Dana White is a relentless force for whom the word “no” holds little meaning or significance. The same is true of his boxing mentor, South Boston’s Peter Welch. So when the two of them joined forces to try and revive amateur boxing in South Boston is it any surprise they accomplished the near impossible?
Along with television producer Craig Piligian, they have created a new boxing reality series on the Discovery Channel, of all places, that begins an eight-week run Jan. 23 at 9 p.m. Each week it will chronicle the efforts of Welch and four other Boston-area trainers running hard scrabble gyms and arguing over what two fighters will square off at Welch’s Gym on Dorchester Avenue in a three-round fight that is as much about personal redemption and fistic final chances as it is boxing.
In a nutshell, it is a show about characters and grit. A show, you could just as easily say, about boxing and Boston.
“Two boxing reality shows have already been done and both of them failed,” White said from Las Vegas, where he spends the bulk of his time these days as the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the kingpin company of mixed martial arts.
“You know how hard it is to get another one on television when two have already failed? That’s what’s great about this. Discovery (Channel) is huge.”
So too, Welch hopes, will be this show and his larger dream of reviving boxing in Boston’s neighborhoods, pieces of the city that once were the regular breeding ground of world champions such as Tony DeMarco and Paul Penderand iron-chinned contenders the ilk of Tom McNeeley, Joe DeNucci, Vinny Curto, Freddie Roach and a long line of others.
Those days are long gone in Boston, gyms having folded and interest having waned, but pockets of hard-luck, plucky fighters remain and Welch has been trying to nurture them for years. His 8,000-square foot gym on Dot Ave., which opened seven years ago has become a haven for white collar boxing, successful men and women looking for a good workout and a little physical stimulation. Their presence pays the bills for the warriors’ room, a small area where Welch trains real fighters or kids who hope to become fighters. For eight weeks, he will try to match them against opponents from Joe Ricciardi’s Bobby Tomasello Memorial Boxing Club in Saugus, Mark DeLuca’s The Zoo Gym in Quincy, Tim Stanton’s TNT Boxing Club in Braintree and Joe Ennis’ Big East Boxing in Brockton. They are all trainers at the grassroots of the sport, guys waiting in silent hope for the day the next Marvin Hagler walks through the door, as he once did at the long gone Petronelli Gym in Brockton.
Until then, they devote themselves to kids and young adults searching for something only boxing can provide: a way out of an undisciplined and sometimes troubled existence and a blueprint for how to control your emotions and your obsessions.
Theirs is a hard road to glory that Discovery Channel has turned its cameras toward for what White hopes is the first of a long-run like “The Ultimate Fighter” series he created on Spike TV, which helped transform MMA from a troubled niche sport into the fastest growing combat sport in the world.
“Dana is a key asset for us,” Welch said. “He’s the best promoter in the world. He tweeted out ‘watch our new show on Discovery,’ and everything went crazy.”
Crazy is what the boxer’s life and the boxing business often become. It is a difficult landscape to negotiate, but can be life-changing.
“I grew up in the Old Colony projects in Southie,” Welch said. “It’s a tough neighborhood. One of the toughest in the country. It’s a place where you learn to fight. Boxing has saved a lot of kids from the street, but, little by little, the gyms started to close. Kids who needed that outlet lost it. We want to bring it back. A lot of these fighters are kids at a crossroads.”
Welch is a former New England Golden Gloves champion and ex-professional fighter who was 5-0 before he decided to take his life in another direction. Although he did, it is hard to turn your back on an old love first embraced at the age of nine.
So Welch began training fighters and, as his reputation spread, a kid with his own fistic ambitions began to track him down. It took time but Dana White finally found Welch more than 20 years ago and from rough circumstances a friendship grew into “The Fighters” series.
“Through a mutual friend (White) was trying to hunt me down but I was busy training kids and didn’t have any interest,” Welch said. “He doggedly pursued me, which I later learned is the way Dana does everything. He finally showed up at a gym I was in so I agreed to spar with him and slapped him around a little.
“He came back the next day and I did it again. He came back the next day and the next. I couldn’t get rid of him so I started training him and eventually he began training and managing fighters until he went out West and did on a grander level what I taught him here.”
Eventually White would migrate from boxing to UFC to cult status in the world of MMA, but his first passion remains The Sweet Science and his loyalty remains with Welch, whom he hired as boxing coach for the first two seasons of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Now they’re collaborating again on a show Welch hopes will spur a renewed interest in boxing in Boston.