When Starrett City Boxing Club in East New York opened in 1978, it was surrounded by dirt roads and blight. And in the marshes just out back, “people would dump things,” says longtime trainer Ewart Chance. “This place used to be a dump.”
These days, the smooth, slate-colored, asphalt streets bear a fresh coat of paint, and a new bus line brings residents to the high-rise apartments next door overlooking Jamaica Bay. There’s a mall with an Applebee’s a few blocks away.
In the time between, many of New York’s champion fighters sparred and sweated inside that gym. Jimmy O’Pharrow, the gym’s founder, became a legend in the boxing world. A hardline disciplinarian who left his gym door open to all, O’Pharrow sometimes seemed to have an endless supply of fresh talent.
He died two years ago. But his gym still produces champions. Last Saturday, Frank Galarza beat Rich Neves in a fourth-round TKO to win the New York State light middleweight title, bringing another yet belt to Starrett City.
It was Galarza’s first title. He’d come to Starrett City because he’d heard about the names that had pass through there: champions like Shannon Briggs, Curtis Stevens, and Luis Callazo; contenders like Dmitriy Salita and Sadam Ali.
Faces of famous alumni stare back the the current crop from a mural on the gym’s wall. But outside of that and a few new workout machines in the corner, the gym looks just as it did decades earlier.
The building sits underneath the ramp of a multilevel parking garage. The ceiling, high overhead when you walk in, slants down to arm’s reach by the time you’re in front of the wall-length mirror in the back. Heavy bags hang from chains bolted to that cement ceiling. And, of course, two rings sit side by side near the front door.
“There is so much heart and soul in here” says Kisha Snow-Daud, a former champion fighter who now works at a trainer here. “This is hardcore. Tough fighters here.”
There’s no air conditioner and no water fountain, she points out. No windows, too. They keep a bunch of water bottles in a mini-fridge, which is a more efficient hydration strategy than in years past.
Back when Snow-Daud trained here, there was no fridge, so they’d steal a grocery cart from a nearby store and fill it with a couple dozen empty milk jugs. They’d push the cart from the gym to a public bathroom down the street to fill the jugs.
The amenities weren’t important. Kids kept coming for the boxing.
Next Page: Galarza’s road from the streets to the gym:
Galarza came as a late bloomer. He was in his 20s by the time he stepped foot inside Starrett City. He hadn’t even strapped on boxing gloves until he was 17. He’d heard stories about how talented a fighter his father was. And so he felt pulled to the ring.
But like his father, he also felt pulled to the streets. Galarza was too young to remember when his dad was fatally shot. He was too old to forget when his mother died from drugs.
A year or two after starting to box, he left the sport, left his aunt’s and uncle’s house, left New York City.
“I fell off,” he says. “I felt like my future wasn’t in boxing. I was a already old at 18,19. Most of these guys started when they’re young, and I didn’t have that opportunity.”
He went to Pennsylvania and Florida to hustle. A Red Hook native, he returned to Brooklyn to hustle. At that point, he was all about money–“being successful by any means,” he recalls. He also got locked up a couple of times for robbery, though he was never convicted.
“Out there, that’s when I was real lost,” he says. “I didn’t care whether I lived or died.”
Then one night, when he was on the corner slangin’, a guy ran up on him and stuck a gun in his face. Jacked him for his money and drugs.
All those years hustling, he’d never been robbed before. Galarza realized then that he did care whether he lived or died.
“I was like, ‘there’s got to be something more to this.’ To life,” he says. “Is this really what my life is gonna turn out to be?”
He returned to the gym. Took his anger out on the heavy bags. It turned out he was a natural. A few months later, he entered his first tournament, the Golden Gloves at Madison Square Garden. He won the 165-pound novice division.
“Right there, I knew this is where I belong,” he says.
In 2010, when Galarza was 25, he turned pro. Made $400 his first fight.
“I knew there wasn’t gonna be any money, but I didn’t care,” he says. “I don’t even ask how much I get paid.”
He chuckles when he says this, recognizing the 180 he’d made from those successful-by-any-means days.
A year into his career, he joined Starrett City. This summer, Luke Dowdney, who founded the international boxing nonprofit Fight for Peace, selected the East New York gym as one of the bases for his organization’s “Life Changing Project”–half of all proceeds from Dowdney’s athletic clothing brand Luta will go toward Starrett City and three other gyms. Dowdney chose Galarza as one of the program’s ambassadors–Galarza is tasked with helping pull kids off the streets and into the gym.
Galarza sparred in the ring on a recent evening, showcasing his sharp jabs and slugging hooks.
He was here late because he works a day job as a fitness instructor in Manhattan to pay the bills. He’s not quite at the level where he can live comfortably off boxing. So he grinds away, inching closer with each fight. He lives in East New York now, a short drive from Starrett City, which has witnessed the change all around it.