Boxing ‘brothers’ provide mutual support

Photo by Charles Hallman Jamal “Shango” James, left, and David Morrell, Jr.,

Minneapolis is now home to two world champion boxers. At first glance, they are the unlikeliest of couples: Southside-born Jamal “Shango” James and Cuban-born David Morrell, Jr., who defected from his homeland a couple of years ago and is still learning English. Both train at the Circle of Discipline gym in South Minneapolis.

Yet James and Morrell are brothers-in-ring, each with his own championship belt.

“Together they look like two little brothers,” said retired baseball great Tony Oliva, the two men’s father figure. “I’ve known Jamal since before he was born. His mother and my wife are like sisters,” the Cuban native told us.

Oliva has been very helpful in Morrell’s transition as well. “It is really exciting for me,” he said with pride. “They make me really excited on how well Jamal and David are doing.”

“We push each other,” James told the MSR last month after a media event at which he and Morrell took questions on their careers. He admits the two fighters are like brothers, and James said he’s proud of that.

“When he sees me doing something, then it pushes [him] to do something,” added “big brother” James. “We’re able to just really push ourselves to the next level by bumping off each other.”

James (27-1) and Morrell (5-0) won their respective championships nearly at the same time. The 6’-2” James turned pro in 2010 and last August won the vacant WBA interim welterweight title in Los Angeles. The 33-year-old is ranked 10th in his weight class.

Morrell left Cuba in 2019 after an impressive amateur career, a 130-2 record and three gold medals (2016, 2017, 2018), but his country wouldn’t allow him to turn pro. He defected instead and eventually wound up in Minnesota, making his pro debut in downtown Minneapolis.

The 23-year-old later won the vacant WBA interim super middleweight title on the same fight card as James in his adopted hometown. He barely went a round before knocking out his opponent at the Armory on June 27, with James proudly watching in the audience.

When a reporter asked about his relationship with James, speaking through his girlfriend, who doubled as interpreter, Morrell responded, “[I’m] very thankful for all that he’s done and all the support that Jamal does provide. When we are training, it’s him, me; him, me; and it feels great.”

Photo by Charles Hallman Tony Oliva, left, and Jamal James

Asked why Minnesota became his post-defection home, he said, “I did have other choices coming from Cuba. However, learning the [English] language was easier here. I was able to adapt very quickly from the trainings, from amateur to pro. I’m thankful for all the support that I have received since I come here to Minnesota.”

Said James, “I’ve had a little bit longer [pro] career, but he’s just had an extremely long amateur career. I’m grateful and glad that we’re both champions at the same time coming out of the same gym. I mean, nobody’s really doing it like that, especially in Minnesota.”

The Circle of Discipline, located just off Lake Street in South Minneapolis, “has an old-school vibe,” noted James. “At the Circle, we have a more community-based focus. Amateur boxing is just one of the sport programs that we use to work with these young men and women. We’re all about mentoring and building confidence, installing discipline and leadership qualities.  It’s more than a boxing gym.”

Both James and Morrell are expected to be at the Armory this Saturday, August 7 to watch two unbeaten welterweights, Gabriel Maestre (3-0) vs. Cody Crowley (15-0), both vying to someday fight James for the title. Maestre has been saying as much on social media, calling the champ out.

“I think he’s goofy,” said James. I think he should focus on the [Saturday]fight. This is my home. I got the belt.”