At the Circle of Discipline gym in Minneapolis, everyone is polite. The boxers call their elders “Sir,” and if boxers don’t work hard, they won’t be invited back.
So it’s no surprise that when Jamal James agrees to an interview, he pulls up the least-comfortable seat in the house, a small, plastic step-stool, and refuses offers to find him a chair more suitable to a potential champion.
“No, sir, thank you, I’m fine,” James said.
Floyd Mayweather Jr., and generations of big-time boxers have made their careers about celebrity and riches. Mayweather lives in a mansion in Las Vegas, and has his maid turn his dozens of TVs to his fights, a one-man effort to improve his own ratings.
James, 30, is closing in on a title fight that could change his life, but it would be hard to imagine him hiring a maid, much less clearing out an electronics store.
He still lives with his trainer and father figure, Sankara Frazier, in Minneapolis, and still speaks with the kind of deference rarely heard in the look-at-me world of boxing.
That doesn’t mean he’s not ambitious. James (25-1) will fight on Saturday night at the Armory in Minneapolis against Antonio DeMarco (33-7-1).
Is this the fight that will get James a title bout?
“I hope this is the one,” James said.
“That was our conversation,” Frazier said. “This fight should be leading us right to the title fight. They want him at the Pacquiao fight on July 20, so he can be seen. This is it.”
Manny Pacquiao will fight Keith Thurman for the welterweight title at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on July 20. James’ presence is significant in a sport that is all about promotion.
There are no guarantees in boxing, but James believes he’s closing in on a career-defining fight after only tens of thousands of trips to the gym.
James started working out in Frazier’s gym when he was 4, and has worked with him virtually every day since. Malcolm Gladwell believes that outliers are formed by at least 10,000 hours of practice and access to expertise. Gladwell could have written a chapter about James, who probably passed 10,000 hours of practice when he was in his teens.
“I couldn’t even begin to count the hours,” James said.
“We’re running in the mornings, we’re out there working at the beach, we’re doing so much training — it’s just a part of who he is now,” Frazier said.
James has an advantage perhaps not shared by many of his competitors. He lives with his trainer.
“I’ve had a few tough fights, but the biggest challenge in this job is being patient,” he said. “It’s been about 10 years now that I’ve been a pro and we’re just now getting to where we need to be.
“Being that committed for that long could be tough. Even now, I can’t wait to get in and get this fight over with because I’m watching all these beautiful summer days go by. But part of the job is sacrifice, and that’s what I signed up for.”
“So, living with my trainer, that’s needed. He’ll make sure I’m on point. Obviously, I try to be extremely disciplined myself, but I’m only human. If I try to sneak out, I’ll hear his voice, ‘Where you going?’ ”
“In this game, you have to put everything into it,” Frazier said. “You don’t want to be one of those guys who are going out and getting beat up for a paycheck, where you’re just getting used. I’ve seen those guys, and a lot of them can’t talk anymore.”
“I don’t like getting hit,” James said. “I can take a punch, but I want to hit you and get out of there.”
“It’s a science, but it’s also an art,” Frazier said. “It’s a science because of the angles, but we loved Ali and Robinson because they turned it into an art form. The art is hitting and making your opponent miss. That’s what Jamal can do.”