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."

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

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.

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."

Terry Marsh, the coach of the fighters opposing Sankara's that night, says he didn't see any skinheads either. But, he says, some bar patrons did provoke the Minneapolis visitors. "Some of the people who got hit deserved it," Marsh says. "There were some guys I would have hit myself." Still, after police were summoned to the scene, only one person--a fighter from the Circle--was arrested. Charges against him were later dismissed, though another Circle fighter, Calvin "Hood" Larkins, was later ticketed for coldcocking a fellow boxer during the fracas.

Disagreements about the melee itself, however, pale in comparison to the divergent views of USA Boxing's subsequent handling of the case. As the highest-ranking official on hand, Duane Byrnes--now president of the organization's Minnesota chapter--convened an emergency meeting in the wake of the disturbance, suspending the Circle from participating in the next round of the tournament. A second, more formal hearing held at the Kelly Inn in St. Paul the next month resulted in the most severe penalties ever handed down against a Minnesota boxing club. All told, three people affiliated with the Circle--Sankara Frazier, Larkins (a former Upper Midwest champ), and novice boxer Phillip McAfee--received lifetime suspensions from USA Boxing for their roles in the incident. Three other Circle fighters, including Adonis and Tremain Frazier, received suspensions and probation running from six months to a year.

Charging that the decision was procedurally flawed, the Circle has filed various appeals. Attorney Jerry Blackwell, who attended the hearings on the Circle's behalf, says the proceedings lacked "basic elements of fairness," including any testimony from people associated with the Circle. "I've never seen a proceeding like that one," Blackwell says. "It was just a farce."

But all the appeals so far have been denied by USA Boxing's national board in Colorado Springs. The board's attorney Brian Renfro says it was the Circle side that failed to present its argument: "Coach Frazier has been given proper notice of where to appear and testify, but he has never tried to make his case," Renfro says. The attorney dismisses suggestions that race played into the affair, noting that the organization "is made up largely of minorities. The idea that USA Boxing is against this guy because of his race is ridiculous. It's just wrong."

The Circle's latest motion--an appeal of a mediator's rejection of its request for arbitration last November--is now in court in Denver. Attorneys on both sides are uncertain about the exact timeline for a ruling. Meanwhile, Frazier says, he'll continue as he has for the past two years--working with the professional fighters in the Circle stable and letting his sons handle the amateurs.

In the time since the Coon Rapids incident, no Circle fighter has participated in a Golden Gloves competition. A.D. and Tremain Frazier have both made the leap to the pro ranks, and Frazier predicts Calvin Larkins will do the same soon. "They don't want to box amateur in Minnesota anymore," says Frazier, adding that handling of the case--both by police and USA Boxing--left some of the Circle fighters sour. "The amateur program is too weak for them anyway. They want to be champions."

The absence of Frazier's disciples has not gone unnoticed among boxing insiders. "It's been a big blow" to the local scene, says Marsh, the rival coach from the Coon Rapids fracas. In last year's Upper Midwest tournament, notes Marsh, the Minneapolis region had its worst showing ever, finishing in third place. "The other clubs haven't picked up where [Circle of Discipline] left off," he concludes.

His opinion on the expulsion of Sankara Frazier from the coaching ranks? "I think it's a bunch of crap--way too harsh," Marsh says. "These guys from USA Boxing, I don't know what their problem is. Frazier does a lot of good with the kids in Minneapolis. It's hard to find guys like that."

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