By summer of 2010, Sergio Martinez was the man with all the jewelry at middleweight after he took almost all of the division’s accolades from Kelly Pavlik in April. Yet the constant drama of governing bodies saw Martinez stripped of his WBO belt in June and it was slapped onto a televised undercard fight between two promising but lesser known boxers: 23-year-old Danny Jacobs and 30-year-old Dmitry Pirog.
The two set to work quickly. Jacobs tried to move and slide around the ring, Pirog advanced in a manner which made his lower and upper body seem completely disconnected from each other. Jacobs did exactly what the boxer is supposed to do against the pressure fighter—circle and jab—and Pirog clapped him across the top of it with a cross counter on the temple each time he did so. Recomposing himself, Jacobs switched to his southpaw stance to try to puzzle the Russian and only found himself getting more confused. As the second round began, Pirog marched the American to the ropes. He dug to the body and then to the head, uppercutting with the same hand, that hand turned immediately into a jab up the center and a stiff right straight followed it to send Jacobs crumbling down into his stance in the manner of a controlled demolition. Jacobs’s gloves and knees remained off the floor but he was clearly hurt and Pirog put him through the works for the rest of the round.
Most men couldn’t find Pirog’s head with a fistful of rice. On the advice of his corner, Jacobs got to work attacking Pirog’s body. Pirog shook his head and smirked each time the body shots connected, but neither man was being fooled by the old poker face, those body blows were becoming a nuisance. As another pair of good shots went into Pirog’s midriff, he insisted that they were low. The two men touched gloves and Pirog immediately pursued Jacobs to the ropes—shifting in from orthodox to southpaw and orthodox again, and sending the flustered Jacobs to the mat with a short right hand. Robert Byrd waved off the fight and a star was born. Pirog was something altogether unique and it looked like he had a bright future ahead of him with the WBO belt as a launch pad to bigger fights.
If boxing quality were all that mattered, this story would probably have continued with Pirog and Jacobs rematching years later for millions of dollars. Pirog would have been a box office hit and Jacobs would have a ready-made rivalry with one of boxing’s top attractions. But the game of boxing is often about more than just the skill of boxing. Pirog would defend his WBO title a couple of times, sign a fight with the great Gennady Golovkin for 2012, and suffer a back injury which forced him into retirement before the Golovkin bout could take place. After losing to Pirog, Danny Jacobs got back in the saddle and smoked two lesser middleweights in December 2010 and March 2011. Travelling on a USO tour, Jacobs suddenly felt weak and found it difficult to walk. After he was taken in for an examination, doctors found a malignant tumor growing on his spine, a form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma which required urgent surgery. Jacobs’s boxing dreams seemed to be dashed as he was left unable to walk, let alone box.
Through good fortune and the marvels of modern medicine, Jacobs regained the ability to walk. But it was through his own tenacity and the passion of his team that Jacobs rebuilt himself to claim the WBA middleweight belt in August 2014.
Then in 2017, Jacobs was matched against Gennady Golovkin to unify the WBA’s two middleweight belts. For many fans, Golovkin seemed a world apart from Jacobs. Jacobs was good but his best wins were over Peter Quillin and Sergio Mora. The Quillin stoppage had seemed a little hasty and it all happened so fast that it seemed like a textbook case of a fighter getting caught cold. The first fight with Mora resulted in both men getting knocked down before Mora turned his ankle and had to call it quits—the two rematched and Jacobs got him in the seventh that time but it didn’t stop the wisecracks about the turned ankle. Most importantly, fans couldn’t help but draw comparisons between the pressure fighting style of Pirog and that of Golovkin: it seemed like Jacobs was getting set up to be flustered and knocked out again.
For the opening two rounds, Jacobs raised eyebrows. Working the jab up and down, doubling and tripling it, he made sure Golokin was always having to walk through something to get to him. But it was still too easy for observers to think that this was Golovkin not doing something more than Jacobs making Golovkin’s job difficult. In the third round Golovkin finally pulled the trigger as he caught Jacobs changing stances.
Switch hitting has always been a favorite tactic of Jacobs. When Jacobs caught Sergio Mora overcommitting he was able to slide out the side door, shifting into a southpaw stance and throwing a tight right hook through the front of Mora’s stance. This particular look, a short hook entering through the front of the guard, is one that Mike Tyson sought to achieve whenever his opponent hit the ropes.
