US coach Starks giving Saudi female boxers a platform to rise

eshrag News:

RIYADH: Boxing in Saudi Arabia is on the rise.

For a new generation of aspiring female boxers, however, a platform for development in the “sweet science” hasn’t always been accessible. But thanks to one boxing veteran, that is now changing.

“I created TKO Fighters because when I came to Riyadh, I found out that they (female fighters) had only two shows a year, and so I was like, man, you know, they can’t really get a lot of experience that way? So I decided to create the team so that they can travel outside of Saudi Arabia to get experience, different experiences,” said Saudi-based American boxing trainer Lee Starks.

Starks has been a boxing coach for the past 21 years, having started training young fighters in his home state of New Jersey. In that time, he has received numerous honors by the city of Plainfield and the state for his achievements in amateur boxing, which included producing 29 champions that came out of his Plainfield Boxing Academy.

In 2009, he was selected as one of the coaches for the US National Boxing Team.

Since then, he has been working with professional and amateur fighters — as well as hosting training camps — in the US, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and several other countries in Africa and the Middle East.

Starks founded TKO Fighters, the first ever women’s boxing team in the Kingdom, in 2021. He started with four ambitious young female boxers and led them to a historic debut championship in Riyadh, one of the first women’s boxing tournaments in the GCC.

They did not disappoint, winning one gold and three silver medals between them.

“I did boxing before in Vietnam,” said Christin Reuter, a pro-amateur boxer from Munich, who boasts a master’s degree in psychology and works as a business consultant. “My background is Muay Thai and kickboxing, taekwondo and kung fu, and I just came straight from Vietnam actually, before Saudi Arabia, I lived there. 

Christin Reuter, a pro-amateur boxer from Munich. (SUPPLIED)

“So I did Muay Thai and some boxing, I had a boxing fight also in Vietnam, my first boxing fight. And when I came here, I was looking for any kind of martial arts and then I found this female boxing group.”

TKO Fighters has become a haven for local fighters looking for a home.

“We’re a boxing group that travel around and go to different competitions to compete,” said Salma Fahad, a fresh high school graduate. “Personally, like five to six months, I’ve only just begun.

Salma Fahad, high school graduate. (SUPPLIED)

“I used to go to boxing classes, but not technical classes, they were cardio-based classes.”

The members have gained far more than just boxing experience from Starks.

Sara AlShahrani, MMA fighter, kickboxer, bodybuilder, and fitness instructor. (SUPPLIED)

“It’s not only about boxing or fighting, it’s about him teaching us a lot of things about life, and how this can affect our life,” said Sara AlShahrani, an experienced MMA fighter, kickboxer, bodybuilder and fitness instructor. “And we choose, is it going to affect our life in a good way or a bad way? We are so passionate about it and so disciplined. We always find a part in ourselves we didn’t know about before.”

Another member, Atheer Abdulaziz, a nursing student at Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University, added: “I was a judo fighter, I’m still a judo fighter, a brown belt.

Atheer Abdulaziz, a nursing student at PNU. (SUPPLIED)

“I’ve also competed in jiu-jitsu championships, and I finished second in my last one. Now, I’m a boxer.”

For Kaysie Joy, a physiotherapist as well as a fitness and dance instructor from Lagos, Nigeria, joining TKO Fighters has been a whole new experience.

Kaysie Joy, physiotherapist, fitness and dance instructor. (SUPPLIED)

“It’s been three months now, and prior to that I was teaching shadow boxing, more like Les Mills body combat,” she said. “But it is not the same. That was more of just cardio-based, but it wasn’t technique specific. This is actually different.”

Next up for Starks and his group is a trip to Europe.

In June and July, the coach will assemble a team to represent Saudi Arabia in Germany, Sweden and France.

In just one year, Starks has managed to change the complexion of competitive women’s boxing in the Kingdom. With each passing day, with each passing fight, the future looks brighter.

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