By Thomas Gerbasi
Peter Welch remembers boxing at its purest. For him, what happens in the ring between two fighters isn’t just the essence of sport, but for many, a way out: of poverty, bad situations, bad habits, or a combination of all three. And when it’s done right, there is still nothing like it.
“For me and the guys that I grew up with, it’s just so nostalgic,” said Welch, a renowned trainer and gym owner in South Boston who will be featured on the upcoming boxing reality show The Fighters, which premieres on Discovery Channel on January 23rd. “It’s like Christmas to us because when I think back to Christmas, we were growing up in the projects, and my mother was doing the best she can, but there were always toys under the tree. There was always something to look forward to, there was always family, and always good memories, even though times weren’t always that good. And it’s the same thing with boxing. And that’s from the heart. That’s what boxing means to me. It was my way out of situations, and it was my way into a normal society. It gave me so much, and I think the guys that I grew up with and the guys that I’m around from boxing, they can say the same thing. No matter what you did, whether you became a world champion, a local Golden Gloves champion, there’s a brotherhood and a camaraderie that we’re so connected to, and it’s just part of our life and it’s our lifestyle.”
And that’s what you’ll take away from The Fighters. Produced by UFC president Dana White and Craig Piligian (best known for their work on The Ultimate Fighter series), there are no tournaments, no challenges or any other reality series staples, just reality. Welch and other trainers from the Boston area get together and pit their best amateurs against each other on a weekly basis, with each episode focusing on the two fighters and their journey to the match. And if you don’t realize that there is more than enough drama in the lives of two fighters leading up to a bout, you haven’t been around this sport too long.
But guys like Welch have, and if you don’t know about him, you should because he’s one of those select few still trying to keep boxing alive on the grassroots level. In fact, the fights he’s been putting on in his gym weren’t started for television purposes; they’ve been going on for years.
“It’s just doing what we’ve been doing since ’92,” he said. “I had a lot of sparring going on at the gym and I had kids from all over New England coming in. We had smokers and sparring and I just happened to be on the phone with Craig (Piligian) one day, and I told him ‘if you’re flying to New York, we’re having a smoker this weekend and you should come by to Boston and see it. There have been a lot of great fights and the neighborhoods are really getting behind it.’ That sparked the idea, and the next thing you know, we’ve got cameras in our faces.”
Welch may already be familiar to mixed martial arts fans as a coach on The Ultimate Fighter as well as a striking trainer for notables from Brock Lesnar to Kenny Florian. But boxing has been in his blood since police officer Jack McGill sent him on his way to the boxing gym when he was a kid.
“I had my face clawed apart by this other local kid,” Welch recalls. “My face was a mess. The other kid scratched me, I’ll never forget it. Jack McGill told me ‘You better get your ass up to Muni and learn how to box. And the rest is history in my world.”
There was some more history to be told though. Welch was a New England Golden Gloves champion who had the dreams of any young fighter when he turned pro in October of 1996 with a four round win over Greg Cadiz. Four more victories would follow, but after defeating Antonio Jefferson in February of 1997, he walked away from the pro game.
“My wife, who I had been with since I was 16 years old, we got married, and there was a lot of pressure on me to cut the s**t and get a job and to provide. And I always wanted to be respected and be an earner. I’m from a blue collar class. My father was in construction, I was in the Laborers Union, the Ironworkers Union, so you get respect in a lot of ways. On the street you get respect for being able to handle yourself and boxing gave me that. And in normal society, you get respect because you go to work and take care of your family, and you’re a provider. And that was the thing that was always there. I have a conscience, so I had to do what I had to do.”
And he did, hanging up the gloves that he always assumed he would lace up again.
“In the back of my mind, I always thought, well, boxing’s always been there for me,” said Welch. “It will be there for me, I’ll go back. I’ll get started working, I’ll make a couple of moves, and then I’ll go back. I was only 25 years old. The next thing I know, it’s three jobs later and it’s ten years gone by, and I’m like, where the hell did the time go. And at that point, I was doing season one of The Ultimate Fighter. And I’m like holy s**t, I’m not a fighter anymore. (Laughs) I’m 34 years old. It’s why I tell these kids all the time, you have to go take that shot when you have the opportunity because you’re not going to be 20 or 22 forever. And of course I have regrets, but I’ve always been about family and community, and I gotta take care of what I gotta take care of.”
Welch never gave up the sport though. Only now, he wasn’t fighting; he was getting a gym together, training, and giving back to the sport that rescued him. His first ring was built in the teen center in the Old Colony projects in Southie in 1992, and that ring remains in his latest location on Dorchester Avenue. And with over 1,000 gym members and a thriving fitness program, he’s still able to keep things free for the kids who come to him and want to learn how to fight and stay off the streets.
“I came to the realization that I’m doing what I was meant to do right now,” he said. “At the time when I was fighting, it would have been nice to been handled or managed by somebody that had some better connections. But guess what, after all that going through my head, I realized that I’m that guy. I’m going to develop the landscape, provide opportunities for these kids coming up, and I get to live it through them. I’m so passionate about the game, it’s my lifestyle, it’s what I do, it’s what I’ll always do. I have an opportunity with the success of my gym up to this point – we’ve been in business since 2007 – to fulfill a dream that I’ve been chasing since 1992. It’s come full circle for us. It’s taken 20 years, but it’s happening.”
As for The Fighters, Welch would like the show to have the effect on viewers that boxing had on him all those years ago.
I” hope they leave with a connection and say ‘hey, I can relate to this guy, I can relate to these kids and their struggles and what they’re going through,’” he said. “They (the fighters) go through stuff that we go through on a daily basis, and they (the viewers) chose a lifestyle that they may not have chosen in a million years, but they can respect it because they might have a brother or an uncle or somebody in their family who’s a lot like these guys. And maybe people watching are inspired like I was as a kid when my father brought me to see Rocky.”