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Lee Starks’ unlikely boxing journey from teenage troubles to Saudi royal backing

From a New Jersey teenage detention center to raising a boxing daughter to opening a boxing gym in Riyadh and training Saudi female boxers with the support of Princess Nouf, coach Lee Starks has come a long way in the last two decades.

Boxing, as a spectator sport and activity, in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council continues to grow at pace, as shown by last month’s Rage on the Red Sea in Jeddah.

While such high a profile event, which saw Oleksandr Usyk beat Anthony Joshua in the headline bout, no doubt grabbed the world’s attention, perhaps less attention is given to the work being done at the grassroots level.

And few are working as hard as Newark-born Starks is behind the scenes.

He has been coaching for over 20 years, first in his native US, then in Dubai and now in Riyadh, where his new boxing gym, TKO Fighters, will open this month.

In that time, he has won a number of titles and been honored by the city of Plainfield and the state for his achievements in amateur boxing, which include developing 29 champions who came out of his Plainfield Boxing Academy.

Princess Nouf supporting coach Starks’ ‘Beast of the Middle East’ event in Riyadh last month. (Supplied)

Though boxing came relatively late for Starks, it proved to be his salvation. After getting into trouble as a teenager, he was in and out of detention centers until the age of 19.

“Joining my local boxing gym changed the direction of my life,” said Starks. “It was difficult to catch up with all the talent in the gym having started the sport later than most of the fighters.

“I progressed fast, having quite a few fights before I had to stop boxing when my little girl was born in 1998,” he said. “The amount of time I had to dedicate to training was limited, so I started coaching instead, helping the next generation.”

Those benefitting from his expertise included his daughter, who by 2009 was No. 1 on the East Coast in her age group, and after the Ringside tournament became No. 2 in her category globally.

In 2017, Starks met his current wife, the Saudi singer Dalia Mubarak, while training for his third 100-mile ultramarathon.

He had just moved to Dubai and was training professional boxers while traveling back and forth to Riyadh until 2020.

When the pandemic hit, he was forced to put down permanent roots in his Riyadh home. In 2021, he founded TKO Fighters, Saudi’s first-ever boxing team.

“COVID-19 made things challenging for boxers, and I found that my work in Dubai was dwindling in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

As a champion for women’s interests, Starks’ wife encouraged him to take on a couple of female boxers in Riyadh, who were looking for a coach.

One, Sara Al-Shahrani, is a 27-year-old Saudi boxer who now has five fights under Starks and has just returned from a training camp in Ireland.

The other, Salma Fahad, is 19 years old, has had four fights in the last year, and was training in Texas this summer. She is the first Saudi boxer to win a gold medal abroad while competing in Kuwait.

Although Starks did not initially set out to train amateurs in Saudi Arabia or help set a path for female boxers, it is obvious that based on his daughter’s success, his trail-blazing wife and the full support of Princess Nouf bint Mohammed Al-Saud, he is playing an integral part in the promotion of female athletes and women’s interests across the board.

“I have been trying to keep my boxers active locally by putting on shows but also by traveling to competitions in the GCC. It is important to give amateurs a chance to put their skills to the test,” Starks said.

It was not surprising that his good work caught the attention of Princess Nouf, an avid boxing fan who fully sponsored Stark’s last exhibition event in July, which he admitted would have been impossible without her and her team’s support.

“Boxing is a sport that teaches self-discipline and psychology, which are all important values for us to lead a healthy lifestyle,” Princess Nouf said. “I started boxing when I was young and what really attracted me was the science and art of it. Some people view boxing as just a physically violent sport but it’s not. For me, it taught me how to take the punches of life and how to [overcome] struggles.

“My vision for Saudi Arabia is to add value to the current boxing platform, creating new programs and opportunities for fighters to train in a competitive environment and grow from the grassroots to the professional level.”

‏Princess Nouf believes every human being has the potential to be something special and she hopes to build up Saudi talent. She has plans to create training camps, events and educational programs to nurture talent from a young age.

“Lastly, my goal is to be the right source of guidance to empower our Saudi women boxing athletes to compete in international tournaments and in the Olympics soon, inshallah,” she added.

Starks is grateful for the royal backing.

“Princess Nouf’s support has been invaluable not only to the boxers but to the boxing landscape here in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “To develop a boxer from the age of 10 and have them not only represent their country but also win for their country is all down to the training programs. You must invest in your product. A good fighter who wins is an investment, and it takes careful consideration. It is my job to prepare my fighters accordingly.

“It is such a disservice to send boxers out into the ring, completely unprepared,” added Starks. “Boxing is not a game. It is our job as coaches to protect them, which I believe starts in the gym, from the training, the sparring, and give them access to highly competitive training partners.”

TKO Fighters, Starks’ gym, opens this month in Riyadh to house his stable of amateur boxers.

“We all needed a place to call home, and now we have one. I couldn’t be prouder,” he said.

“For now, I probably should spend less time in the gym. But it is hard when you are so close to building something great. I really can’t believe my gym will open this month. You never know where your path in life will lead and who will help you get there or the people you will inspire along the way.”

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