By Thomas Gerbasi
Gary Stark Jr. remembers the old days in the gyms around Brooklyn and Staten Island. Back then, he was going to be the next champion to emerge from the city, a slick boxer with flash, heart, and charisma, one who was getting a lot of attention in a place where you have to be special to earn that right.
And the kids in the gym knew it. There was Danny Jacobs out of Brooklyn, Marcus Browne out of Staten Island, and of course Stark’s own peers, Curtis Stevens, Jaidon Codrington, Paulie Malignaggi, and Luis Collazo.
Just a few years into the new millennium, “Kid” Stark and his friends made up what many believe was the last Golden Age of New York boxing. There was a buzz in the air back then, an idea that multiple champions would emerge from the Big Apple.
“All these guys used to come up to me and say ‘hey Kid, how do I look?’” recalled Stark. “Danny Jacobs, and Curtis and Marcus. And now these guys are boxing. They were like my little brothers. And now when I’m looking bad in the gym, I’m like ‘hey Marcus, how do I look?’ (Laughs) I’m sparring the other day and Danny’s giving me advice. That’s what I used to do, and these guys are boxing right now.”
“That three year layoff is huge.”
Malignaggi and Collazo got their world titles. Codrington never did, and Stevens will be fighting Gennady Golovkin for the middleweight championship this November. Jacobs is on the doorstep of a shot after surviving a battle with cancer, and Browne made the 2012 US Olympic team before embarking on what is currently an unbeaten pro career.
As for Stark, he never got to the top of the mountain, plagued by a chronic shoulder problem that finally put him on the sidelines after a punishing 2010 win over Leopoldo Arrocha. That victory capped off a three year string in which he lost his unbeaten record to Mike Oliver in 2007, got upset by journeyman Andres Ledesma three months later, avenged that defeat in 2008, and then got stopped by Antonio Escalante in April of 2009.
By the time the Arrocha fight was over, he needed both a break, and a rebuilding.
“That last fight,” said Stark, “my shoulder felt like I left it in training camp. It was killing me. People don’t understand how bad my shoulder was hurting. And then I had a concussion. The referee was horrible, I got headbutted more than I got punched in the face. I took a layoff because my head was killing me. I felt like Rocky in the beginning of Rocky V.”
He laughs about it now, complete with a Sylvester Stallone impersonation, but at the time, it was no laughing matter when he was rushed to the hospital after the fight, diagnosed with a concussion, and forced to look at a career which didn’t exactly go as he planned it to go.
There was the opportunity to sign with uber-manager Al Haymon which didn’t happen, the upset losses at inopportune times (as if there’s ever a good time to lose), the difficulty of a 122-pounder finding quality sparring in New York, and of course, the shoulder.
“It always hurt,” he said. “So basically I didn’t know how it feels to have two good shoulders. After the Oliver fight I had a lot of limitations. I couldn’t do pushups, dips, pull-ups. Everything I tried to do to get stronger, I couldn’t do.”
But Stark, a fighter at heart, fought on. He just didn’t do it in the ring. A brief trip to Las Vegas to work with Roger Mayweather in 2009 saw him meet the young lady who would eventually become his wife in 2012 (the couple are expecting their first child in November), he got a steady gig as a personal trainer at Manhattan’s Chelsea Piers, and he moved on.
That’s not to mean that he forgot about fighting. But he couldn’t do it with one bad arm. So he got checked out by Dr. Osric King and was finally diagnosed with a tear in the shoulder. Stark’s insurance wasn’t up to par to take care of such a surgery, but between King and Dr. Victor Khabie, they made the surgery work, and in June 2012, the Staten Islander’s shoulder was repaired.
That was the easy part. Then came rehab, with Tim Stump providing his services to Stark free of charge, and personal trainer Luis Ruiz also coming in to get Stark, who had blown up to as high as 168 pounds during his layoff, back into fighting shape.
Of course in Hollywood, the next scene is the training montage, complete with a lot of back slapping and good words, with oohs and ahhs after every punch thrown during sparring sessions. In reality, there are smirks, whispered asides, and questions from every angle. And for a 33-year-old junior featherweight making a comeback, those doubts are even louder.
“It feels so weird when people start forgetting about you and start forgetting about the hard fights you had,” said Stark. “There’s a lot of doubting, and boxing’s all confidence. They say ‘You’re too old, why do you want to do this,’ and you start talking to yourself, like ‘damn, do I still have it?’ Of course I’m a little older. And I’m not gonna be so energetic like I was before, but my father told me ‘Kid, don’t worry, I’m gonna get you back.’”
Stark’s father, Gary Sr., has never left his son’s side. And as one of the straightest shooters in the sport, the elder Stark wouldn’t have signed off on this comeback if he didn’t think his son could do it.
Which brings us to this weekend…
Back in shape and ready to return at 126 pounds before going back to 122, Stark was scheduled to return to the ring this Saturday at Resorts World Casino in Queens. He wasn’t fighting any world beaters, just the usual opponent you would expect to get after a three year layoff in Jonathan Alcantara. But on Monday, Stark sent a text out that his fight was off. Alcantara was out, and two proposed opponents weren’t approved by the New York State Athletic Commission.
Needless to say, Stark was crushed by the news, but with his wife, father, and a good set of friends around him, he stayed positive.
“I’m getting a lot of great texts and I have a good support system,” he said. “My father told me that it wasn’t meant to be, so we just have to go back in the gym a little longer and get sharper. And I’ve got my wife who’s there for me.”
“Now I have to get back to where I was at. Every win I’m gonna get a little better and a little bit more confident. My main goal is to look good in my comeback fight, get a couple more wins and fight for that world title I’ve been craving and say that I did it again.”
I reminded him of a quote he used to recite from one of his favorite movies, A Bronx Tale: “The saddest thing in the world is wasted talent.”
He agreed, vowing not to waste his.
“I had so many injuries and I feel like I haven’t done what I wanted to do in boxing yet,” Said Stark. “I still have a good 23-3 record and just want to give it one more go round with two good arms.”
Yeah, this “Kid” is still a fighter.