James Leslie "Jim" Jacobs was a handball player, boxing manager, comic book and boxing film collector, and an Oscar-nominated documentarian. He is an inductee of the International Boxing Hall of Fame (Non-Participant Category), World Boxing Hall of Fame, (Expanded Category), United States Handball Association Hall of Fame, and International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Jacobs was born on February 18, 1930, in St. Louis, Missouri. He moved to Los Angeles, California, with his parents when he was five years old. Shortly afterward, his parents were divorced, and he was raised by his mother.
As a teenager, Jacobs excelled at athletics. He was a good enough basketball player to be invited to an Olympic tryout, he ran the 100-yard dash in 9.8 and he was a skeet shot of championship caliber.
Jacobs was rarely eligible for sports in high school because of poor grades. He later looked back on his academic career with regret, but at the time he simply was not interested. "He wasn't happy in anything except sports," said his mother. Instead of competing at school, he played halfback in football, shortstop in baseball and forward in basketball for the George Gershwin Chapter of the AZA, a branch of the B'nai B'rith, a national Jewish organization. He also played handball at the Hollywood YMCA.
Jacobs was drafted during the Korean War and served two years in the infantry with the First Cavalry Division. He received a Purple Heart, but he would later say, "I wasn't the best soldier." After being discharged, he returned to Los Angeles, where he worked for his father's business machine and supplies company and pursued his two passions: handball and boxing films.
Jacobs was a renowned handball player.
Handball demands extreme athleticism — speed, power, agility, balance, hand-eye coordination. Jacobs loved both the athletic nature of the sport and the gladiatorial persona that surrounded it — two opponents in a 20x40 foot court, four walls and a ceiling, battling shot to shot until the 21st point.
Jacobs dominated the sport of Four-Wall Handball from 1955 to 1969, winning every match he played during that 15-year span. He won six United States Handball Association National Singles Championships, four YMCA National Championships, three AAU National Championships, countless regional championships, as well as the World Singles Championship.
He won the United States Handball Association National Doubles Championship once with Dick Weisman, and he won it five times with Marty Decatur. Jacobs and Decatur were partners for twelve years and never lost a match.
Jacobs also won three United States Handball Association National Three-Wall Singles Championships.
In a 1966 Sports Illustrated article titled "Really The Greatest," Robert H. Boyle wrote: "Jacobs is generally hailed as the finest player of all time. Indeed, there are those who say Jacobs is the best athlete, regardless of sport, in the country."
The United States Handball Association recognized Jacobs as the "Greatest Handball Player of the Generation" in 1970.
Beginning in the 1940s and accelerating in the late 50s and early 60s, during his international handball travels, Jacobs began to indulge his passion for boxing and collecting rare fight films. "I adored boxing, and that led me to become a serious film collector," he said. "By 17, 18 years old, I was trading fight films and learning who the collectors were. If a person is a real collector, of anything, there is a compulsion which is irresistible toward acquisition. . . . But films were difficult to come by. Remember, Congress had passed a law prohibiting interstate commerce of fight films after Johnson beat Jeffries in 1910. That fight film had been shown all over the United States and there were race riots. So Congress banned transportation of fight films from one state to another from 1910 to 1940. For example, when Dempsey fought Willard, it was a violation to show the film in New York. So fight films were sent all over the world because they couldn’t be exploited in this country. Joe Louis fought Jim Braddock in Chicago; the film couldn’t be shown outside Illinois. Most people can’t believe this. The law was repealed in 1940. In my travels, I visited all the museums to make deals, to get these fight films back to the U.S."
Jacobs was also an avid collector of comic books. He started collecting them when he worked as a volunteer on paper-collection drives during World War II. He would take home discarded comics he found as he sorted through the old newspapers and magazines donated to aid the war effort. Mike Tyson biographer Peter Heller wrote of Jacobs collection: "At the time of his death in 1988, it was probably the largest and most valuable collection of its kind anywhere, containing some 800,000 comic books with a value of perhaps $2 million."
In 1959, Jacobs contacted Bill Cayton, another collector of fight films and founder of Big Fights Inc., to find out if he was interested in trading fight films. The two men hit it off when they met, and Cayton offered to do more than swap films: He offered Jacobs a job with his company. In time, the two merged their collections and became business partners.
Jacobs and Cayton produced two films that were nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards: Legendary Champions in 1968 and Jack Johnson in 1970. Among the other films they produced were A.K.A. Cassius Clay and Sugar Ray Robinson: Pound for Pound.
In 1998, ten years after Jacobs died, Cayton sold the company's 16,000-film boxing library to ESPN for a reported $100 million.
Jacobs was invited to New York in 1959 to show some of the fight films he owned. It was then that he met Cus D'Amato, the manager and trainer of World Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson and future World Light Heavyweight Champion Jose Torres.
Jacobs was Patterson's public relations assistant when he fought Sonny Liston in 1962. Norman Mailer wrote an account of the fight titled "Ten Thousand Words" that appeared in the February 1963 issue of Esquire. The piece was later included in the book The Presidential Papers, a collections of Mailer's essays, interviews and articles. A picture of Jacobs appears in the book.
