Gary Jacobs: From goldsmith to golden boy

“I always remember asking Mickey Duff if he ever got nervous before fights. We were about to walk down the stairs towards the ring, and he told me, ‘No, I don’t get nervous. When we get to the bottom of the stairs, you go that way [towards the ring], and I go this way.’ I can remember that…” 

Betting shops, Chinese takeaways and pubs packed with cardigan-wearing regulars line the pavements on either side of Portman Street, Kinning Park; Glasgow is cloaked in darkness this early afternoon.

The winter nights have recently drawn in, so whether it’s afternoon or evening is generally anybody’s guess, and despite the piercing chill slicing the city’s typically dull sky, there’s warmth found in the south side’s Kynoch boxing gym. The facility, currently home to some of Scotland’s most promising fighters, also houses former British and European champion, and world title challenger, Gary Jacobs (45-8, 26 KOs).

Jacobs, a spritely 54-years old, is rarely framed without a smile or a witty anecdote. On the few occasions we’ve crossed paths in the past, he’s been busy imparting knowledge to young fighters or sharing those stories that few in British boxing can match.

Former world title challenger Jacobs at his peak. Photo: Jim Diamond.

He could have conquered the world – he knows that – but when speaking with Boxing Social, it was clear that Jacobs valued other things: “I’ve been retired 23 years, but I still remember all of them. I can remember every fight, and every round, honestly. You pick a fight, I can tell you all about it, and by the way, thank god I retired when I did. If you go back or if you keep on fighting, you might not remember these things.”

He was right enough; Gary corrected my mispronunciation of his final opponent’s name, Russia’s Yuri Epifantsev, and recalled the very moment his professional career ended – disheartened during a tough round. Boxing eventually drained Jacobs towards the end, but the boy from Newton Mearns, South Lanarkshire, had more than paid his dues.  

“We lived there [in Newton Mearns], but we emigrated to Australia when I was 14-years old,” Jacobs recalled vividly. “We came back when I was 15, and we moved to Shawlands [south of Glasgow’s River Clyde]. When we first emigrated to Australia, I thought I’d be living on a ranch somewhere, but I finished my schooling there and then we came home. I think it was only about £10 per ticket on the boat.  

“I was introduced to a wee guy called Morris Lewis when I came back. He asked me: ‘So, you like boxing? Can you fight?’ I said, ‘Aye, I can fight’. But I wasn’t interested – I wanted to play football. He told me you could box for £50 per fight and I said, ‘Where’s the gloves?’ Back then, the wee Glasgow boy thought, ‘You want tae be the best, fight the best!’ But I realised I couldn’t fight quite quickly.  

“The whole secret is: Don’t get hit – it always has been. I tell my kids to take up disco dancing because the professional game is about rhythm and those are the things that stop you getting hurt. It’s about hurting people, scoring points, but the pro game is very different to the amateur game.” 

Those words of wisdom are currently being passed from Jacobs to his young charge, Luca Micheletti, not long turned professional. Boxing isn’t a game, the trainer reminded us of that as he spoke directly from Luss challenger Hannah Rankin’s Matchroom bubble, ahead of her fight with Savannah Marshall. You don’t play it – as cliché as that has become – and Gary is still an advocate for strict professionalism, 23 years into his own retirement.  

Originally working as a qualified goldsmith and jeweller in the city, hurriedly weaving his way through the narrow corridors of Glasgow’s Argyle Arcade, the delicate intricacy of his ‘day job’ was soon traded for destruction. The steady, precision of Jacobs’ handy work was changed indefinitely.  

Jacobs stopped Rocky Kelly in a Commonwealth title defence in February 1989.

The Jewish boxer decided to embark on his own professional career under the guidance of prominent Scottish boxing figure, Alex Morrison. He racked up nine unanswered victories before suffering a shock defeat at the hands of the well-travelled Dave Douglas (L10). These were the days before crushing single digits in a boxer’s losses column really mattered. In fact, they never should.  

“In life, it’s great when we’re winning, isn’t it? But it’s how you come back from defeat. That’s what makes a man or a woman of you. When you win, everybody is patting you on the back, squeezing themselves into your changing room. But when you lose, it’s just you and your trainer in there. If a guy can punch a little bit, you could get knocked out – that’s boxing. 

“I beat [Dave] Douglas in a rematch, so really, I was unbeaten again until I went to New York and fought a guy called ‘Buddy’ McGirt,” Jacobs says with a blasé swagger, as though the American was just opponent. He fought Buddy McGirt (L10), the world champion fighter and head trainer, and he ran him close. McGirt referenced the game Glaswegian when talking to Boxing Social, remembering his efforts that evening in New York’s Felt Forum. 

“He was the big name, a future champion. When I was beaten by him, I realised I was better than many thought I was,” he said. “He went on to beat Simon Brown – he made it look easy – but he didn’t do that to me. That’s when it all changed for me. I won the British and European [titles], but I wanted to be world champion and [Pernell] Whitaker was the best on the planet at that time.”

Fighting ‘Sweet Pea’, then considered boxing’s pound-for-pound king, is a calling card for ‘The Kid’. Those who don’t recognise him at first glance, or perhaps assume he was a club-level fighter, are shocked when he reels off his impressive résumé. Only a couple of weeks ago, MC David Diamanté sat down with Jacobs during fight week and was shocked to hear of his glittering achievements. 

