By Jake Donovan
It’s the end of the eighth and final round of a vicious crossroads bout between Samuel Figueroa and Javontae Starks. The fight served the opening leg of a televised quadrupleheader in the Oct. 30 installement of Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) on Bounce TV, but was by far the fight of the night.
Prior to Figueroa claiming a unanimous decision, he turns to and embraces gym stablemate Dennis Galarza. Chances are that Starks – who stands a shade below 6’0” in enjoying a considerable height and reach advantage over the squat southpaw from Puerto Rico - didn’t think anything of the moment as he glanced across the ring while bracing for the inevitable first loss of his still promising career.
Little did he know, the string-bean featherweight celebrating with Figueroa was also his secret weapon in training camp.
“I got to give it up to this man right here,” Figueroa would say of the 6’0” Galarza, who was able to perfectly mimic Starks’ style during sparring sessions together. “This was the MVP of this past camp.”
For Figueroa, it was the biggest win of his career, one that came on the heels of his initially missing weight and struggling in spots in a six-round victory just six weeks prior in another part of the Orlando area. As for Galarza – it was just another day in the life as his team’s unsung hero, his days often spent sparring with fighters upwards of 30 lbs. heavier.
“Stuff like that – honestly it means the world to me,” Galarza (10-1, 7KOs) insists of the role he’s often asked to play during training sessions. “I don't do this for the fame or the glory. I do this to make a living for my family. Sammy is my teammate and a wonderful person. To be honest, so is Javontae. I got to fight on September 18 with Sammy, was hoping to fight on the October 30 show, but instead helped him get his 10th win. That meant just as much to me as if I fought that night.”
It’s likely not where he expected his boxing career to head when first taking up the sport at the age of eight. The Brooklyn-born, Orlando-raised Boricua was actually introduced to the sport by accident – a moment neither he nor his parents expected.
“It wasn’t no passion, no fight that said "Man I have to do this”. In fact, I was signed up to fight without knowing,” Galarza says of his first time stepping into the ring. “My uncle was watching me when my parents were away on an anniversary cruise. He signed me up to fight a 50-60 fight amateur in my first fight. I got my bell rung.
“Two weeks later, we sat down with my parents - they weren't happy about it when they found out. I was 8 years old at the time, but we decided to go about it the right way.”
It was at that moment when a special bond was formed between father and son, at least once getting past the initial shock.
“I definitely wasn’t happy with how it all began,” notes Jason Galarza, Dennis’ father, trainer and best friend. An intimidating presence at first glance, the 43-year old Brooklyn native is actually far more teddy bear than grizzly the moment you get to know him.
In the gym, however, there’s no mistaking who is the disciplinarian.
“Why didn’t you catch him with the check hook,” the elder Galarza yells at his son during a recent sparring session at Herman Caicedo’s gym in Miami. The boxer that Galarza – who bounces back and forth between 126 and 130 lbs. – was sparring with was closer to a middleweight, which is commonplace for the 23-year old prospect.
Together, Caicedo and Galarza train a slew of top talent – ranging from rising young prospects (Galarza and blue-chip talent Erickson Lubin among them) to established world champions (such as bantamweight champ Juan Carlos Payano). It’s a passion for both – Caicedo driving more than an hour each way every day, while Galarza and his son spending one week in Miami, followed by one week back home in Orlando, rinse and repeat.
Through boxing, Jason and Dennis have grown closer, though chances are their relationship would always be sound.
“Everyone always says, my pops is the man, he’s the coolest,” Galarza says of Jason, his father and trainer. “There’s no question I love my mom and my dad the same, but pop and I, we’re on the road together, training together, going from city to city. Boxing has become our bond.”
It was also Jason’s introduction to the sport – and an eye-opening experience of what his son is capable of accomplishing.
Galarza had an outstanding 133-22 amateur record, highlighted by five Ringside World Championship gold medal performances to go along with top honors at the Junior Golden Gloves and National PAL tournaments. He and his “brother” Erickson Lubin trained a few miles apart in Orlando when they first met, eventually coming up the ranks together before heading to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, with hopes from those that run the USA Boxing program that they were looking at future members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
It never happened, as both instead opted to turn pro in 2013. Galarza was two days shy of his 21st birthday, while Lubin celebrated his 18th birthday on October 1, the day both signed with manager Henry Rivalta and Iron Mike Productions, at the time a joint venture formed by Garry Jonas (who now co-manages Galarza, Lubin and several others along with Rivalta under the now formed ProBox Management label) and Mike Tyson.
