This could be a sad story about an aging boxer who lost his last fight, had his return to the ring delayed by COVID, and is in danger of being chewed up and spit out by a brutal sport that does not offer attractive retirement plans.
Because this is about Jamal James, this is a story about an optimist who transitions as easily between the dark arts of pugilism and the brightness of the life he’s built as he does between left jabs and right hooks.
James helped resurrect boxing in Minneapolis, turning the Armory into a site for national fights and broadcasts. He is tentatively scheduled for his first fight in more than a year in February at the Armory, and he hopes to use that fight to reinvigorate his career at the age of 34.
On a recent afternoon at his gym, the Circle of Discipline on the Eastern side of Minneapolis, he smiled frequently when asked about the difficulties of his chosen profession.
In the last year, he’s gotten married, became a father and bought a house. He met his wife, Marlee James, years ago when he was working as a barista to support his nascent boxing career. Now she’s a licensed professional clinical counselor and the founder of Reviving Roots Therapy & Wellness in a posh location in Minneapolis.
James has continued his work with his father figure and mentor, Sankara Frazier, at Circle of Discipline, a large, pristine gym that doubles as a center for troubled youths. The COD, as it’s known locally, also conducts winter wear drives and other charitable events for people in need.
James said he has trusted people around him, including Frazier, who have helped him manage his money and save for his future. His life is in good order. Now he wants to resurrect his career.
He was the WBA welterweight champion when he went into his last fight, a title unification bout against Radzhab Butaev on Oct. 31, 2021 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
James dominated the fight early, but Butaev wore him down with a bruising array and won on a ninth-round technical knockout. James was trailing on two of the three judges’ scorecards at the time.
James was scheduled to fight at the Armory recently before he contracted COVID.
“I can’t wait for February,” he said. “I’m itching to get back in the ring.”
The question is, why? Why box, and why risk injury? “I do love it,” James said. “Boxing is the great truth-teller. You can’t cheat. You can’t cheat yourself, and you can’t cheat the game. It’s a great sport, and it’s great to be able to go out and put on a show.
“It’s also a great way to set an example for the kids we work with at COD. Boxing really is a discipline. It’s nice to have the acclaim and say I’m the champ, and go places and get recognized, but the real reason I do this is for the kids down here. This is what I believe in. This is my passion — working for this organization and in this community. Boxing gives me the platform and the resources we need to do things at a much higher level.”
His son’s name is Selim. Among the name’s meanings are “peaceful,” “safe” or “undamaged.”
James puts himself at risk for Selim. He’s 27-2 as a pro, with his other loss coming in 2016. Details of his next fight have yet to be announced. He’s hoping an impressive victory will give him a chance at another title shot.
“I always fought for COD, and my family, and myself,” he said. “Now I’m fighting for my son, too. My own baby boy. That lit another fire for me. I want to squeeze everything I can out of this game, so I can make sure that he’s good, my family is good and my organization is good.”
James had been talking at a table in the café area overlooking the gym at COD. He headed downstairs. “I’m here,” he said. “Might as well get in a little upper-body work.”
Jim Souhan is a sports columnist for the Star Tribune. He has worked at the paper since 1990, previously covering the Twins and Vikings.
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