For Jacobs, the Whitaker fight remains his crowning moment – despite suffering a conclusive points defeat when bravely challenging for the WBC welterweight title. Whitaker, who tragically lost his life after being struck by a vehicle in 2019, was an elegant, elusive fighter. He would glide across the ring apron, picking opponents off with sniper’s accuracy and escaping unscathed – but the confident Scot didn’t care about that heading into the bout. 

“I have absolutely not one bit of regret. I could have gone away and won a world title against another champion, booked 10 defences and made money, but I went straight for the jugular. I went the distance with one of the greatest fighters of all time – he goes down as that, I believe. You can mump and moan, but it would be wrong of me to do that.  

“I was supposed to fight De La Hoya right after my Whittaker fight,” Jacobs stated, “But it never happened. I decided to go down that route. Maybe I could have made a lot more money? But maybe not. No regrets; not one bone in my body. It was what it was, and that’s it.  

“Boxing was great to me; it owes me nothing and I don’t owe it anything. I don’t think about it – I really don’t, to be honest – because I’d have another chip on my shoulder. Boxing’s not very nice and it’s not a very long career, is it? Sometimes you end up with loads of money and sometimes you end up skint, but as long as you can walk, talk and remember things, that’s what really matters.”

The Scot dared to be the best and fought a prime Whitaker.

He was right. And he can talk. The way Jacobs tells a story is infectious and it seems apparent he still enjoys reliving every sentence. The end of his professional boxing career came following a disappointing defeat against Russian gatekeeper Yuri Epifantsev (L12) after completing the final third of the fight on autopilot.  

It was Jacobs’ third 12-rounder in the space of five months, something he puts down to opportunities being presented back-to-back. There was no bitterness; no finger of blame was pointed. Jacobs was offered the fights, and he took them, but at only 32, it wasn’t exactly a planned retirement.  

“It was 10 or 12 years of eat, sleep, train and fight, and maybe I should have taken six months out and came back,” he remarked, looking back on his eventual disappearance. “Maybe I should have, or maybe I shouldn’t have [taken a longer break]. It was a bad night for me; he [Epifantsev] wasn’t better than me. I chucked it in the eighth round – I’ve not really spoken about it a lot. It takes a lot out of your body. If I had taken a wee rest, went away and came back, I’d have been alright. But that was it for me. It just was.  

“I was offered a lot of money to come back – but I’d started to take a wee drink. I had never been a drinker really, I just had a couple of drinks, but that made me decide not to return. I didn’t want to come back just for the money – boxing is a dangerous game. That last fight, that eighth round, that was the change in me because I was just jaded inside.” 

Jacobs – a proud husband and father of three – took an extended leave of absence from the sport following his final bout, focusing on a personal training venture. That business is still up and running now, with particular corporate clients dating back two decades, and new customers signing up, even now. 

Boxing has been described as an addiction; the need for ‘one last fight’ or the constant search for that final, meaningful payday has driven many decent fighters to despair. But Jacobs never had that. His clean break allowed time for honest reflection, before returning as the man holding mitts, as opposed to the hungry up-and-comer punishing them.  

As yet, his training career is still to yield a blue-chip prospect, but he was keen to state that he’s “not looking to take over” from any of the Scottish trainers actively working. He just wants to help. Jacobs seems to break boxing’s mould, he’s done it with former IBO champion Hannah Rankin and her trainer Noel Callan, providing support and a sounding board as the pair approach big fights.  

Now Jacobs is passing on his wisdom to a new generation of fighters.
Photo: Jim Diamond.

Unlike many of Scotland’s fighters, ‘The Kid’ has been there and done it on the grandest of stages, and that stands for something. Now biding his time and building his own stable slowly but surely, he remembered the influence of one man in particular: “I think back to Morris Lewis, a great man, he looked after me. He was a part of my journey from start to finish. He was the man who started me off in boxing. No matter what, he was at every single one of my fights throughout my career. But sadly, he’s not with us anymore. 

“I hope that people will just remember me as a decent guy – somebody that was happy to help. I think my work in the sport [stands the test of time] – I go to gyms all over the planet and people might not recognise me, but I tell them about what I’ve achieved, and I automatically gain their respect. I done it the hard way, I won lots of titles and I just try to give a little back.” 

Jacobs has to remind people of his achievements – but that doesn’t diminish them. He was a world-class operator, mixing in incredible company. Boxing wasn’t about cowering behind powerful promoters or biding your time to battle it out for a vacant title, not at that time.  

And with that, after Jacobs finishes telling Boxing Social of his highs and lows, he makes small talk and cracks jokes again. It’s still dark outside, but it’s later now. Never once did he look at his watch – lost in the past. There’s something refreshing about one of Scotland’s greatest fighters, and one of Britain’s best uncrowned world champions, being able to sneak away in the night, unnoticed and hassle free. But is he truly happy with that?  

“I’ve had my time; I did the best I could; that’s all there is. If I could help somebody else achieve the same thing, well, that’s a real accomplishment.” 

Main image: Promoter Mickey Duff alongside Gary Jacobs after the Scot stopped Frenchman Daniel Bicchieray in five rounds at Wembley in September 1993. Photo: John Giles/Press Association.