Will the Circle Be Broken?

A two-year-old brawl has south Minneapolis's most prominent gym on the ropes

When DeParis Frazier made his amateur-boxing debut at the Marsh Gym in Anoka last May, his father, Sankara, took in the three-rounder from the cheap seats. The elder Frazier made the trip to provide an experienced presence, to dole out any pugilistic or paternal advice the circumstances might warrant--and, of course, to soak up the peculiar exhilaration of watching his 15-year-old son in action.

But Frazier's vantage point from general admission was a poor substitute for the position he would have preferred to occupy--the corner, a post from which he had counseled countless amateur and professional fighters in his decadelong tenure as the founder and head trainer of the Circle of Discipline, a noted south Minneapolis boxing club. "I wanted to be there for him. I know how to develop him. I know how to bring him along," Frazier says in a subdued tone. "But DeParis understands the situation."

For more than two years, Frazier's situation has been a rough one, at least for a man who has spent most of his 43 years in and around the ring. He is fighting a lifetime suspension from membership in Colorado-based USA Boxing Inc., the national governing agency for amateur boxing, which administers Golden Gloves, Silver Gloves and Olympic fights. The sanction means that Frazier can't work with any registered amateur boxers--including his own son DeParis--and, as a practical matter, has resulted in the absence of Circle fighters from the city and regional tournaments.

Since his expulsion from amateur boxing, Sankara Frazier (right) has struggled to keep the Circle of Discipline going
Craig Lassig
Since his expulsion from amateur boxing, Sankara Frazier (right) has struggled to keep the Circle of Discipline going

Frazier's predicament is the legacy of a 1997 ringside melee that left deep divisions in the local boxing world. It was an episode that, in the words of former State Boxing Board commissioner Patrick Foslein, "set boxing back twenty years in the state of Minnesota"--and one that has recently found its way before a U.S. District Court judge in Colorado.

Before all the controversy, the Circle of Discipline was celebrated in the local press as the sort of place where troubled kids could both learn the fine points of the sweet science and avoid some of the pitfalls of inner-city life. A faded Star Tribune account of the Circle's work with former gang members still hangs on the walls of the brick-faced Lake Street garage that houses the gym. "We have a reason that we're down here," explains Frazier, a martial-arts instructor by trade, who volunteers his time for the Circle. "And it's not just about boxing. Most people are afraid of the guys we deal with, from the school system on down."

Frazier's vigorous convictions are reflected in both the name he adopted a few years back (Thomas Sankara was a popular, leftist army captain who served as president of what is now Burkina Faso before being assassinated in 1987) and the iconic triumvirate of neatly framed portraits--Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X--that adorn his office. Other than that, the Circle's ambiance is that of a typical boxing club, with the requisite dim lighting, photographs of fighters tacked to placards, and, stenciled on the walls, the usual fistic bromides: "Give Blood, Be A Boxer," "Welcome to the Battlefield of Honor," "Quitters Not Allowed," and so on.

Quitting was the last thing on the minds of the small crowd of Circle supporters who made the trip to the American Legion Hall in Coon Rapids the night of March 20, 1997. They were there to cheer on Circle fighters, including Sankara's eldest son Adonis "A.D." Frazier, in the Region 1 Golden Gloves tournament--an amateur contest that determines which boxers will represent Minneapolis and its suburbs in the Gloves' Upper Midwest tournament. It was, Frazier explains, a big deal: An Upper Midwest championship can mean a shot at the Olympic trials, the Holy Grail of amateur boxing.

But things didn't go well for the Minneapolis fighters. Both A.D. Frazier and Vincent Robinson--a onetime street kid who now goes by the name Tremain Frazier and considers himself Sankara's son--lost controversial decisions to less experienced fighters. After the second call was announced, tempers flared. "We'd been robbed a lot of times before," says Sankara Frazier. "So I said to the judges, 'Man, this is crap!'" During the ensuing discussion, an irate Adonis Frazier threw a stool that landed on the judges' table. (Adonis says now he didn't deliberately direct the stool at the judges, but merely "slammed it down" in frustration.)

Accounts of what happened next differ radically; the only thing they all seem to have in common is that the brawl was ugly and, as one veteran trainer puts it, quickly turned into "a black versus white thing." According to the Circle camp, a hostile and mostly white crowd that included some skinheads rushed the ring, and in short order, fists and racial invective were flying. "I was in the middle of the floor and trying to stop it, but I had to defend my own people," says Sankara Frazier, who remains harshly critical of the officials and judges at ringside. "I did what I had to do. They don't acknowledge that because they were too busy hiding under the table."

But Foslein, the chief judge that night, says the Circle fighters were clearly the instigators. "I've never seen anything like it," Foslein says, noting that several judges were injured in the commotion. "And I hold Coach Frazier 95 percent responsible for what happened. Part of your job as a coach is to teach your fighters respect." According to Foslein, the Circle's claims about skinheads are a canard: "They knew they did wrong and then they tried to cover their asses. They made it into a racial thing. To me, it had nothing to do with race."

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