The Circle of Discipline might as well be a time capsule. There is little modern technology in the boxing gym. A plaque honoring Minneapolis civil rights leader and boxing advocate Harry Davis Sr. adorns one wall, next to photos of Muhammad Ali and other famous fighters.
There are speed bags, heavy bags, dumbbells and bikes, and in the ring there is a barista and future English teacher who also might be Minnesota’s next great boxer.
Befitting the setting and his sensibilities, Jamal James listens to old-school music. On this day, he’s providing some old-fashioned percussion.
Sankara Frazier, the gym’s director, holds up punch mitts, and James makes them pop, the noise belying his lean build and economy of motion. “He looks like Tommy Hearns, doesn’t he?” Frazier said.
It seems James, 29, would feel comfortable in another era, but he’s trying to usher in a new one for Minnesota boxing. Ranked 13th in the world and eighth in the United States, the Minneapolis native thinks he’s close to landing a title fight.
“Hopefully, that happens this year,” James said. “Hopefully, we get our shot real soon.”
James is 22-1. In December, he won his biggest fight to date, knocking out Diego Chavez with a wicked shot to the ribs in the third round in California. Chavez had never before succumbed so quickly.
As an amateur, James ranked No. 1 in the country at 141 pounds. Now at 147, he goes by the nickname “Shango,” which means “African God of Thunder.” The name also, like so many aspects of his life, connects with music.
His grandfather played in a Calypso band named Shangoya, which inspired James’ nickname. “That’s what I’m bringing into the ring every time I fight,” James said.
Now James listens to Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, writes and performs rap, and Frazier has produced a CD of original, soulful, music.
“We love boxing,” James said. “But we’re about a lot more than boxing here.”
James’ life has played out like every beloved boxing movie ever, replete with a kindly mentor and the hand of fate.
His mother brought him to the Circle of Discipline — on Lake Street, near the Midtown Global Market — when he was 4. “She and my biological father weren’t getting along and she didn’t want me getting caught up in any traps on the street,” James said. “I fell in love with it. All of it.”
Frazier treated James like a son, taking him into his home. They still live together. “I tell people I’ve got two fathers and two mothers,” James said. “I’m blessed to have a big family, and to have Sankara teach me all that he has taught me.”
Boxing, like most individual sports, can take on a selfish sheen. It’s all about the individual getting the big shot, the big payday.
James and Frazier prefer to adhere to the mission statement of the Circle of Discipline, which represents an oasis for potentially troubled kids. Frazier has always worked with at-risk youth, and he welcomes children to his gym. James often repeats Frazier’s motto for his life and gym: “Always give back.”
“This gym is a second home for so many people,” James said. “It’s a place that people can come, and feel safe. I work with kids here, too, because that’s what we’re about.”
James and Frazier revere boxing history. They met Ali, and James’ idol is Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champ, who overcame overt racism during the Jim Crow era.
Harry Davis Jr. visited the gym last week and told stories about his father’s influence on Golden Gloves in Minneapolis. One year Harry Sr. took a team to Chicago and a hotel wouldn’t let the black boxers rent rooms. Davis, an executive at the Star Tribune, contacted the paper’s management. After being threatened by a team boycott and newspaper coverage of the policy, the hotel relented.
“Boxing is a vehicle, and the statistics show it’s safer than football,” Davis said. “Jamal has a chance to have a major fight in Minnesota that would put us back on the map.”
“I’ve been doing this stuff all my life,” Frazier said. “Sometimes, the boxing world, it can make you tired. But all of a sudden you get a shining star and you say, ‘I know I have to watch him, guide him, make sure everything stays smooth for him.’
“He’s sparkling now. It’s time to get the state behind him.”
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MNSPN.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib