By now, Jamal James is used to playing the tree to a bunch of would-be lumberjacks. Redwood-tall for the 147-pound division at 6-foot-2, James has grown accustomed to dudes coming at him like human hatchets in an attempt to chop him down to size.
Next up: Juan Carlos Abreu (18-1-1, 17 KOs), whose 85 percent knockout rate is indicative of a man with axe-handle-hard fists.
More of the same.
“I feel like he’s going to have to do what other guys have had to do: get inside or try to bang with me in order to have a chance,” James says. “I know he’s strong, he’s got the high knockout rate, but sometimes that’s a bad thing.
“If you’re always looking for the knockout and it’s not coming, it’s getting into those later rounds and all of a sudden you’re getting tired and outboxed; it starts to take away from a fighter’s confidence and his willpower to keep pushing hard. And that’s what we’re going to try to take advantage of.”
The boxer versus the brawler is a classic clash of styles as old as the sport itself.
The key for the former is to not be put to sleep by a come-forward power puncher, or in turn, fight in such a way that it has a similar sleep-inducing effect on the audience.
“I feel like I can make a fight exciting even though I’m not sitting in there slugging with [an opponent],” James says. “You can still make a fight exciting with excellent boxing, making nice moves, slipping off, letting flashy combinations go. You’re still very protective and aware of what’s going and you’re cautious, but not overly cautious.”
James, 27, will be making his debut as a headliner on a nationally televised card tonight. Introduced to the boxing gym when he was but 5 years old, he started fighting competitively three years after that, meaning that this moment has been two decades in the making.
“It’s my first big fight on the tube in front of a bigger audience on a bigger stage,” he says. “We’ve been working for years to take it to the next level, and this is part of that next level.”
For James, it all began like it does for plenty of fighters: As a young kid with a bit of a temper, his mother first took him to the Minneapolis gym where he still trains, Circle of Discipline, as a way to channel his aggression in a positive manner and keep him off the streets.
She introduced him to the head trainer there, Sankara Frazier, who would later become his stepdad and who remains in his corner to this day, along with his stepbrother and co-trainer Adonis Frazier.
They’re all heavily involved with Circle of Discipline, a community outreach center as much as a gym.
“I’ve watched my father deal with a lot of guys who were deep into gangs or guys who’ve come from real broken homes,” James says. “Their fathers may have been abusive or their mothers just really didn’t care about them. They were out acting wild in the streets, and they really just changed their lives around.
“A lot of times, you’ve got guys out there doing the wrong stuff for attention. They’ve got all that extra energy, and they don’t know what to do with it, but they still have a warrior-type heart. Boxing is one of those perfect things that draws them in, because it’s really going to test how strong you think you are, mentally and physically.”
Even when he’s not training, James maintains a steady presence at the gym.
“I love being down there on my off time,” he says, “just working with a lot of the kids and really giving back to the organization that laid the foundation for me to overcome adversity and be where I am right now.”
Where he is right now is on the cusp of the biggest fight of his career.
Is he feeling a little added pressure?
James is as quick with his response as he is with his jab.
“Pressure either busts pipes or makes diamonds,” he says. “And I feel like I’m a diamond in the rough.”
For complete coverage of James vs Abreu, visit our fight page.