He knows the moment he fell in love with the sport.

He was tiny, just like the little ones — age 5, age 6 — who constantly skip around the sweat-stained blue floor of the Minneapolis garage-turned-gym known as the Circle of Discipline.

Back then, Jamal James wasn’t yet a 19-0 professional welterweight. He didn’t have the nickname “Shango,” for the African god of thunder. He wasn’t managed by one of boxing’s premier managers, Al Haymon — the same guy who works with Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr.

He was just 4 years old when he heard the rhythm of the speed bag for the first time. A boxer’s fists ripped through the air and jostled the little bag like a tuning fork.

James stared, then pulled a chair to the bag. He balanced on it and started hitting.

Hours went by. He wanted to make the rhythm himself.

Moments like that happen every day in the gym on E. Lake Street, a place that draws people in with boxing, then changes their lives.

James, now 27, is awaiting word on a nationally televised fight that would give him a chance at a spot among boxing’s elite.

“Once you hit 20-0, people have to take a look at you,” he said. “I’ll have a voice. I can start calling people out. Start taking some titles.”

James is just one of a slew of pro boxers who have grown up at the Circle. Celso Ramirez, 18, has been showing up since he was 6. Fellow welterweight Jonathan Perez, 24, started when he was 10.

They’re surrounded by toddlers and volunteers, pros and amateurs who say the gym has saved their lives.

As soon as the doors open at 4 p.m. on weekdays, children begin leaking in. Encircled by shadowboxing pros, hard-knock amateurs and no-nonsense trainers, they treat the gym like a playground. A playground where everyone goes by “sir” or “ma’am.”

An oddly peaceful place

In the Twin Cities, where the November death of Jamar Clark has thawed into a spring of tension and violence, the gym is like an oasis.

Race is rarely mentioned — unless it’s spoken of with pride by the folks of all races, ages and creeds who sweat together under the flags of 50-some nations that hang from the rafters.

What’s important here is the mission. Unlike boxing gyms where suburbanites try to “up their cardio,” the Circle of Discipline is more like a community center.

“I want people to recognize the importance of what we’re doing here,” said the Circle’s founder, Sankara Frazier, 61.

To his right was a yellow sign: “Quitters not allowed.” Nearby, James, training for his next televised fight, held a punching bag for a teenage girl to wallop.

On first meeting, James seems sweet. Tall and slim, with close-cut curly hair and kind eyes, he doesn’t look or act like boxers in the movies. He has a slow, meticulous cadence in both speech and movement when he’s not in the ring.

On a cool spring day, as James shadowboxed around the gym’s single competition-sized ring, a 13-year-old slipped on some red-and-black Adidas boxing gloves. Nine other children, teens and adults were on the sweaty floor, struggling through leg lifts under the direction of a 14-year-old. A toddler looked on, miming the exercise.

Suddenly a wiry kid got up from the floor and walked off.

Perez spotted him and shouted out: “That’s your team! That’s your team, man,” said the 12-0 pro. “You can’t walk away.”

The kid got back on the floor.

It’s a process

The gym’s phone rang and Asa “Skeets” Grigsby Jr., 74, picked it up.

An old soldier, old boxer, old tailor and a published poet, Skeets shuffles around the Circle in sweats with the sure-footedness of a pugilist, and the patience of a man who once mended clothes for a living.

“You’ve been having problems,” he said into the receiver, crossing his arms pensively. “OK, sweetie.”

It’s a single mother, he said after hanging up. She’s worried about her son.

An hour later, the mom and her son knocked on the gym door. Skeets shuffled over, gave them a hug, then inspected a blue folder the boy carried.

James, still shadowboxing, slipped out of the ring and bounced over.

“Where was you at then?” James asked the kid. ”Be real.” He stopped bouncing and led the young man upstairs to a nook that doubles as office and locker room. They talked for about an hour.

“It’s part of the process,” Skeets says — the same process that brought him back to boxing from what he thought was his deathbed, he says.

In the Circle, he is one of the few men not called “sir.” He’s “Uncle Skeets.”

“I didn’t decide it. The mothers did.” He chuckled. “Now I’m part of the family.”

