By Thomas Gerbasi
2013 was a great year for boxing, one with memorable fights, stirring performances, and efforts that could have earned any of a number of boxers a Fighter of the Year nod. But this isn’t about Floyd Mayweather, Timothy Bradley, Danny Garcia, Gennady Golovkin, Adonis Stevenson, or Sergey Kovalev.
No, my Fighter of the Year didn’t even step through the ropes once in 2013. Yet last year, Gary Stark Jr. did the toughest thing a boxer can do. He didn’t go 12 hard rounds with an opponent intent on separating his head from his shoulders; he didn’t rise from the canvas to win a championship fight in the final round or move up in weight to take on the sport’s latest hot prospect.
Instead, he walked away. At 33, about to start a comeback, he decided that his time in the sport as an active fighter was done.
Now that’s courage. You may wonder why I write that, but after seeing the death of Frankie Leal last October and the tragic situation of Magomed Abdusalamov less than a month later, maybe you won’t. Boxing is no game. As great as this sport is, it’s one where you can leave a different person than the one you went in as. And all it takes is one punch or one fight.
Before his October 19 fight with Raul Hirales, Leal may not have had championship aspirations anymore, but he did expect to see his family and friends again. He wouldn’t, dying three days after the bout due to injuries he sustained in his knockout loss. He was 26 years old.
Abdusalamov’s situation is just as dire. An unbeaten heavyweight on the rise, his brutal 10 round bout with Mike Perez on November 2 didn’t just leave him with a loss on his record, but with a blood clot on his brain. The 32-year-old Abdusalamov is out of the coma he was in and has been moved to a rehabilitation hospital in West Haverstraw, New York, but he will never be the same again.
Two weeks after Abdusalamov’s bout with Perez, I received a text from Stark. I had covered much of his pro boxing career, from when he was the hot New York City prospect to his attempt to rebound from his first loss to his 2013 comeback after a three year layoff. The fact that we both hailed from the forgotten borough of Staten Island only added to our rapport. Simply put, he has always been a regular Joe, something that made him popular with everyone in the area, whether it was his peers, the media, or the fans.
And boxing was his life for much of his time on this planet. The son of Gary Stark Sr., one of the most respected trainers in the NYC, Stark had gloves on practically forever, and after a solid amateur career, he continued that run in the pros, drawing positive notices until a high-profile 2007 loss to Mike Oliver and a shocking upset defeat to Andres Ledesma three months later put a hit in his title plans. Stark would avenge the loss to Ledesma while running off four straight wins, but after getting knocked out by Antonio Escalante in three rounds in April of 2009, most believed his career was done.
Stark would return for a win over Leopoldo Arrocha in August of 2010, but shoulder issues kept him from moving forward, or moving at all for that matter. He would eventually get surgery for the tear in his shoulder, and in 2013, he plotted a comeback to the ring, eager to give it one more shot with two good arms.
Camp went well, he was healthy, getting sharp, and he had a fight scheduled for September 22nd in Queens, NY. Yet the Monday before the bout, Stark sent out a text that the fight against Jonathan Alcantara was scrapped, with two subsequent opponents not getting a green light from the New York State Athletic Commission. He was crushed, but vowed to remain in the gym and stay in shape until a new opportunity presented itself.
But between that text and the one that came in late November, Stark and his wife Kristie welcomed their daughter Toni into the world. Three days later, the former junior featherweight contender had decided that his fighting days were over.
In a sport with no cowards and so many courageous performances, this text was one of the most humbling to get. There was no fanfare, no press release, no stories on boxing websites around the internet. Just a text. And that was enough.
Would Stark have made a miraculous comeback, won a world title, become a regular on premium cable, and put a few million dollars in the bank for his young family? Probably not. And that’s not an indictment of Stark, but a reality of a business in which five percent of the boxers make 95 percent of the money, and where connections often pay off more than talent. And at 33, even if he was able to recapture his youthful promise, he just wouldn’t have the time to do what he would want to do.
Boxers don’t often deal in such realities though. Most believe that they’re one big break or one punch away from turning things around, despite the odds against them. It’s what makes them fighters, but it’s also what leads to so many tragedies in this sport. Whether it’s financial or physical, or both, there are few happy endings, and a lot of that has to do with boxers being unable to walk away from something that has often been a daily part of their lives for decades. When boxing is all you know, what else is there but the hope that one big win can give you the security you need to live the rest of your life comfortably?
For Stark, who has a steady gig as a personal trainer at NYC’s Chelsea Piers and also trains aspiring boxers in Staten Island, his comeback was about proving that we had never really seen his best in the ring during his pro career. But his reason for abandoning that comeback and retiring with a 23-3 record was about something more. It was about being a good husband and father, about seeing his daughter grow up and being present for every second of it. That’s worth more than any payday, any time in the spotlight, and any world championship belt.
So while we continue to celebrate Mayweather, Bradley, Garcia, Golovkin, Kovalev, and their peers – and rightfully so – for today, it’s important to recognize that sometimes it takes more guts to walk away than stick around.
For that, Gary Stark Jr. is my Fighter of the Year for 2013.