RIYADH: Boxing in Saudi Arabia is on the rise.
For a new generation of aspiring boxers, however, a platform for development in “soft science” has not always been accessible. But thanks to a boxing veteran, that’s changing now.
“I started TKO Fighters because when I came to Riyadh, I found out they (the fighters) only had two shows a year, and so I was like, man, you know, they can’t not really getting a lot of experience that way? So I decided to build the team so they could travel outside of Saudi Arabia to get experience, different experiences,” said Lee Starks, American boxing trainer based in Saudi Arabia.
Starks has been a boxing coach for 21 years, having started coaching young fighters in his home state of New Jersey. During this period, he received numerous honors from the city of Plainfield and the state for his accomplishments in amateur boxing, including producing 29 champions from his Plainfield Boxing Academy.
In 2009 he was selected as one of the coaches of the US national boxing team.
Since then, he has worked with professional and amateur fighters – as well as training camps – in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and several other countries in Africa and the Middle East.
Starks founded TKO Fighters, the Kingdom’s first-ever women’s boxing team, in 2021. He started with four young, ambitious female boxers and led them to a historic first championship in Riyadh, one of the GCC’s premier women’s boxing tournaments. .
They did not disappoint, winning a gold medal and three silver medals between them.
“I’ve done boxing before in Vietnam,” said Christin Reuter, a pro-amateur boxer from Munich, who has 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’m straight from Vietnam actually, before Saudi Arabia I lived there.
“So I did Muay Thai and boxing, I had a boxing fight also in Vietnam, my first boxing fight. And when I came here, I was looking for any type of martial arts and then I found this women’s boxing group.
TKO Fighters has become a haven for local fighters looking for a home.
“We are a boxing group that travels and enters different competitions to compete,” said Salma Fahad, a young high school graduate. “Personally, like five to six months, I’ve just started.
“I used to go to boxing classes, but not technical classes, they were cardio-based classes.”
The members gained more than just boxing experience from Starks.
“It’s not just about boxing or sparring, it’s about him teaching us a lot about life and how it 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 in a bad way? We are so passionate and so disciplined. We always find a part of ourselves that we didn’t know before.
Another member, Atheer Abdulaziz, a nursing student at Princess Nourah Bint Abdul Rahman University, added: “I was judoka, I am still judoka, brown belt.
“I also competed in jiu-jitsu championships and finished second in my last one. Now I am a boxer.
For Kaysie Joy, a physiotherapist as well as a fitness and dance instructor from Lagos, Nigeria, joining TKO Fighters was a whole new experience.
“It’s been three months now, and before that I was teaching shadow boxing, more like Les Mills body fighting,” she said. “But it’s not the same. It was more cardio-based, but it wasn’t technique specific. It’s actually different.
The next step 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 face of competitive women’s boxing in the Kingdom. With each passing day, with each passing fight, the future looks brighter.