his own reckoning.

Soon, the fighters would enter the ring where overhead lights would shine as brightly as those in a hospital operating room. Each man would be both patient and surgeon. Unlike a patient under anesthesia, they would retain a significant measure of control. But in both theaters — the ring and the operating room — things can go horribly wrong.

Even with careful planning, the unexpected sometimes happens. Disease can surprise doctor and patient with its resilience and reach. Cancer thought to have been contained can be found to have metastasized from the colon to the liver. No matter how well a fighter has prepared for a fight, a chance cut or debilitating blow that seems to come out of nowhere can change everything. There are no guarantees.

The unknown looms for every one of us for every moment of our lives. As former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes once said, “None of us is promised tomorrow.” But the stakes are undeniably higher and the uncertainty of life is more obvious at certain moments in time.

In Danny Jacobs’s case, seven years ago, some people were going to cut him open, reach into his body, untangle a living organism that was wrapped around his spine, and remove the organism from his body before it destroyed him.

How does Jacobs compare the roles of patient and fighter?

“It’s the difference between nerves and fear,” he explained three days before fighting Derevyanchenko. “There’s no fear in the dressing room. Nerves? Yes. Fear? No. There was a lot of fear when I was getting ready for the operating room. They’re as different as night and day.”

Jacobs was a 2-to-1 betting favorite over Derevyanchenko. Both fighters started cautiously. Then at the 2:38 mark of round one, Danny landed a sharp right to the top of Sergiy’s head. Derevyanchenko kept his feet but his gloves touched the canvas, leading referee Charlie Fitch to correctly call a knockdown.

For much of the bout, it seemed as though Jacobs would have been satisfied with a sparring session. Despite being the bigger faster better athlete and seemingly harder puncher, he often back-peddled and circled away. But when Derevyanchenko forced the issue, Jacobs obliged him.

Also, while Derevyanchenko is a pressure fighter, he’s not a big puncher. And Jacobs, who seemed a bit fragile early in his career, now has “man strength.” There was always the feeling that he could hurt Sergiy more than Sergiy could hurt him.

As the rounds wore on, the action heated up with both men landing solid blows. From time to time, Jacobs switched to a southpaw stance. He also went to the body effectively although his blows strayed low often enough that Fitch could have warned him for the infractions.

It was a good fight. Derevyanchenko showed a solid chin and took everything that Jacobs landed. They didn’t fight like friends. The decision could have gone either way. Jacobs emerged on the winning end of a 115-112, 115-112, 113-114 split verdict.

For Jacobs, the operation was a success.

Thomas Hauser’s new email address is [email protected] His most recent book – Protect Yourself at All Times – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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