It’s all about keeping the hands busy, James Starkey said, ringside, in the small, squat cinder block building that serves as his second home.
Before a boxer training under him slips on a glove, he greets every adult in the room with a firm handshake. Everyone, from 8 to 18, knows this by rote. And then the real lessons begin.
“When a guy boxes, all that violence tapers off, because he knows what he’s capable of,” Starkey said during a recent Thursday night session at the Winners Reach and Teach boxing gym, deep in the heart of Chester.
“Guys, when they go out and pick fights, they are trying to establish themselves,” he added, throwing a thumb over his shoulder to the gym’s heavy metal door, beyond which lie the streets he’s been keeping the city’s youth away from for more than 40 years. “These guys, they don’t need that. They’re already established."
Starkey’s program has produced 20 professional boxers during its tenure, he estimates. His boys are a consistent presence at amateur Golden Gloves tournaments, clinching three state championship titles in 2017. They were preparing for this year’s slate, squeezing in some final sessions before the opening bell rings on Feb. 23.
As Starkey and his fellow trainers looked on, the kids ran through their workouts, shadowboxing, and hitting the speed and heavy bags, the thwack of leather-on-leather barely rising above the music pouring out of the dented stereo in the corner.
It was enough to make the 79-year-old beam with pride. But titles aren’t the sole purpose of the program. Starkey and his partners are training Chester’s young people for another type of victory.
“It’s not about excelling in this boxing thing, it’s about finding yourself,” Starkey said. “Being at ease with what you’re doing in your life.”
Nearly every student he takes on has been touched by gun violence. Some have been victims themselves. Others have lost loved ones. Most have lived with it as a regular occurrence in this tiny city.
But “that nonsense” stops at the door to his gym, housed in a once-underused community center near the corner of 11th and Upland Streets. Starkey’s current students brag about their report cards, looking up to alumni who have gone on to become ministers, master electricians, and expert mechanics.
Some of them have left Chester, and others have stayed to give back. Patrick Pernsley falls squarely in the second group.
Pernsley has stuck with Starkey since he was in high school, later launching a 14-year professional career that saw nine knockouts in 17 bouts.
“There were plenty of times where I would go to the gym, and I would leave to find out something had happened: Someone got locked up, someone got shot,” Pernsley said. “Those four hours in the gym kept me safe.”
Boxing helped calm him down and keep him humble, he added. It taught him to rise above the problems he saw around him. And later in life, it helped him overcome tragedy.
Pernsley’s son, Rahmir, was killed in 2015, shot in an apparent case of mistaken identity. Another son, Rasheed, was shot a year later.
Starkey said he wouldn’t have blamed Pernsley if he had walked away from the gym, if he had given up and retreated from the city that had both given to and taken from him. But Pernsley couldn’t do it.
“No matter how long a day I have, when I get here and I see these kids, I get juiced up again,” Pernsley said. “Some of these kids don’t have a lot, and to watch them make progress in the ring, that’s what this is all about.”
Since its inception in the 1970s, the program has been free. Any kid with a passing interest in the sport can walk in and lace up a pair of gloves. The ones who aren’t serious about it usually weed themselves out naturally, Starkey said. The ones who stay are chasing something, from high school athletes looking to stay in shape in the months between football or basketball seasons, to young men looking to safely release pent-up energy.
Within the gym’s walls, they’re equals, freed from the neighborhood rivalries that plague Chester.
Frankie Lynn, 27, the gym’s current elder statesman, has his eyes set on going pro. It’s a goal he found “after hitting rock bottom” while serving a short jail sentence on gun charges, he said. Afterward, he found his faith. And then he found the ring.
“Boxing put me on the straight and narrow,” said Lynn, who worked his way up from a public works employee to a commercial building inspector in the city’s health department. “It pulled me a long way to where I needed to be.”
But the accessibility that Starkey offers comes with a trade-off.
There’s no consistent funding source, only a few, much-appreciated donations throughout the years. Starkey worked for years as a maintenance man at Keystone First, an affiliate of International Blue Cross. During a chance conversation with Dan Hilferty, the IBC chief executive asked him what he did “in his spare time.”
When Starkey mentioned the gym, Hilferty promised to furnish it, providing a professional-grade boxing ring that now dominates nearly the entire gym on Upland Street. It replaced a makeshift, handmade ring that Starkey built himself, cobbling together rope, canvas and wood.
The rest of the equipment is paid for by Pernsley, Starkey, or Dennis Shaw, another longtime trainer. Even their current home was a donation.
For years, Starkey and his fighters traveled around the city, taking whatever space was available. Pernsley laughed, reminiscing about midwinter training sessions in one building that had ice clinging to its walls.
In 2014, the neighborhood around the gym’s current location was cleared out in a joint operation between city police and the FBI.
“The area itself kept people away. You weren’t going to that neighborhood unless you were buying drugs, selling drugs, or fighting for the right to do so,” Chester Police Chief James Nolan IV said. “It’s a good sense of accomplishment to see that we were able to make a transition in an area.”
In a city that’s six square miles, there are no true coincidences: The chief himself once trained under Starkey, circling the canvas through high school, right up until he joined the police academy. The mental toughness and discipline instilled in him straightened out the “miscreant” he said he was becoming on the city’s streets.
“I didn’t go off to win world championships, but I used the lessons I learned to get me where I am now,” Nolan said.
Two years ago, after the drug dealers had long been pushed out, Starkey saw an opportunity. He seized on the Eastside Rec Center, a community building that was rarely used outside of its function as an election-day polling place. To hear him tell it, Starkey went to City Councilwoman Elizabeth Williams and “made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.”