If there’s a common narrative that often gets attention in boxing, it’s the tale of two former sparring partners finally squaring off for a fight that truly matters. It’s a relatable concept that very often sells given the intimate knowledge each competitor has of one another.
Usually, however, the term “former sparring partners” can have a dramatically different meaning given the situation. Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, for example, were technically former sparring partners roughly six years before they embarked on a pair of classic middleweight title bouts even though their ring experience opposite one another amounted to nothing more than a handful of rounds spread out over a few month’s time in 2011.
Daniel Jacobs and Sergiy Derevyanchenko, who will do battle Saturday for the vacant IBF middleweight title at New York’s Madison Square Garden Theater (HBO, 10 p.m. ET), bring an entirely new meaning to the term.
When the pair of 160-pound fighters look back on years of testing one another inside of the private confines of training camp, they aren’t talking about a handful of rounds. Ever since Derevyanchenko (12-0, 10 KOs) moved from his native Ukraine to Jacobs’ hometown of Brooklyn, New York, in 2014, the duo estimates they have sparred the equivalent of 25 different 12-round fights.
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“We became sparring partners, working with each other throughout the years,” Jacobs said. “We have 300-plus rounds together inside the gym. I won’t say we are friends but definitely were associates. I have tons of respect for the guy.”
The fact that the two fighters share the same trainer and manager in Andre Rozier made the prospect of them one day facing each other a difficult one. Yet as both climbed the rankings and found themselves in the top two spots in the IBF, it was Derevyanchenko’s team that pushed for the fight to happen.
After Golovkin was stripped of his IBF title in May for failing to schedule a mandatory defense against Derevyanchenko so he could go on with an Alvarez rematch that was postponed when the Mexican star failed a pair of drug tests, Saturday’s fight became a reality.
The irony in GGG giving up his title to justifiably avoid facing the talented yet largely unknown Derevyanchenko is that “The Technician” served as the primary sparring partner for Jacobs (34-2, 29 KOs) to prepare for his 2017 title challenge against Golovkin, which Jacobs lost via close decision. Those who were witness say the sparring sessions were intense, which teases the potential for excitement this weekend.
“It’s going be a big war and the belt is going to go to me,” Derevyanchenko said. “I know him, he knows me. I know his tactics and what he does great and what he doesn’t do great. But this is business and this is boxing.”
For the fight to happen, all of the involved parties needed to make a difficult decision. Rozier, who has trained the 31-year-old Jacobs since he was a teenage amateur, ultimately stayed with the fighter he held a deeper relationship with. Derevyanchenko, 32, took on Rozier assistant Gary Stark Sr. as head trainer.
While the setup has worked it hasn’t been easy. Stark admits Rozier has called him daily throughout camp, each time mentioning the difficulty of it all.
“It’s definitely awkward, everything is awkward when it comes to this one,” Rozier said. “These are both my guys. Even to this moment, if I talk to Sergey I tell him, ‘You know I don’t like this.’
“I know they want it and it’s just one of those things.”
Derevyanchenko, who came up in the same Ukranian amateur program alongside Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandyr Usyk, said he has no hard feelings for Rozier.
“I always knew that if I had to fight Jacobs, Rozier will stick with him,” Derecyanchenko said. “I am OK with it because I knew it would happen.”
Daniel Jacobs -190
Sergiy Derevyanchenko +155
IBF middleweight title
Alberto Machado -1000
Yuandale Evans +500
WBA super featherweight title
Heather Hardy -205
Shelly Vincent +165
WBO featherweight title
With the broadcasting landscape within the sport changing at a rapid pace, the value of a world title has only increased thanks to heated competition between outlets like ESPN+, Showtime and DAZN, with the latter of having recently signed Alvarez to a landmark, 11-fight deal. Because of that, the winner of Jacobs-Derevyanchenko should find himself in a strong position to seek a big fight.
“To see these guys on the opposite side of the ring come fight night, it’s going to be bittersweet,” Jacobs said. “We all knew each other for a very, very long time so it’s almost going to be like family. But this is why we do it, for the love of the sport.”
The southpaw Derevyanchenko remains a bit of a mystery with just 12 pro fights to his name and a fairly large step up in class scheduled against Jacobs. While he has an aggressive, high-volume approach and an extensive amateur pedigree, the three-inch height disadvantage he will yield to Jacobs certainly won’t help.
When it comes to comparing the traits between the two, it’s hard not to give the advantages for speed, power and athleticism to Jacobs, who proved against Golovkin an ability to switch stances and vary his approach. But the fact that the two fighters know each other so well should play an interesting part to some degree, it’s just unknown as of know which fighter will benefit most.
For anyone suddenly critical of Jacobs’ elite standing following a hard-fought decision win over Maciej Sulecki in April that was seemingly more difficult than expected, Jacobs has done well to explain himself by detailing how he spent too many rounds looking for one big punch rather than breaking his opponent down. He also spoke about his tendency to play up or down to his competition.
Should Jacobs enter the ring as locked in as he predicts against Derevyanchenko, he should still be prepared for a taxing 12-round fight. But he should also be considered the clear favorite due to his size and mixture of power and speed.
Pick: Jacobs via UD12
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