It’s late afternoon at Peter Welch’s Gym in South Boston. A couple of boxers methodically work their way around the ring, hitting their trainers’ pads with an unlikely combination of determination and boredom. The after-work crowd has begun arriving and the gym will soon be bustling with the young professionals who come in for the fighter-conditioning class. Pete Welch watches over both the heavy hitters and the dilettantes.
Welch, a 42-year-old native of the hardscrabble neighborhood, has made a nice living for himself by opening his old-school boxing gym to the recent arrivals gentrifying Southie. He doesn’t want the area’s boxing tradition to become nothing more than a great premise for a movie starring one or two Afflecks. He’s committed to the ongoing health of the sport that gave his life its purpose, and if that means opening a gym to cater to fitness buffs, that’s what he’s going to do. The important thing is that he’s bringing his committed boxers to a national audience. Having a TV show helps.
“The Fighters,” about men training at Welch’s gym, is the Discovery Channel’s latest ode to the joys of manhood. And probably its grittiest.
If it weren’t for his own discovery of boxing at a young age, Welch says in a heavy Boston accent, he might have ended up “in Walpole,” where the maximum-security state prison is located. “My buddies would be out drinking at one in the morning,” he says, “and I’d run by them.”
In his fighting days, Welch became friends with a peer named Dana White, who badgered him for information about the local fight scene. “I couldn’t get rid of the guy,” he jokes. Somewhat ironically, White went on to become president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the mixed martial arts dynasty that has spent the last decade drawing interest away from boxing. Whether White decided to executive produce “The Fighters” as an act of penance or passion is unclear, but its an old-school fight show pitting amateurs from various Boston gyms against each other.
Boston was once a hub of boxing, notes Tommy Connors, Welch’s lithe 70-year-old trainer who once scored a record-setting knockout at the old Boston Garden, flooring his opponent at the three-second mark of the first round. The Garden, he reminds a visitor, was originally built (like New York’s Madison Square Garden) for major boxing events. That was, Welch is quick to point out, back before the promoters showed up. “When the Mob ran it,” he adds, “it was probably more organized and healthy.” He wants to get back to that place by replacing enforcers with boom operators.
“This is a neighborhood sport,” Welch says. “That’s the bottom line…. You can’t influence all the people, but I know what means the world to me.”