Jamal James is motivated by what those around him think. Not of him, but of themselves.
James mentors at Circle of Discipline, a nonprofit organization that offers life lessons and activities to keep inner-city youth off the streets. It was at this facility where he learned to box and still trains. As a visible model of success, he doesn’t take his role lightly.
“When you grow up in a tough neighborhood, you encounter all kinds of crazy situations,” he said. “You need that extra strength to work through that. When I’m in the ring, I want these kids to see that I put it all on the line so that they’re willing to find that extra strength in life.”
Many of those kids will be ringside to watch James take on Mahonry Montes this Friday in a 10-round welterweight bout at the Minneapolis Armory. The fight headlines a Premier Boxing Champions on FS1 and Fox Deportes card (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT) from Minneapolis, Minnesota. A special 90-minute prelims telecast kicks off the show at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT.
Homegrown James, (23-1,10 KOs), is part of a boxing resurgence in Minnesota. Last April, nearly 4,000 residents braved blizzard-like conditions to watch him against Abel Ramos at the Armory. James outboxed Ramos using his height and length, withstanding a late rally to eke out a majority decision.
“I learned a lot from the Ramos fight,” he said. “I may have peaked too early training. Not to take anything away from Abel because he came to fight. But it’s a good lesson for me and the kids about being properly prepared.”
James, 30, coaches them the same way his stepfather and trainer, Sankara Frazier, taught him. Frazier is a mainstay in the amateur boxing program. The two met when James joined Circle at age five.
“Even though my biological father was still around, my mom brought me to Circle because she wanted to make sure that I was surrounded by positive male role models,” James said. “When l got there and saw the speed bags, music playing and the energy in the gym, I just fell in love.”
Circle isn’t all fun and games, though.
“We teach stuff that kids aren’t really taught in school,” James said. “Unfortunately, a lot them come from low-income communities and single-parent homes so they don’t get that talk at home either. They don’t get much attention, period. We teach them how to deal with certain situations as a young man or woman, how to be a leader and pick the right friends.”
Frazier reinforces those teachings, in and out of the ring. Little James grew into a gangly, 6’2” nightmare in the ring. He had over 150 amateur bouts, becoming the nation’s top boxer at 141lbs and winning multiple state and regional championships.
“The plan was to go to the Olympics before turning pro,” James said. “Unfortunately, there were some real weird calls on close fights I thought I won.
So, I told myself, ‘Forget it. Let’s just do this pro thing.’ My stepfather always told me that I’d be a better pro than amateur, because I’m more of a chess player.”
Upon turning pro in 2010, he won his first 20 bouts with relative ease.
“ Nothing is going to stop me from my goal of coming home with a world title around my waist. That will validate everything I tell these kids. It’ll show them that with the right foundation, they can make it too. ”
Welterweight contender Jamal James
Then in April 2016, he lost a unanimous decision to Yordenis Ugas. James took the fight on three days’ notice after Bryant Perella, Ugas’ original opponent, pulled out with a thumb injury.
“I was a little too confident in myself, taking it on such short notice,” said James. “Mentally, I was in it, but my timing and everything was off. I was trying to hit him with heavy shots instead of just boxing him. It was a hard lesson but a good one.”
James has since won three straight, including an impressive third-round KO of Diego Chavez last December. He’s just as active in the community. Along with volunteering at Circle, James is a registered amateur boxing judge in the active Minnesota circuit.
“Boxing and life are relatable. In life, you got the people who will help you and motivate you. But it’s your life. When something goes wrong, you assess the choices you made. In boxing, you have trainers and stuff, but what happens in the ring depends on the choices you made in and out of it.”
James is cognizant of this now, more than ever. A win on Friday night moves him one step closer to a world title shot. The 28-year-old Montes, 35-7-1 (24 KOs), has had his share of solid wins and tough losses. No matter the opponent, he always comes to fight.
“I feel like I have the better skills but you can never count a guy like that out,” James admits. “I’m high in the rankings now so people who have a chance to take my spot are going to jump at that opportunity.”
“But that’s not going to happen,” he continued. “Nothing is going to stop me from my goal of coming home with a world title around my waist. That will validate everything I tell these kids. It’ll show them that with the right foundation, they can make it too.”