Tender hugs, tough rules

Hugs are the most common exchange here — other than punches.

James calls Sankara Frazier his father. He calls Frazier’s son, Adonis — also a trainer — his older brother. Other boxers do the same.

The Circle is a family space, one that is rooted in Minneapolis history.

It’s the offspring of a gym at the Phyllis Wheatley Center in north Minneapolis where Sankara’s father, Bishop Stanley Neil Frazier, learned to box in the 1950s, under the tutelage of the late W. Harry Davis Sr., a longtime Minneapolis School Board member and civil-rights advocate whose plaque hangs on the Circle’s wall.

The Davis model of teaching is central to the Circle, his son says.

“When these young men and women leave this program, most won’t be professional boxers,” said Harry Davis Jr., himself a prominent civic leader. “It makes you understand that life is tough. It’s the tenacity — the discipline.”

The elder Davis viewed boxing as a tool, not just a sport.

A boxer doesn’t smoke or drink, he would say. A boxer treats everyone with respect. A boxer stays in school. A boxer eats right to make weight.

The method that Harry Davis Sr. used to influence a generation of African-American men in the 1950s and ’60s is now being used to raise fighters like James — not to mention all those kids who toddle about the gym after school.

‘He was in awe’

It was in 1993, shortly after Sankara Frazier opened the gym in a Chicago Avenue storefront, when James and his mother, Sierra Samuels, first stopped by.

“I wasn’t into boxing, it didn’t make sense to me. But he was in awe,” Samuels said. ”He wouldn’t leave the ring.”

She was a single mom — 17 when James was born — and his father was out of the picture. While attending the University of Minnesota, she started dropping him off at the gym three times a week.

“It was a positive male influence,” said Samuels, now a volunteer at the gym and a certified amateur boxing referee.

“I grew up with him,” James said of Sankara Frazier as he watched the older man instruct a young amateur. “He’s a second father. He taught me everything.”

During James’ junior year in high school, he moved into the basement apartment of Frazier’s home.

He realized then that he wanted to be the best boxer in the world, but didn’t have the self-discipline needed to wake at 5 a.m. every day to run. And Samuels, a slight, soft-spoken woman, didn’t have the heart to boss him out of the house in the early mornings.

“I’m a tough trainer,” Frazier said with the easygoing smile that sometimes sneaks out from his ever-present trainer’s scowl. “With me, you perform like an athlete should.”

He could have made more money as a personal trainer, according to Davis Jr. But if he can pay the bills and change lives, that’s enough, Frazier said.

“Money is important — we all need money — but my faith is strong for what I’m doing.”

And in this corner

Frazier moved the gym to its current location near the Midtown Global Market two decades ago.

The historically tough neighborhood, a melting pot where restaurant menus are more likely to be written in Spanish than English, fits the gym like a glove.

Old-timers remember when the neighborhood was even tougher, when they’d interrupt lessons on the left jab to shoo prostitutes from the corner of Lake and 12th Avenue S.

But the tough neighborhood dissolves at the gym door. There’s no space for skulduggery in the Circle, Frazier says. As long as you stick to the rules, you’re welcome here.

Rule number one: “Give back,” he said, adding that James is one of the best he’s seen both at boxing and at giving back.

Although James’ last bout had a purse of about $25,000, he still calls the Frazier basement home. He’s still a barista at an Uptown coffee joint. He still wakes at 5 every morning to run.

“It’s not just me,” James says. “They do this for other people, too.”

Now, as the years of work pay off for a handful of the kids who have grown up on the faded blue floor, there’s no telling what’s next.

“Be aware that the Circle will be producing some great champions — not only in boxing,” says super-welterweight Ramirez.

For now, James is looking forward to his 20th professional opponent, whoever that might be.

“I’m training hard,” James said. “I stay ready — I don’t have to get ready. If they’re gonna beat me, they’re gonna have to knock me out.”

One thing is certain: His second family, the Fraziers, will be there.

When James decided to go pro seven years ago, his mother established only one condition:

“You’ll always have Sankara and Adonis in your corner.”

 

Barry Lytton is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.