Growing up with the sweet science
In South Boston, there’s a free youth boxing program that changes kids.
Lily Austin doesn’t care that her friends think she’s weird. She likes boxing anyway.
She’s been stepping into the ring at Peter Welch’s Gym in South Boston since she was 7 years old. She’s 10 now. She fights and sweats and worries that she might break something, but she keeps coming back.
It’s not easy for her to explain. The need to strap on gloves and fight until someone’s arm is raised in a corner is not exactly civilized. Blood might be shed, muscles and tendons might be sprained, bones might be broken, but still, the need remains.
“I don’t know really if there’s an explanation for it… it’s probably not the best thing that people would think to do,’’ Geovany Lorenzo, 16, explains. “But, there’s just something about it. Even though it is violent, it’s not at the same time, it really is very technical and it’s like an art form.’’
Since Geovany walked into the gym near his house when he was 12, he hasn’t looked back. He’s hooked.
“There’s an experience you get in the gym that you never get anywhere else,’’ Brendan Flynn, 18, said. “Everyone’s really close. Even after a sparring session, you don’t hate the person you sparred with.’’
“There’s something about just getting in the ring, and just taking a beating and giving a beating that is just awesome.’’ Brendan’s twin John tries to explain. “I love it.’’
And it’s changed him. It changes all of them.
“It just made me a whole other person,’’ Brendan said. “I started doing better in school, despite taking punches to the head. Stuff like that. I started being a more conscientious person.’’
In South Boston there is a community unlike any other in the city. A boxing program hosted at Peter Welch’s Gym for youth, for free.
The free youth program has been at Welch’s Gym for only eight years, but it’s been around for almost 90 years. Countless greats have made their way up through the program, and then many others that simply trained for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Boxing show and moved on. Both boys and girls, like Lily.
“It’s a rite of passage almost, for the sons of politicians, policemen, businessmen, and the like, who boxed themselves,’’ Peter Welch said.
And Tommy Connors knows most of them. He started boxing in the 1960s, turned pro in 1970, and claims to hold the record for fastest knockout in the history of the old Boston Garden, having dropped Lloyd Wilson in a mind-boggling 13 seconds.
“I hung around with a lot of maniacs,’’ Connors said. He didn’t expect to make it past 40. But boxing changed his story, it kept him on the straight and narrow. “In the gym and off the streets.’’
So now he trains the children. He’s giving back, because that’s what you do in the boxing world. He doesn’t even get paid for it.
“It’s our duty, our responsibility to pass it on to the next generation,’’ Welch said. “And that just carries through. And those same kids will someday be replacing me, and be the coach to teach the generations.’’
Peter Welch has had a long history with boxing as well. He had a few pro fights (winning all of them) and then opened a gym. The gym that has become the center of many things in South Boston. The Dropkick Murphys even filmed one of their music videos there.
“So it is a community effort, it’s a community program, it’s a community center,’’ Welch said. “And that, and the only difference is we’re teaching kids how to box.’’
Sometimes, that sense of responsibility hits before the kids even reach the amateurs.
Brendan and John started working with the younger kids within a couple years of starting boxing themselves, when their coaches were busy, just to help out.
“But once you’re in the gym, say you’re hitting the bags, and someone catches your eye and they’re not doing it right, or doing something that you want to help them do better,’’ John said.
Boxing is a very individual sport, on the surface, but with everything that goes into making a boxer, it is a community effort of the coaches, gyms, family and other fighters standing behind the one fighter. They learn a sense of responsibility and ownership that they wouldn’t have known in a team sport. “Because you have your own back, you have to get back up on your own two feet,’’ Welch said.
The youth program is trying to organize a trip to Ireland this fall to compete against youth teams in Connemara, the district of Ireland where Mayor Marty Walsh’s family is from.
It’s a trip long in the making, part of an exchange between Boston and Ireland stretching back years, the result of a close relationship between Welch and Mark Porter, an Irish native well-connected in both communities, who also boxed in his youth.
Geovany, John and Brendan are some of the few selected for the trip, and they either qualified because of their skill in a certain weight class, or because of their dedication in the gym. Their coaches had been hinting about the trip since they started training.
Many of the Boston boys will be fighting with Irish boys they faced off against last summer at the Neighborhood Youth Challenge in City Hall Plaza.
“If I hadn’t started out boxing… I don’t know what I would be doing right now,’’ Geovany said. “We’re going to another part of the world, so I’m glad we’re doing this rather than something else.’’
Gallery: Peter Welch’s Gym in South Boston