Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and about 12,000 New Yorkers stood and applauded the ring walk of local fighter Danny Jacobs at the brand new Barclays Centre, Brooklyn, on Saturday night.
This time last year Jacobs was learning to walk again after an operation to remove a tumour from his spine had seemingly put an end to his career; Jacobs had lost just once in 23 fights and had been groomed for stardom by his promoter Oscar de la Hoya.
The middleweight was also, like world heavyweight champions Bowe and Tyson, from the same Brownsville suburb in Brooklyn. It remains a harsh environment and 25-year-old Jacobs (below), who left school shortly after turning 16, was determined to make a difference with his fists. He had started to diversify long before the operation and had put some money back into the community. He opened a music studio and a barber shop and refused to move away. "This is my home, these are my people, this is where I belong," he said. Jacobs was a good guy, people liked him, TV people liked him and he could really fight. He was part of a high-profile celebrity trip to Iraq to boost American troops, and it was during that trip that he started to feel pins and needles, as he described it, in his legs.
There was talk before the operation that Jacobs would get a world-title fight on the night that the Barclays Centre opened and that he would be the main attraction, but that sounded like fantasy after he was rushed into surgery and the tennis ball-sized tumour was cut from his spine. It was a close call because Jacobs had initially been told a nerve was trapped and he had gone from limping, to having a cane, to getting crutches and finally into a wheelchair before his family insisted that he saw a specialist. "I was crazy to let it go," admitted Jacobs. It was osteosarcoma, a life-threatening form of spinal cancer, and he was taken in immediately.
He was told that he would never fight, would probably never walk again and should be happy with surviving, even if that meant living with being paralysed from the waist down. "He was not on the ropes, he was not knocked down – he was completely paralysed. The boxing dream was over," said De La Hoya.
Jacobs has aged through the trauma and looks like a much older version of the kid from last year. However, he can still fight and he needed just 73 seconds against Josh Luteran on Saturday. His cheers eclipsed those for all other fighters on the bill, which included four world-title fights and a lot of local fighters.
"I was drained of life after the surgery," admitted Jacobs, who was known as "The Golden Child". "I pushed myself to the gym, I pushed myself to limp, then walk, then throw punches and then start fighting again. I have the [cancer] ribbon tattooed above my heart. It's what makes me a dangerous fighter now."
Jacobs has been given a clear from the cancer and, at just 25, he will get a world-title shot at some point and could still be the main event at the Barclays Centre, a venue, by the way, that will replace Manhattan's faded Madison Square Garden as New York's boxing home.
"I was never one of the smart guys in school, I only ever wanted to be a fighter and that is what I do. Now, I want to make the money and get out with perfect health by the time I'm 30," said Jacobs in 2010. It looked like an impossible dream last year. Now it is starting to seem like it will happen, even if there is still a long, long way to go before a fairy-tale ending.