“I met Mr. Rivalta at the Olympic Training Center, when Erickson and I were training out there.” Galarza recalls of his transition from amateur to pro. “He called my dad and asked if we could come to their training center once we got back to Florida.
“We got to the gym, trained with Amir Imam... the rest is history.”
Imam is just one of many championship-caliber boxers in Galarza’s presence every day, as he comes to the gym with his team that includes veteran trainer Stacy McKinley. At present moment, Imam is undefeated and regarded as a top super lightweight contender who is due a mandatory title shot versus recently crowned 140 lb. titlist Viktor Postol – a tall, lean and rangy boxer from Ukraine.
Guess who will get the call to help prepare the unbeaten boxer from Albany for his first title shot?
“When I saw Amir Imam - he was talking about his shot coming up against Postol, a tall, thin fighter,” Galarza recalled of a recent conversation. “We decided that who better than me to help get him ready. I can adapt to any style, I can mimic any style.”
Given his frame, one would think he could also mimic any weight he wants. Somehow, he manages to effortlessly clock in at featherweight and super featherweight, depending on the opportunity presented for any given fight.
“Honestly, this Florida heat helps keep the weight off – plus I’m always active. This interview is probably the longest you’ll see me sit down,” Galarza quips. “I don’t take too many days off from the gym. I live in the moment. Boxing can be here today, gone tomorrow.”
In those days in the gym – which for Galarza is every day – he doesn’t take off very many seconds. Those who get to spar with that learn the first time they step into the ring with him.
“First time we sparred, I went back to Coach Jason after the first round,” recalls Lubin, who spent the better part of the past five or six years in the everyday presence of the Galarza family. “I was like, ‘Man, this dude don’t even take a feeling out session or anything. He just jumps straight into it.”
In Galarza’s defense, attack mode and the element of surprise are key weapons when facing stablemates anywhere from 3-5 weight classes above the division in which you presently campaign. His physical dimensions help the bigger fighters prepare for their given challenges. What Galarza gets out of it is the confidence that there isn’t a fighter on the planet from 126 through 135 lbs. that could ever possibly hurt him.
“You name it, I spar with them. 126-130, the power is there. I take the best shots they give me and strive to be better. Every dog has their day in this gym. We train together, we eat together. We do it right back the next day.”
Yet it doesn’t explain the lone loss of his career, dropping a competitive six-round decision to then-unbeaten Vincent Jennings last August. Both were undefeated entering their sixth pro fight, but in the end it proved to be a teachable moment for Galarza.
“It was just a fight that came at the wrong time for me,” he recalls. “I just fought like four weeks prior and wanted to stay active at the time. I didn’t tell my team that I was sick. I fought through it; cost me an undefeated record and I credit Mr. Jennings for getting the best of me that night.”
Five straight wins have followed, all by knockout. He has the opportunity to add to that when he returns to the ring on November 25, fighting just north of Miami in Hialeah, Florida. He may or may not make it to the ESPN-televised portion of the evening, but couldn’t care less about that part. All that matters is getting the opportunity and that the trust he puts in his team continues to pay off.
“What told me the most about my team is how they stuck it out with me after my loss to Mr. Jennings,” Galarza notes. “They didn’t even cut off my handwraps yet, and Mr. Rivalta and Mr. Jonas both were in my dressing room, letting me know these things just happen sometimes and that better things will come.”
Along with the wins that have followed is another key element to his progression. Galarza and Lubin both signed with high-powered adviser Al Haymon earlier this year, with his fifth fight coming since adding the most powerful figure in the sport today to the fold.
“I'm in a great situation,” Galarza acknowledges, regardless of where his career is at or anyone thinks it should be. “I take the good with the bad. I don't need to count the chips, I know it's right. I am in this for the money, don't get me wrong... otherwise I'd still be doing amateur level. But it’s easy, knowing that I have a great team and the best adviser, the man with a plan Al Haymon in my corner.
“I don't care who I fight. The guys here in the gym... I'm surrounded by world champions. No sparring partners here. With the experience I gain every day against the caliber – and size – of the boxers I work with, there isn't an opponent that worries me.”
Nor is there a fighter in the gym who isn’t grateful for Galarza’s willingness to learn, trade and simulate styles as needed.
Jake Donovan is the managing editor of BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox