Reusse: Boxers take their training to Minnesota back roads

·6 min read

BARNUM, MINN. – Jamal "Shango" James was on an early-morning training run on the back roads up here some time ago when he noticed the flash of a large animal on the edge of the woods.

"I saw this white front,'' James said. "I thought, 'That's a wolf. Maybe a pack of wolves.' I jumped. I was in a panic. And then I got the courage to look again and saw the tail of a deer bouncing over the brush, going back into the trees.''

The daily runs shortly after 5 a.m. demanded by old-school boxing trainer Sankara Frazier aren't bad right now. Dawn is breaking, there's a coolness to the air, and the deer flies — gram for gram the nastiest creature on Earth — have not yet gathered to chase a human for miles.

Come winter, it takes a bit more resolve to climb out of one of the 14 cot-sized beds at the Circle of Discipline training camp, considering it might be 15 below, the Lake Superior wind might have made the 25-mile journey inland, and it will be pitch dark when the running starts.

David Morrell Jr., born and raised in Santa Clara, Cuba, now based in Minneapolis, was asked how he has taken to winter training runs in northern Minnesota.

"Cubans can adapt to everything,'' he said. "They do what they have to do.''

The training camp is a prized tradition in pro boxing. The basics are that accommodations should be spartan and entertainment options minimal.

For roughly six weeks, a boxer facing a "big fight'' will be on the roads and in the gym, focused completely on what it will take to defeat the upcoming opponent.

The fewer distractions the better. Downtown Barnum qualifies in that area, although the Rustic Inn, a small cafe, does serve a tasty breakfast.

"That's our place,'' James said. "Todd's the owner. He takes good care of us.''

James, Minneapolis' own, carries the title of WBA interim world welterweight champion. He won that with a unanimous decision over Thomas Dulorme on Aug. 8 in a crowdless bout at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

He hasn't fought since. "I was hoping to be on this card, but it didn't work out,'' said James, who tested positive for COVID in April, after minor symptoms.

The card in question will take place on June 27, and it's the return of boxing and also live events to the Minneapolis Armory.

"The biggest event we've had since COVID shut us down in late February [2020] was a virtual meeting for the downtown council,'' Armory owner Ned Abdul said. "Everybody made their lunch and talked on screens.

"It's great to be back with nationally televised boxing this month, and our concert schedule is looking good for the fall.''

Morrell, already the WBA interim world super middleweight champion after four pro fights, will be the headliner on that Sunday card. His opponent will be Mario Abel Cazares (12-0).

Home away from homeThis stay at the training center has run well beyond the normal prefight time frame. The Circle of Discipline gym in Minneapolis sat on Lake Street, less than 2 miles from where George Floyd was killed.

The chaos and congestion in that area, along with COVID, have kept that gym closed. There will be a Circle of Discipline facility opened again in Minneapolis, although the precise location is not definite.

"My dad has had this organization going for almost 30 years,'' Adonis Frazier said. "The pro boxing gives us the bright lights, but we have the amateur program, and more than that, we have youth groups, underserved kids, that go through team-building programs.

"We also bring groups of kids up here in the summer. They go swimming, fishing, hiking, and they interact with the youth up here, which is great.''

Sankara has been involved in boxing since he took it up as a kid in south Minneapolis in the late 1960s. He came from the same area as the Rodriguez brothers — pros Rudy, Rafael, Kenny and Bobby, and amateur John, the greatest boxing family in Minneapolis history.

"Doug Demmings, too … what a fighter,'' Sankara said. "Too many great ones to name.''

Making Minneapolis proudIt would be hard to top the pair that Frazier has right now:

James, 32, and Morrell, only 23. Morrell was steered to Minneapolis by Luis de Cubas Jr. That came after de Cubas' Warriors boxing in Miami signed the Cuban defector in the summer of 2019.

"Jamal isn't close to a typical 32-year-old fighter,'' Sankara said. "He's only had 28 fights. Better yet, he doesn't get hit that often.

"The worst thing to me that you can say about a fighter is that he's tough. I want my fighters to be called fast, smooth, smart in the ring. To be called tough, you have to get hit a lot, and that's not the object of the game.

"So, I watched the tape of Jamal's last fight a couple of times. The guy was throwing what looked like decent shots, but Shango was just flicking them away.

"I found him after that, and said, 'I haven't said this to many fighters, but you're a master.' A master of not getting hit.''

James is 6-1 and fights at 147 pounds. "I first saw him as a skinny 5-year-old," Sankara said. "The other kid kind of hit him, and Jamal took off his headgear, jumped on the kid and started beating him up.''

Morrell has a powerful frame. He's had three knockouts and a unanimous decision. He's called "O'' — for Osvary, the first name used during 137 (135-2) amateur fights and then for the Cuban national team — by the crew attached to the Circle.

"He carries a punch,'' Sankara said with a big smile. "The opponent comes into the ring feeling good, bouncing around, and then the first time O hits him, the eyes go like this.''

Frazier gave his best impression of a boxer's wide-eyed surprise.

"Just like Jamal, David goes at it hard every day,'' Sankara said. "We train the old-school way in camp; up early, two workouts a day, the trainer calls the shots. Shango and O, all our fighters, they eat that up.''

One thing today's training camp does have that even famous ones, such as trainer Cus D'Amato's in the Catskills, did not:

Program-carrying apps on a smart TV.

"Do you have Hulu?'' James asked.

When I nodded, he said: "Have you watched 'Mr. In Between'? It's the greatest.''

Shango's not lying. He's a master of the ring and the flatscreen.

Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing sports@startribune.com and including his name in the subject line.

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