The first thing you need to know about Javontae Starks is that has been widely acknowledged as the premier amateur boxer in Minnesota for the last couple of years. Barring any last-minute surprises his final amateur record will remain 98-16, the number of losses having been inflated somewhat by the caliber of competition he has faced.
The 2007 Roosevelt High School grad was raised in south Minneapolis by his mother, who was only 16 years old when he was born. Of his family Starks says, “I have a little sister and three little brothers, and a father I didn’t see much. My uncle, who had been in jail, was one of the people who wanted something better for my life. So he heard about the gym [Circle of Discipline, on Lake Street in south Minneapolis] and he got me signed up there”
Young Starks had his first competitive match in 2001, only seven months after first setting foot in the gym, and showed some aptitude early on. By 2002 he had won the Ohio State Fair championship and in 2003 he was the Minnesota Silver Gloves titlist and then the Ringside World champ. “My brothers are much younger than me, and money was always short, but the little bit of money we had my mother would scrape together for me to participate in tournaments and travel and stuff.” To date Starks has also won the UMGG title at 152# twice, the USA Boxing Minnesota state championship at the same weight twice, the national U19 title once, and in the last year he has been runner up at the P.A.L. National Championships and the National Golden Gloves. Starks has been an understudy to former Olympian and current professional prizefighter Demetrius Andrade, and has fought with the US National Team in international competitions.
Despite all his accomplishments, Starks is best known for being the boxer who returned to competition after nearly dying from a gunshot wound. No more on that here; you can Google “Javontae Starks bullet” if you haven’t heard that story yet. Suffice it to say that he feels he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. “It wasn’t a personal vendetta against me or anything.” What was it then? “I wasn’t even involved. I was there, but I wasn’t involved in a dispute and I didn’t do anything to provoke [the shooting].” Reflecting on his survival and recovery, Starks has this to say: “I’m very fortunate to have survived and to be here today.”
As his amateur career draws to a close, Starks has been contemplating the benefits of the experience. “It showed me that the world is a bigger place than just Minneapolis, Minnesota. It motivated me to work hard and practice more…It introduced me to good friends like Sadam Ali and Gary Russel Jr. And it allowed me to have vacations. To go places like California, Mexico, Philadelphia, Ireland…It really did change me. It changed my outlook.”
It’s a fact that the nineteen year old Starks is opinionated and outspoken on internet forums as well as on Facebook and Myspace, expressing opinions about people, places, and events in a way that projects him as brash and arrogant. Yet he doesn’t feel that he is either. “I don’t hide my feelings. I speak my mind, but I’m thoughtful. I know that I’m blessed to have what I’ve got.”
What Starks has got right now is a promising future as a prizefighter. “I’m going to have a little bit of money. I’m going to have some obligations now. I’m having a daughter in October. The expectations for me are high.” The expectations that Starks has for himself are in line with those of others. “At home I have an unsigned five-year contract from Cameron Dunkin of TKO Boxing Promotions. I’m probably going to sign it. I originally planned to sign with Top Rank, but Dunkin’s proposal looks better because of the term and the number of fights. That doesn’t mean that I won’t take one last look at Top Rank, though.” Dunkin’s organization is based in Las Vegas. I asked Starks whether he planned to relocate or stay at home in Minnesota. “I’ll live in Minneapolis, and I’ll keep working out at COD, at least until I get to the upper level, the world-class level. Then I’ll probably have to have my camps in Las Vegas. But I’m still a Minneapolis fighter.” Being the provincial Minnesota boxing fan that I am, I wondered whether he had designs on any local opponents, and without hesitation he named two: Cory Rodriguez and Jon Laboda. Smiling broadly, Starks explained: “If we can do any shows in Minnesota, the mandatory is Cory Rodriguez. Cory is a very nice guy. The only reason I want to fight him is because he beat me twice in amateurs – although I thought I had beat him the last time. But it’s the judges who decide, and what it is, it is.” Laboda? “Johnny Johnson’s son! Do I think that Johnny believes in his heart that his boy can beat me? No, I do not!” (More about Johnny Johnson, proprietor of St Paul’s Rice Street Gym, in a minute.)
It’s become a tradition for interview subjects to tell me that their style is more suited to the pro game than to the amateurs, so I beat Starks to the punch, asking whether the same was true of him. “Yeah, I believe that I’ll be a way better pro than amateur because of my speed and my accuracy.” Asked to describe his boxing style, the lanky youngster turned the usual designation around: “I’m a puncher-boxer. I would compare myself to Gerald McLellan or Tommy Hearns.”
As usual when interviewing young fighters from the area, I asked Starks for his take on the local scene. I led off by asking Starks to name some local amateur fighters who we should keep an eye on, and he named a bunch.
“You definitely have to look out for Robert Brant, obviously. He’s definitely a natural. He’s only been doing it two or three years, and he won a national title [the USA Boxing Nationals] this year!”
“Jamal James. Very nice movement and hand speed, a sort of a Mohammed Ali –style fighter. Watch out for Jamal to start sitting on his punches a little more now, to crack more than he been doing.”
COD teammate Delorean Carriway “probably won’t win right off the bat, and he’s only had about fifteen matches so far, but he has a lot of potential.”
“Jonathan Perez. Our little guy, he went to Nationals this year. He only lost because he got two points taken away. We checked the scores. If it wasn’t for that he would have advanced.”
“Delano Henton is a very good super heavyweight.”
“Oscar Soto might turn out to be very good.”
Noticing that his list was heavy with fighters from his own gym, I asked Starks to name the best gym in Minnesota – other than COD. After pondering my question, Starks spoke slowly and deliberately. “Rice Street Gym in Saint Paul. They’re the only other gym that attends national tournaments on a regular basis. We don’t see Uppercut or Rochester or Wadena there. From White Bear Lake we only see Robert Brant. I think Lisa [Bauch, from Uppercut Gym] went to Golden Gloves nationals for the first time this year.” Taking the discussion a step further I asked what sets Rice Street and Circle of Discipline apart from the many other gyms in the state. “I think it’s the coaching. It’s Johnny Johnson. And the other thing is that most of the other gyms are run like businesses, but our organization is a non-profit.”
Having taken away a good part of Starks’ morning, and knowing that he was committed to helping with a cleaning project at the gym, I thanked him for sharing his time with me. Before I turned to go, I asked whether there was anything else that he wanted people to know. His Minnesota roots were evident when he answered: “Tell them that I wouldn’t mind fighting Cory or Jonny. I wouldn’t mind it at all.”