By Bryan Armen Graham
July 30, 2010

It's too early to say whether Daniel Jacobs can become the face of American boxing, but the 23-year-old Brooklynite sure looks the part.

Everything about Jacobs' charmed ascent from the sport's ground floor portends stardom. With a record of 20-0 with 17 knockouts, he's widely recognized as one of boxing's most promising up-and-comers. He fights an attractive, crowd-pleasing style. He's smart, polite and affable, armed with good looks and a megawatt smile. Even Jacobs' nickname -- "The Golden Child" -- implies a sense of providence.

If the second act of Jacobs' career is anywhere near as flawless as the first, you'll be hearing a lot more of him. And it begins Saturday night, when Jacobs faces Russia's Dmitry Pirog for the vacant WBO middleweight championship on the undercard of the Juan Manuel Marquez-Juan Diaz rematch in Las Vegas (9 p.m. ET, HBO PPV).

Winning an alphabet title won't make Jacobs a national star overnight. It won't even make believers out of many hardcore boxing fans, since the belt was dubiously stripped from Sergio Martinez, who moved up from junior middleweight to outpoint lineal champion Kelly Pavlik in April but didn't immediately commit to staying at 160 pounds.

What it would do is move Jacobs to the front of the line for more lucrative HBO fights -- and propel him forward on a journey that began eight years ago in Brownsville, the beleaguered Brooklyn neighborhood that's produced world champions Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Shannon Briggs.

"He's articulated precisely why a fighter would fight for a belt like this, but also why he doesn't consider himself a champion just because he wins this belt," says HBO boxing analyst Max Kellerman. "It's such a fan-friendly, honest point of view. And if he can retain that kind of levelheadedness and that kind of appealing, honest, genuine fighter mentality as he continues to succeed, he will be a big star."

Known in boxing circles for his genial personality as much as his knockout exploits, Jacobs credits his uncommon maturity to a strict upbringing under mother Yvette and grandmother Cordelia, the family matriarch known as "Lady Bird." They created a protective shell from the Brownsville streets and helped him embrace his identity as a "mama's boy."

"It was just me being raised right," Jacobs recalls. "I had a lot of distractions and I had a lot of negative influences in my life growing up in the neighborhood, but my mother stayed on my behind and my grandmother stayed on my behind to make sure I was on track."

Jacobs was 14 when he started out at the local PAL at Howard Houses after getting in trouble in school for fighting. Within a year, he'd moved over to nearby Starrett City Boxing Club, the gym whose alumni include Bowe, Briggs, Zab Judah and Luis Collazo. He'd soon embark on one of the most decorated amateur careers in New York's storied fistic history, amassing a record of 137-7, winning four consecutive Golden Gloves titles and picking up a certain gilded nickname from advisor Keith Connelly. ("It was in the PAL tournament to qualify for the Olympic trials," Jacobs recalls. "He said, 'You know, there's something special about you. You're golden. I'm gonna call you the Golden Child. It just kinda stuck with me.")

Considered a shoo-in to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, Jacobs encountered the first and heretofore only major setback of his career with an upset loss to Shawn Estrada in the finals.

"It was very devastating because it was something that I always wanted, even when I wasn't boxing," Jacobs says. "There's just something about being at the Olympics -- the scenery, the environment, the people, the united feeling that you get when you're there -- that I always wanted to experience."

After turning pro and signing with Golden Boy Promotions, Jacobs kept busy with 18 fights in 21 months, including prized appearances on the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Ricky Hatton, Pavlik-Jermain Taylor, Joe Calzaghe-Bernard Hopkins and Manny Pacquiao-Oscar De La Hoya undercards. Half of those fights ended with first-round knockouts. Jacobs today calls the Olympic disappointment a "blessing in disguise" for the head start it enabled his pro career.

Jacobs' record, while gaudy, doesn't hold up to close scrutiny. Under the guidance of manager Al Haymon, he's fought mostly C-level competition. His most memorable victory came against journeyman Ishe Smith, when Jacobs suffered a left hand injury but soldiered on for the 10-round unanimous decision. Kellerman is quick to note that Jacobs is neither a finished product nor a sure thing.

"I have not been blown away by his raw talent yet," Kellerman says. "No one thing jumps out at you. But he's a good boxer with a good amateur career. He is quick and athletic. He punches well. He adapts well in the ring. We've already seen him fight hurt and win with one hand."

It's been nearly two decades since New York City, once the sport's commercial and spiritual epicenter, produced a top-flight boxer. Kellerman sees Jacobs as a chance for redemption for Gotham's languishing boxing culture.

Not since Tyson's stratospheric peak in 1988 -- or perhaps Bowe's mid-'90s heavyweight reign -- has a top-10 pound-for-pound fighter sprung from New York. It's a once-unthinkable drought that Kellerman chalks up to cultural factors.

"There's something about the promise of the city: I don't think the desperation is quite the same in terms of boxing being the only way out for some guys," Kellerman says. "There are also more distractions. Zab [Judah] is from New York, so he can pop up in a Jay-Z video, because Jay-Z is in New York.

"Danny Jacobs seems to not be that kind of guy."

Blessed with two-fisted power, Jacobs is a fluid boxer-puncher who stalks opponents gracefully and attacks to the head and body with power and accuracy. It's an exciting, forward-moving style in contrast with the defensive-minded scientists like Mayweather, Hopkins and the Klitschko brothers that have repelled action-starved fans.

Brooklyn would be the nation's fourth-largest city if it were independent from New York. And Jacobs -- who aspires to be the "Derek Jeter of boxing" -- feels an additional responsibility to represent a borough with such a rich boxing history.

"When you're representing Brooklyn, you're representing something that's so big and so major, you're carrying a lot on your back," Jacobs says. "I go into each fight knowing that everybody from my neighborhood and everybody from Brooklyn is watching and expecting me to do my best and perform like all Brooklyn guys perform. It's not a negative pressure but the pressure is there and I embrace it."

Until last week, there's been a remarkable absence of turbulence on Jacobs' eight-year odyssey from Pitkin Avenue to the brink of a world championship. But he was dealt a severe blow Sunday, when his grandmother succumbed to cancer as Jacobs broke training camp in the Poconos.

"She was a very special woman in my life," Jacobs says. "She pretty much raised me and I think everything positive that I get that people see is just a mirror image of her. She was one of those types of people you feel like you can't live without."

A devout Jehovah's Witness, Lady Bird never watched her grandson fight despite steadfast support of his training. But Jacobs is certain she'll be watching down Saturday night.

"Losing her was kind of devastating but I know she would want me to be strong and continue to follow my dreams," says Jacobs, who's sewn his grandmother's name into his trunks for the fight. "I know she's cheering for me now."

She is not alone.

"I am rooting for him," Kellerman says. "He is the kind of guy boxing needs."

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