Lee Starks’ unlikely boxing journey, from teenage troubles to Saudi royal support
From a detention center for teenagers in New Jersey to the education of a girl boxer, to the opening of a boxing gym in Riyadh and the training of female Saudi boxers with the support of Princess Nouf, the Coach Lee Starks has come a long way over the past two decades.
Boxing, as a spectator sport and activity, in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council continues to grow at a healthy pace, as Rage on the Red Sea in Jeddah showed last month.
While such a high-profile event, which saw Oleksandr Usyk defeat Anthony Joshua in the main event, undoubtedly captured the world’s attention, perhaps less attention is given to the work being done at the grassroots level.
And few work as hard as Newark-born Starks behind the scenes.
He has been training for more than 20 years, first in his native United States, then in Dubai and now in Riyadh, where his new boxing gym, TKO Fighters, will open this month.
During this time, he won a number of titles and was honored by the city of Plainfield and the state for his accomplishments in amateur boxing, including developing 29 champions from his Plainfield Boxing Academy.
Although boxing came relatively late for Starks, it turned out to be his salvation. After getting into trouble as a teenager, he was in and out of detention centers until he was 19.
“Joining my local boxing gym changed the direction of my life,” Starks said. “It was hard to catch all the talent in the gym who started the sport later than most fighters.
“I progressed quickly, having quite a few fights before I had to quit boxing when my baby girl was born in 1998,” he said. “The time I had to devote to training was limited, so I started coaching instead, helping the next generation.”
Those who benefited from his expertise included his daughter, who in 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, 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 roots in his Riyadh home for good. In 2021, he founded TKO Fighters, the very first Saudi boxing team.
“COVID-19 has made things difficult for boxers, and I’ve seen my work in Dubai diminish as a result of the pandemic.”
As a champion of women’s interests, Starks’ wife encouraged him to hire a few female boxers in Riyadh, who were looking for a trainer.
One, Sara Al-Shahrani, is a 27-year-old Saudi boxer who now has five fights under Starks and has just returned from training camp in Ireland.
The other, Salma Fahad, 19, had four fights last year and was training in Texas this summer. She is the first Saudi boxer to win a gold medal abroad at a competition in Kuwait.
Although Starks did not initially set out to train amateurs in Saudi Arabia or help pave the way for female boxers, it is evident that based on the success of his daughter, his trailblazing wife and the full support of Princess Nouf bint Mohammed Al-Saud, he plays a vital role in promoting female athletes and women’s interests at all levels.
“I tried to keep my boxers active locally by putting on shows but also traveling for competitions in the GCC. It’s important to give fans a chance to put their skills to the test,” Starks said.
It’s no surprise that his good work caught the eye of Princess Nouf, a boxing enthusiast who fully sponsored Stark’s last exhibition event in July, which he admitted would have was impossible without his support and that of his team.
“Boxing is a sport that teaches self-discipline and psychology, all of which are important values for leading a healthy life,” Princess Nouf said. “I started boxing when I was young and what really attracted me was the science and art of boxing. Some people consider boxing to be a physically violent sport, but that’s not not the case. For me, it taught me to roll with the blows of life and 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 to grow from grassroots level to professional.”
Princess Nouf believes that every human being has the potential to be something special and she hopes to develop Saudi talent. She intends to create training camps, events and educational programs to nurture talent from an early age.
“Finally, my goal is to be the right source of advice to enable our female boxers in Saudi Arabia to compete in international tournaments and the Olympics soon, inshallah,” she added.
Starks is grateful for the royal support.
“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 him not only represent his country but also win for his country is entirely dependent on training programs. You have to invest in your product. A good fighter who wins is an investment, and it takes careful thought and it’s my job to prepare my fighters accordingly.
“It’s such a disservice to send boxers into the ring completely off guard,” Starks added. “Boxing is not a game. It’s our job as coaches to protect them, which I believe starts in the gym, right from training, fighting, and giving them access to highly competitive sparring partners.
TKO Fighters, Starks’ gym, opens this month in Riyadh to house his stable of amateur boxers.
“We all needed a home, and now we have one. I couldn’t be prouder,” he said.
“For now, I should probably spend less time in the gym. But it’s hard when you’re so close to building something big. I really can’t believe my gym will be opening this month. You never know where your path in life will take you and who will help you get there or who you will inspire along the way.