Last Saturday, Jamal “Sango” James put on an excellent performance, defeating Thomas Dulorme to win the interim WBA world title. After the fight, James, 32, revealed that he had faced extraordinary challenges in preparing for the contest, demanding a higher than usual level of endurance from the boxer.
James (27-1, 16 KOs) trains out of Circle of Discipline, a gym located in south Minneapolis. He has been associated with the gym, known as COD, since the age of five, and by 13, he was taking boxing seriously. COD prides itself on teaching young kids and youth the meaning of commitment as well as methods for adjusting to and overcoming adversity. Those skills were beneficial when James’ training camp for the Dulorme fight was not at its best.
The challenges came early and often. George Floyd was killed in May of this year, and when protesters expressed their outrage by destroying property, any nearby building was fair game. Though James lived near the spot where Floyd was killed, thankfully, boxer James’ home went undisturbed.
James, a native of Minnesota, was supposed to fight Dulorme back in April of this year, but the pandemic postponed the event. The fight was rescheduled for July, but that date fell through as well. James found himself needing to stay in shape while preparing for a battle with an uncertain date. He had been giving back to the community from an early age, so it made sense for him to find a way to keep active while giving give back.
COD turned their boxing gym into a food drive location, and James generously gave of his time for the charitable event. “[When] we got a date [for the Dulorme fight], I was happy about it, but man, there was a lot going on,” James said. They spent much of the summer at his training camp in Barnum, Minnesota, near Moose lake: “Father’s Day, Fourth of July, and for my birthday…and I still gotta maintain focus and get this title.”
As James was contending with the changing dates for his fight, he also had to accept the reality that his grandmother was passing away. James told me in a somber voice that he did leave training camp for a day, to visit her at the hospital, and say his final goodbye. It wasn’t easy, but James had to set aside his grief and focus on training. He has been a professional boxer since 2010, and any fighter who attains career longevity has to develop the ability to compartmentalize.
Between the stress of COVID prevention and the death of his grandmother, James needed a break. But he had to contend with yet another issue: a lack of quality sparring partners, mostly due to COVID-19. Rarely is a fighter expected to win if they enter into a significant fight with limited sparring, and James’ odds were even worse, coming off a layoff.
“We started training again; we had to get [James’ and Morrell’s] mental states up and get them focused again, and that took time,” said Sankara Frazier, James’ head trainer and founder of COD. “The fact that we didn’t have anybody to [spar] to get on the level of world sharpness, I had to take those punches, by the way.” In the end, James had no choice but to spar the man he calls father. Sankara accepted the arduous task in stride. “I know I could get them sharp and have them go 15 rounds if needed.”
Morrell also may have sparred against James going into the fight. But he was preparing for his own fight. And Morrell did the unthinkable when he defeated Lennox Allen by decision last week. The win made Morrell, at only 22, the youngest boxer in history with only two professional matches to win a title. At the time of the fight, Allen was undefeated, with over 33 contests. With the victory, 168-pound David Morrell, Jr. claimed the interim WBA world title belt.
Regardless of whether James and Morrell sparred with one other, they carried out the mission of their gym, COD, developing, and demonstrating mental toughness. COD has been a significant fixture in south Minneapolis for many years. When the George Floyd riots happened, many businesses were damaged, but not COD. Though Frazier had started the gym as a boxing program, he realized the mission needed to expand beyond the ring to address community issues. Now there is talk that Hennepin County, which owns the property where COD is located, is considering giving up the gym’s lease. If that happens, COD will have to relocate. But if the gym has to move, COD members plan to make their voices heard and their presence is known. This is more than a gym; it is a community resource.
For now, James can remember the good times he has had boxing at COD. He recalled that before the Dulorme fight, a group of James’ supporters showed up at the gym with shirts that read “Shango Nation,” referring to James’ boxing moniker. His supporters waved flags and showed off signs with words of encouragement for the fighter.
Despite the setbacks during his training camp, James persevered. “This is the true test of will. You have to be determined to achieve this goal,” James said about his challenges going into the fight. “I know I can overcome anything if that’s the goal. Boxing is not a long-time career path. You got to make the most of it. So while you are doing it, if you are going to do it for real, you got to always stay in shape.”
Adonis echoed James‘ words. He said about James’ and Morrell’s wins: “We needed something uplifting. We see the news about what is going… When these two raised their hands in the ring, it was like a moment of hope,” said Adonis. “Hard work led to the victory.”