A boxer’s quest for a championship belt

James training at Circle of Discipline // Charles Hallman

Third-ranked Jamal “Shango” James took another step last Saturday toward a chance at a world welterweight belt. The 30-year-old South Minneapolis native’s impressive win, a six-round TKO over Janer Gonzalez, came after his opponent didn’t answer the bell for the seventh round of the 10-round bout.

The MSR followed James during his final weeks of preparation for last weekend’s nationally televised fight. Here’s how it played out.

The hometown favorite

James mainly trains at the Circle of Discipline gym on the city’s South Side, his home away from home. “This is a lifestyle, and I have been blessed to have the Circle of Discipline in this community,” the boxer said. “They are like family. With these guys on my side…I can’t see how I can lose.”

“I turned pro in 2009. I’ve been boxing since I was a little kid. I feel like a world champion already. I’m looking for my belt this year.”

A mother’s concern

Sierra Leone Samuels // Photo by Onika Craven

“I’m fine after he is done fighting, but before that I am a hot mess,” Sierra Leone Samuels said of watching her son Jamal since he turned pro.   

Samuels said that James had to make one assurance to her when he decided to become a pro boxer. “He has been with the Circle of Discipline since he was five years old. They have to be in your corner, co-manage you, and have a say in who you accept as an opponent. Otherwise, you are not doing it. That’s the deal we have,” she recalled.

Three days before the fight

The scheduled press conference last Thursday at the downtown Minneapolis Armory featured the four fighters of the co-main event: James, his opponent Janer Gonzalez, and super middleweights Anthony Dirrell and Avni Yildirim.

While James and Gonzalez’s turns at the podium were pretty sane, the other two fighters had to be separated due to heated words:  “He’s getting knocked out,” Dirrell predicted. Yildirim responded, “I will leave the ring with the belt.”

Dirrell, who overcame non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma several years ago, told us afterward, “It was the hardest fight of my life. Coming back from cancer definitely has been a motivation.”  

The pre-fight stare-down

The stare down // Onika Nicole Craven

The mandatory weigh-in the day before the fight includes a nose-to-nose performance by the fighters, each hoping that the other will blink first.   

James explained, “Some guys take it too far or take it a little too serious. Some guys try to stare you down and feel you out to see if you are scared. He [Gonzalez] thought he was going to do that to me. I think that was the wrong move for him.”

Less than 24 hours before his 25th professional fight, the 6’-2” James stressed, “The fight is won in the gym. As far as I am concerned, I already won the fight. I put in the hard work.”

Fight night

It was the third fight card at the Armory, which reopened a couple of years ago; but it was the first time a world championship bout was held in downtown Minneapolis, the 12-round Dirrell-Yildirim WBC world super middleweight title fight.

A fight is usually two shows at once: the fight itself, and the people there to watch it. Many arrive late, overdressed in formal wear. “Oohs and aahs” are interspersed with sounds of leather hitting flesh all night long along with in-fight commentary and “coaching” from the fans. It wasn’t Vegas or Atlantic City, two well-known boxing venues, but the place was packed with an announced crowd of 3,713.

Michael Cole told us how glad he is that boxing has finally returned to the Twin Cities. “I have attended every boxing event at the Armory since the [renovation],” he said. KFXN’s Henry Lake observed, “The atmosphere at the Armory is off the charts.”

James and Dirrell — a split decision winner to capture the WBC world super middleweight title — were among the Saturday night winners. “It feels great getting my WBC belt back,” said Dirrell, who first won the title in 2014 but lost it a year later.

James after win // Photo by Onika Nicole Craven

“The nerves are gone, but the adrenaline is still pumping a little bit,” a smiling James said afterwards. “I just stopped him in the seventh round in a packed house. It feels good. Thank you for showing support and giving me interviews.”