In the six years since he opened his South Boston boxing gym, Peter Welch has trained dozens of young fighters – not only in the techniques of boxing, but in the mental discipline and confidence needed to succeed as athletes.
But Welch, a former boxer who was recently inducted into the South Boston Hall of Fame, says it’s not easy moving young boxers from the area up the ranks, in part because of a lack of a formal structure for youth boxing. So he decided to form the Intercity Boxing Development League for kids eight and older from Boston neighborhoods.
“The league will give kids a place to start,” said Welch, 41, of South Boston. “I want the league to be part of a formal structure on which the sport can be built. It’s structured citywide, so that it can bring all the neighborhoods together.”
The league Welch started in early February is sanctioned by USA Boxing and based at his training facility, Peter Welch’s Gym. The first open matches took place during the Annual Boxing Show, a decades-old tradition that takes place around St. Patrick’s Day in South Boston.
Welch said that the league now has about a dozen trainers involved, with about 60 youths, ages 9 to 18, participating. He said he hopes the league, which is overseen by boxing professionals, will give youth boxing a boost in status and stability.
“Baseball has the minor leagues to get players to the next level,” he said. “Football and basketball have college. Most sports have a system or a minor league, but boxing doesn’t.”
To keep young boxers interested and to advance their training, Welch starts them off with carefully orchestrated sparring matches.
“The beauty of sparring bouts is you can match kids up according to their skill level,” he said. “You work with them, so you’re putting the best against the best.”
Welch said training by professionals is critical to developing young boxers.
“Boxing is an art of self-defense,” Welch said. “We teach kids how to defend themselves in the ring and build up their confidence. Everything they do is supervised [by trainers], so the kids are getting developed the same way. Once they learn to fight properly, they’ll start teaching the younger kids how to fight, too.”
Welch said that while he welcomes boys and girls as young as eight, it takes years to develop skills and endurance.
“Psychologically, the kids have to be brought along,” Welch said. “When they’re in the ring and tired, they have to learn to press on. It takes years of mental preparation to box.”
Tommy Connors of South Boston, a trainer at the gym who once helped to coach Welch, now assists him in training future boxers. He said that Welch has a way of connecting with young boxers – teaching them about fitness, healthy eating and discipline.
“Kids love him,” said Connors. “The way he explains everything and breaks down things, the kids right away understand that he knows what he’s talking about.”
Welch, who grew up in the Old Colony projects in South Boston, got the fighting bug at a young age. He fought in his first match at the age of nine, in the Annual Boxing Show. In 1989, at 17, he was the New England Golden Gloves Champion in the Junior Middleweight Division. He continued to box amateurs until turning pro at the age of 25. He had a professional record of 5-0.
After his last pro bout, Welch started to train other boxers. He also spent time in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where he gained notoriety as the boxing coach on Seasons 1 and 2 of Spike TV’s The Ultimate Fighter. He also tapped into the world of mixed martial arts, where he helped to train Kenny Florian and Brock Lesnar, among others.
While boxing has faded in popularity in recent years, Connors and others believe Welch’s focus on engaging youths could help to revive the sport.
“Having someone like Peter, the future of boxing is brighter,” said Connors, a former boxer whose 13-second knockout victory in 1970 was the fastest knockout in the history of the old Boston Garden. “He has the brains, love, knowledge, stamina and know-how to succeed to keep the sport moving forward.”
Welch said the sport has been hampered by a lack of quality boxing trainers, marquee names, resources and cooperation between individual gyms. He believes pro boxers need to reach back to help train the next generation. In addition, he said there is a lack of sponsorships, not only financial, but in terms of overall support.
Mickey Finn of Dorchester, president of the Ring 4 Veterans Boxers’ Association, an association of local boxers, said the caliber of trainers is critical.
“Some of these trainers don’t have the proper [boxing] training to help kids,” Finn said. “Another issue is trainers are teaching kids to be knockout boxers. But they should be there to teach technique and how to box. You have to teach offense and defense.”
For now, Welch is focused on creating opportunities for his young fighters to show off what they’ve learned. Later this spring – on April 27 and May 4 – his gym will host the New England Junior Olympics Tournament.
He sees this boxing tournament as a first step towards his ultimate goal.
“I want to see [them] become world champions,” Welch said.
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.