When D'Amato moved to Catskill, New York, in the late 1960s and opened a gym, Jacobs and Cayton financed his amateur boxing program. The program would eventually include a young Mike Tyson.
The Boxing Writers Association of America named Jacobs Manager of the Year for 1986, the year Tyson became the youngest boxer to win a world title at heavyweight. Cayton received the award in 1987, the year Tyson unified all three major heavyweight titles.
On March 23, 1988, Jacobs died from lymphocytic leukemia at age 58. He had suffered from the disease for nine years. He was survived by his wife, Loraine, and a sister, Dorothy.
Jacobs received many tributes after his death that showed how highly regarded he was in the world of boxing.
Muhammad Ali said, "Jimmy Jacobs has always been a good friend of mine. I will truly miss him. I not only respect him, I had admiration, compassion, and love for this man."
Howard Cosell wrote in the New York Daily News, "In the dirty world of boxing, Jacobs was a clean man. He was proof that boxing and character need not be mutually exclusive. . . . And boxing is that much less a sport without his presence."
Sportswriter Doug Krikorian stated, "The beleaguered sport suffered another damaging blow the other day when it lost its most eloquent spokesman, Jimmy Jacobs. . . . He was respected and trusted by bitterly divisive factions and his sound reputation was never tainted by rumors of dishonesty-rumors that inevitably curse everyone in the sport who reaches Jacobs' lofty status."
Promoter Don Fraser claimed, "I never heard a bad word about him."
Gene Kiltoy, Muhammad Ali's former business manger, insisted, "If there's anyone in boxing who didn't like Jimmy Jacobs, then he didn't like him because Jimmy wouldn't sell out."
D'Amato's Secret Prospect
Shortly after Jacobs died, sportswriter Jack McKinney said Jacobs was secretly trained by D'Amato to challenge Archie Moore for the World Light Heavyweight Championship in 1961. At that time, Moore had held the title for almost nine years and was in his mid-40s.
In an article that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News on March 30, 1988, McKinney wrote:
- D'Amato used to engage me in deep discussions about the state of the art in boxing. It was during one such session that he first hooked me on his secret vision. "I'm going to take a mature, world-class athlete who's never boxed before and make him a champion," Cus confided. "He'll have no amateur bouts, no pro preliminaries, so no bad habits. I'll put him through a program of intensive instruction in gym, utilizing his already developed physical attributes. Then, when he's ready for his ring debut, it will be for the world championship. And he'll make history by winning it!" Cus said his prospect had already achieved "dominance in another sport." Among those "already developed physical attributes," he mentioned "strength, quickness, stamina, exceptional hand-eye coordination," and other impressive factors, along with "great intelligence and an enormous will to excel." At various times, I guessed Tom Gola, Jim Brown, John Havlicek and a virtual who's-who of other likely suspects. But Cus always smiled mysteriously and said he'd tell me when he was ready. Only after he died, with his project unfulfilled, did it dawn on me that Cus D'Amato had been thinking all along of the man Sports Illustrated once described as the most dominant athlete in the world — Jimmy Jacobs himself.
Writer Pete Dexter was asked by Playboy to do a piece on Tyson in 1987. McKinney wrote in the Daily News article, "Pete asked me for a door-opener, and I suggested Jacobs, who'd assumed the role of Tyson's adviser after the death of father-figure Cus D'Amato." McKinney said Jacobs admitted to Dexter that "he had been D'Amato's secret prospect, honed to readiness over six months of intense tutelage for a covertly arranged shot at Archie Moore's long-rusting light-heavyweight title."
The fight never took place because, so the story goes, Moore detected no potential upside. He is said to have told Jacobs "there are two possibilities: either you win or I kill you. Both are intolerable to me". "Or perhaps it never happened because it was a benign myth spun from irresistible strands of truth," wrote Mark Singer, a staff writer at The New Yorker. Singer said two close friends of Jacobs insisted that, his reverence for D'Amato notwithstanding, there's no way he would have seriously considered the proposition.
- "Really The Greatest" By Robert H. Boyle, Sports Illustrated, March 7, 1966
- "Jim Jacobs is film king" By Murray Olderman, Newspaper Enterprise Association, April 26, 1981
- "Fight Manager, Collector Jimmy Jacobs Dies at 58" By Richard Hoffer, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1988
- "Jim Jacobs, Tyson's Co-Manager And Handball Titlist, Dies at 58" By Phil Berger, New York Times, March 24, 1988
- "A Plan For Jimmy Jacobs Mike Tyson Confidant Had A Date With A Title" By Jack McKinney, Philadelphia Daily News, March 30, 1988
- "DVD pirates filling their shelves -- and customer orders" By Don Steinberg, ESPN.com, May 13, 2008
- "Jimmy Jacobs: Mike Tyson's Four-Wall Rabbi" By Mark Singer, Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, Twelve Books, October 30, 2012
- International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame: James "Jimmy" Jacobs
- United States Handball Association: Jim Jacobs