Interview: Gary Jacobs, ex boxing professional

WHEN a 45-year-old man hits the streets on a Harley Davidson, it is easily interpreted as evidence of a midlife crisis.

But Gary Jacobs, who roared up to meet The Scotsman in full Easy Rider mode this week, is content that those dark days of self-doubt are in the past. One of the finest British boxers never to win a world title, the Glaswegian is now a man more at peace with himself and his life.

"Things are good," he says with a smile, extending in warm greeting one of the hands which led him to British, Commonwealth and European welterweight title success during an outstanding 12-year professional career which saw him top bills from London to Las Vegas.

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Jacobs fell agonisingly short of the ultimate prize he craved, outpointed by the brilliant Pernell Whitaker in a challenge for the WBC world crown in 1995, but he has no regrets about his time in the ring, which he reflects upon with justifiable pride.

It was when he stepped away from the sport, hanging up his gloves in the summer of 1997 at the age of 31, that Jacobs faced the difficulties so many in his trade encounter when adapting to life outside the ring.

A gym and leisure club venture on Glasgow's southside went bust, and Jacobs endured a spell of both financial and personal turmoil. He doesn't want to talk about it at great length right now, although not through any unwillingness to open up on the subject.

"It was really difficult for me when I stopped boxing, but you will read about it in my book," he explains. "I'm working on it now and it should be out before the end of the year.

"I've been up and down, through the mill a wee bit since I stopped boxing. It was a nightmare for the first four or five years. I was offered a lot of money to make a comeback, but that will be in the book too. It's something I wanted to do, get my story out there, and I'm enjoying it.

"The book might give me a bit of profile again, maybe get me back doing some TV work and things like that. Things change, people get second chances. I'm trying to rebuild and get back into that side of things."

For the moment, while not completing his autobiography, Jacobs is occupied with a maintenance and cleaning business in Glasgow while also involved in arranging a charity ball in aid of the Search and Rescue service.

"We invited Prince William to come along," he says. "He can't make it but sent a nice letter of support. It's a friend of mine, Tim Lovat, who is putting it on and I'm helping him. As I say, things are good. I'm keeping busy and I'm happy."

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Jacobs was also gratified last year to discover his contribution to boxing had not been forgotten by those who savoured his 53-fight career. In October, he was inducted into the Scots Boxing Hall of Fame, taking his place in a pantheon which includes iconic figures such as Benny Lynch, Jackie Paterson, Ken Buchanan and Jim Watt.

"It's always nice to be recognised for something you have done or achieved in life and I was absolutely delighted by that," he said. "It came as a big surprise, I actually thought someone was at the wind-up when I was first told. It's the first time I've won anything without fighting for it. It was very nice and I was extremely grateful for it."

After turning professional in 1985 at the age of 19, Jacobs mapped out a path to the top the old-fashioned way, earning his spurs on low-key promotions in his home city before eventually gathering titles and a high profile under the guidance of legendary manager and promoter Mickey Duff. The son of a rabbi, Duff helped 16 British boxers, including John Conteh, Lloyd Honeyghan and Alan Minter, to world titles.

The quest to add Jacobs to that list saw Duff reject several opportunities for his man to face Ballymena boxer Eamonn Loughran, holder of the WBO's version of the welterweight title from 1993 to 1996, although most pundits and observers felt it was a contest the Scot would have won convincingly. Instead, Duff held out for a shot at the then far more prestigious and lucrative WBC belt.

"It was a joint decision between myself and Mickey," reflects Jacobs. "He felt there was more mileage in pursuing the WBC title and I was happy to do that. The WBO title has far more credibility now than it did when I boxed, a million per cent more.

"I didn't manage to win a full-blown world title, that's the only regret I have. I could have taken the fight against Loughran and won the WBO title but I wanted to be recognised as the best welterweight in the world and that meant going for the WBC title."

Unfortunately for Jacobs, it was held by Whitaker, the 1984 Olympic gold medallist who lived up to his monicker of "Sweet Pea" with sublime defensive skills and an innate boxing brain. Now in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Whitaker was as dominant in his era as Manny Pacquiao is today. Yet when Jacobs finally faced him in Atlantic City in August 1995, he was far from disgraced.

"I'm not taking anything away from the guys who have done it the other way to become world champions, not at all," he says. "Look at Ricky Hatton, he won the WBU title first of all and then ended up having huge fights against the best in the world.

