Jamal James is nearing the end of his morning workout. He’s popping punches into the hand pads worn by head trainer Sankara Frazier, who counters with verbal jabs.
“Don’t come in there dry,” Frazier yells. “Put your hood on, put your robe on. That’s why the greats wore all of that stuff. They weren’t trying to come out fashionable. They were trying to keep all of that air off of them.”
The last time James fought, he defeated Abel Ramos at the Armory in April, winning in a split decision. Friday night, James, the 30-year-old welterweight from Minneapolis, returns to the Armory to face Mahonry Montes on a card that includes Minnesota’s Caleb Truax and Celso Ramirez, another of Frazier’s fighters from the Circle of Discipline gym in Minneapolis.
Last Sunday morning, James was building sweat equity while receiving sweat education.
Frazier is a boxing historian. His Circle of Discipline gym on Lake Street features photos of Frazier with some of the world’s most famous fighters.
“George Foreman wore two layers,” Frazier says. “You don’t want to have to work up a sweat again.”
With James fit and sharp, Frazier is honing in on the smallest details of a night that could propel James toward a title bout. In his last fight against Ramos, James came out of his corner blazing, then had to survive once he burned through his energy.
The details matter because James has spent almost his entire life building to this point, and one loss could derail his career.
“I was excited last time,” James said. “I felt so good, I knew I’d be able to perform well, and I think I was a little overzealous and anxious when I came out. That’s not to take anything away from my opponent. He’s a good fighter, and it turned out to be a nice, fan-friendly fight.”
James’ fights at the Armory are at once celebrations of a life spent in gyms, surrounded by family and other neighborhood supporters, and explorations on the ceiling of his career.
“One loss could mean everything,” Frazier said. “You might get another chance down the line, but you’re not going to get a chance as that hopeful young boxer. You might get the chance as a B side.
“But I think Jamal is headed for the title.”
That might sound like hyperbole, if you’ve never heard Frazier talk about other boxers. He’s blunt. He uses the Circle of Discipline as a means to keep kids away from drugs and gangs. He also tells them when they should look for a career other than boxing.
Frazier took responsibility for James early in life, and their bond is obvious. Sunday morning, Frazier worked with James and Ramirez while Frazier’s son, Adonis, helped.
“I’m just thankful,” James said. “For my family — my enormous family. My corner, Sankara, Adonis, my mother, my girl, they’re all behind me. It really takes a village.”
That village sprawls around the spartan gym at Circle of Discipline. He gets treatment at Therapy of Champions, his adjustments at Premier Chiropractic, his haircuts at Twiins Barber and Urban Touch barbers. He left his job as a barista and now works at Title Boxing Club.
Old-school in philosophy and action, James and Frazier eschew modern performance diets, so James favors Pimento Jamaican Kitchen.
“Minneapolis has rallied around me, and all of these places, they take care of me,” he said.
So James’ pregame meal is more likely to come from a local restaurant than a name-brand energy shake.
“The greats of the game, guys who hit like trucks and went 25 rounds, they ate real food,” Frazier said.
James is 23-1 with 10 knockouts. He’s ranked third in the world by the WBA and 11th by the WBC. His nickname is “Shango,” a play off the local band his grandfather played in named Shangoya. He writes music and listens to everything from rap and rock to Sinatra and Nat King Cole.
Friday night, he’ll emerge from the backroom wearing layers, trying to sweat, and trying to keep his cool.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org