As the old van turned from Lake Street onto 12th Avenue on Monday, people waving signs and flags surrounded it, much to the surprise of Jamal James.
“That was beautiful,” James said Thursday from Los Angeles. “And very unexpected.”
James, fellow boxer David Morrell and trainers Sankara and Adonis Frazier had driven from their boxing camp in Barnum, Minn., just northeast of Moose Lake, to ride by their home gym on their way to the biggest fight of James’ life.
Frazier surprised James by having the van cruise by the Circle of Discipline Gym, where they’ve been working together since James was a child. Fans of James, the Minneapolis native, and Morrell, a young Cuban who is training with the Fraziers, had waited for an hour in the summer sun, and they gathered around the van, wearing masks and respecting social distancing guidelines as James waved.
Saturday night in Los Angeles, James will fight for the WBA interim welterweight title. For years, James’ slogan has been: “Where’s my belt?” Now, finally, it is an uppercut away.
James will face Thomas Dulorme at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. The fight will be televised over the air on Fox.
James, 32, is 26-1. Dulorme, 30, is 25-3-1.
“This has great significance,” said Minneapolis boxing historian Harry Davis, as he stood in front of the gym Monday. “This would re-energize the boxing community here, and enable the Armory to bring in top boxing entertainment to Minneapolis.”
James’ fight with Dulorme was originally scheduled for the Armory in April but was postponed because of COVID-19. James and Frazier repaired to their camp in Barnum and went back to work.
“When you’re in training for a big fight, it’s almost like you’re in quarantine, anyway,” James said. “It’s all about discipline.”
That word is a mantra for Frazier and James. Monday, Davis pointed to the facade of the gym on the corner of Lake Street. Many businesses in the neighborhood display boarded windows and graffiti in the wake of rioting after George Floyd’s killing. The Circle of Discipline is untouched.
“Look at this place,” Davis said. “No gang signs. No graffiti. Because people here know this is the real deal, that this is here for the community. This place is off limits.”
It was packed Monday. Fans of James wore T-shirts bearing the phrase “Shango Nation.” James adopted the nickname “Shango” to honor his grandfather, who played in a Calypso band named Shangoya.
Working out in the spartan Circle of Discipline gym, which features photos of immortal boxers and civil rights leaders, James will often use worn equipment and listen to vintage music, whether Calypso, jazz or Motown.
Sankara Frazier and his son, Adonis, run the nonprofit and have developed a national reputation for training fighters. Morrell’s Cuban handlers chose Frazier to train him.
“David could have gone anywhere,” Davis said. “And he chose Sankara, the COD and Minneapolis. That’s a great sign for Minneapolis boxing.”
Morrell (at 22, 2-0 as a professional) will fight Lennox Allen (22-0-1) on the undercard Saturday.
It is emblematic of boxing across America and in Minneapolis that while James is in Los Angeles for a title fight, Davis is working to secure funding for the gym. He is hoping that a title will revive the sport and allow the Fraziers to continue to work with community kids.
“We try to be here for everybody,” Sankara Frazier said. “We’re a community place. People here know that. You saw that on Monday.”
The pandemic has altered the atmosphere around the fight. Instead of competing in a packed, rowdy Armory, the foursome observed health protocols while flying to Los Angeles and at their hotel there. After a life of striving, James will fight for a title with no fans screaming for him.
“What will it be like?” Frazier said. “It will be like being in the gym. For Jamal, that could be an advantage, because he loves being in the gym.”