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"But I did fight the guy who was the best on the planet in my weight division and I only lost to him on points. Not many of the British guys boxing now, even the ones with world titles, can say that.

"It went the distance and Whitaker probably nicked it. When Ricky Hatton fought Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, two guys rated the best in the world in the same way Whittaker was when I fought him, he was destroyed on both occasions. It has happened to a lot of British fighters when they get to that kind of platform, so I was proud of what I did in the ring at that level against Whitaker.

"I fought the best there was and that gives me a lot of satisfaction. It's something which is still recognised by people I meet even now, not just in Glasgow but wherever I go around the world and come into contact with boxing fans.

"It was the way I wanted to do it and I wouldn't change it. My finest hour in the ring was when I won the European title for the first time, going to Paris and knocking out Ludovic Proto, who had never been beaten before, in a rematch. That was my greatest achievement.

"Okay, maybe I would have had more leverage to get bigger fights if I'd gone down the WBO route, but I'm not sure it would have made a huge difference."

As Ricky Burns prepares to make his third defence of the WBO super-featherweight title against Nicky Cook in Liverpool tonight, Jacobs is more than happy to endorse the Coatbridge man's credentials as a genuine world champion, one he believes can eclipse both of Scotland's other recent WBO title holders, Scott Harrison and Alex Arthur.

"I think Ricky is great, he's a breath of fresh air," enthuses Jacobs. "He reminds me of myself a little bit, in that he lives the life properly outside of the ring in between fights. To get to that level and stay there, you have to live the life.

"What he is doing is tremendous and it's great for Scotland. He will beat Nicky Cook. He might not stop him, but he will win. It's a fight where Cook has far more to gain than Ricky, so he has to be fully focused. Like me, Ricky doesn't have one-punch knockout power. He has to put four or five punch combinations together to win inside the distance.

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"I've never met Ricky, but from what I see and read, he is a good, level-headed lad who is surrounded by the right people. As long as that remains the case, he will be alright. He's a completely different type of character to Scott Harrison, who often just seemed intent on self-destruction. I don't think Ricky is going to be a five-minute wonder. He will defend his title successfully this weekend and go on to defend it a few times more.

"For me, Ricky is not as talented as Alex Arthur was. When Alex first appeared, I thought he was going to be the next big thing, a huge star. I rated him as highly as Amir Khan or any of the top lads in British boxing. But when he got chinned and stopped by Michael Gomez a few years ago, it just seemed to take so much out of him.

"But while Ricky is not as naturally talented, he has achieved more than Alex and will continue to achieve more."

Jacobs has passed his own sporting genes onto his 15-year-old son Greg, who last week competed in the badminton event for Scotland at the Maccabi European Games in Vienna.

"He reached the semi-finals but had to retire in the third game, with the score at one game all, when he went over on his ankle," reports Jacobs. "He loves his sport and is a bit of an all-rounder. Golf and football are his two big things, but he has just been released by Queen's Park which was a disappointment. For me, although I'm biased, it was just because he is quite small for his age.

"He is a talented player, but they go for the bigger lads in Scottish football, that's just the way it is. I've never encouraged him to go into boxing, but I might steer him towards a little bit of it now, even just for the discipline and fitness of going to the gym. We were really proud he went to the Maccabi Games, though, because it's a major event."

It was a poignant one, too, for the all-Jewish competitors, with Vienna becoming the first German-speaking city to host the games. Jacobs' own pride in his Jewish ethnicity was always in evidence during his boxing career, courtesy of the gold Star of David he wore on his shorts.

Yet his popularity as a fighter brought him unified support in Glasgow on many memorable nights at the Kelvin Hall or SECC.

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"I am Jewish first and foremost, but not in a way that I ever pushed into people's faces," he says. "I married a Catholic girl, I was great pals with guys like Ally McCoist and Ian Durrant at Rangers and I always had great backing from all sides of the community when I fought in Glasgow.

"I never experienced any discrimination during my career, although sadly I have to say I've come across some anti-semitism in recent years. Just stupid stuff, people shouting and bawling things around where I live. How do you deal with it? Do you just walk away? It's not in my nature. When they did that in Germany during the war, they were gassed."

It's a rare sombre moment during an interview when Jacobs is generally as bubbly and positive as he was during his always helpful and articulate dealings with the boxing press throughout his career.

"Listen, I had a great time," he stresses. "I miss being involved in boxing, even on the fringes, on TV or whatever, just a little bit. But I saw the world, got paid for it and won more than I lost. I'll settle for that."

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