Similarly, George Foreman used to walk around his opponent to the right in hopes of blindsiding them with his left hook as they turned to face him. Here, Jacobs begins in a southpaw stance, throws a counter left hand, and then shifts into an orthodox stance and walks with his left hook.
Changing stances is something that has always been considered dangerous in boxing but fighters like Bud Crawford prove that it can give a fighter extra tools at the highest levels of the game. But the intention of changing stances is to try to catch the opponent before he makes the mental adjustment to the different dynamic, and a fighter can do just as much damage to his own chances if the opponent sets to work on the tactics of Anti-Southpaw 101 immediately. Jacobs had gone southpaw to try to confuse Pirog and it hadn’t worked to slow him down. When Jacobs switched to southpaw along the ropes against Golovkin, Triple G was ready for it. An overhand and an extra right on the end sent Jacobs to the mat. This, it seemed was the beginning of the end for Jacobs—he would be another Kell Brook: surprisingly decent for a round or two, until Golovkin caught up to him.
Yet as the rounds wore on it became apparent that Jacobs had changed. He wasn’t the skinny twenty-three year old running to get away from the ropes against Pirog. Jacobs was doing exactly what his trainer, Andre Rozier was calling on him to do: walk off and jab. He consistently broke the line that Golovkin advanced on, but he never panicked or broke into a sprint. He changed direction and feinted, and kept Golovkin working as hard as he was. Moreover, between his movements Jacobs would step in and tie Golovkin up, something which seldom happened on Jacobs’s terms against Pirog.
And when Golovkin punched, Jacobs came back with power, focusing his ire on the body of the great pressure fighter. You don’t get good at pressure fighting without doing something to make your head a more elusive target, but the body will always be found where the fighter is standing.
The jab, the tie ups, the movement, the body work, and the power punches all worked off each other perfectly to see Jacobs put on just about the best performance against Golovkin anyone had ever seen. Jacobs lost the decision, but many still consider that fight to have been a more convincing demonstration of counter-Golovkin tactics than the bouts with Canelo Alvarez were.
Yet Jacobs never got a rematch. Golovkin went on to fight Canelo twice in the biggest fights of 2017 and 2018. Jacobs signed with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing in September 2017 and since then has fought the largely unremarkable Luis Arias and Maciej Sulecki. Arias was reckoned to be overmatched but seemed to be focused on doing nothing that could get him into a fight, resulting in a tedious decision win for Jacobs. Sulecki, meanwhile, surprised by rising to the occasion as Jacobs had against Golovkin. Against Sulecki, Jacobs was caught admiring his work time and time again by counter hooks, and was clattered with punches while trying his clever shifts and set ups. It could have simply been an off night for Jacobs but with his substantial weight cuts, pundits will always wonder how much of himself he is leaving on the scale—big cutters have a tendency to “get old” all of a sudden.
On Saturday night, Jacobs fights the Ukrainian Serhiy Derevianchenko in a bout for the vacant IBF middleweight title. The IBF belt was Golovkin’s until he was stripped of it after his May 2018 bout with Vanes Martirosyan for not fighting the IBF’s next desired contender. This makes the IBF belt a curious piece of silverware: it is the one belt that Golovkin and Alvarez fought for in their first fight (a bout which ended in a draw) that Alvarez was not able to take in winning the rematch. No career opportunity is assured in boxing, but belts are one of the more reliable means of leverage. Eddie Hearn has been making noise about Canelo Alvarez fighting Jacobs if Jacobs wins the IBF belt, but the title could just as easily set up a rematch with Golovkin who will likely be trying to rebuild his collection while Canelo seems keen to move on.
But of course that is overlooking the other half of Saturday’s fight. Derevianchenko is still green in the professional game, but he has stopped most of his opponents inside the distance. A couple of so-so fights can be the start of a decline, or just a break in form that means nothing in the long term, but the way Jacobs left his chin out on a platter for Sulecki at points is a cause for concern. Saturday night’s fight promises action and further implications either way, but it is hard not to root for the Miracle Man to get one more shot at the big time.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.