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Fighting for a comeback

Six-year-old Andrew Honohan tries out the speed bag at one of Peter Welch’s gyms in South Boston.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Six-year-old Andrew Honohan tries out the speed bag at one of Peter Welch’s gyms in South Boston.

Ten-year-old Bobby Delaney is a good baseball player, and he’s been taking karate and judo lessons since he was 4. But he likes boxing best of all.

“I just like competing,” he says with a big smile. “I like beating people up.”

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Kids like Bobby, who was a winner in the 95-pound weight class at a Silver Gloves youth exhibition in New Bedford in December, are the future of a sport that has been in decline for years. South Boston’s Peter Welch is looking for more young athletes like Bobby: He wants to help revive the fight game, which gave him a sense of purpose when he was a kid in this once-hardscrabble, now gentrifying neighborhood.

Welch’s Gym is located in a converted warehouse on an industrial stretch of Dorchester Avenue. Flush with the success of the gym, where aspiring fighters spar in the ring while crowded classes of young professionals sweat through conditioning routines, Welch has just opened a second space across the alley. In the new place, under the watchful eyes of the various champions painted on a huge mural, Welch hopes to reintroduce boxing to a generation raised on “SportsCenter” helicopter dunks and Xbox games.

Newcomers might be drawn by Welch’s newfound celebrity. He’s the star of “The Fighters,” a new Discovery Channel series about his efforts to bring together old-school boxing gyms in and around Boston to match up amateur boxers looking to go pro.

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One of the show’s executive producers is Dana White, the onetime South Boston resident who, oddly enough, has helped widen the gap between boxing and its heyday as the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the series that established mixed martial arts as a sport of the future. When White was a young boxer, he befriended Welch; though two years younger, Welch already knew the ropes of the business.

“I couldn’t get rid of the guy,” Welch, 42, joked a few weeks ago at his gym. He’s glad he didn’t — “The Fighters,” which will have an initial 10-episode run on Discovery, is positioning him as an ambassador for the rejuvenation of a sport that was once a way of life in Boston, a boost up the socioeconomic ladder for kids from struggling homes.

The old Boston Garden was built not for hockey or basketball but as “the queen of boxing,” noted Tommy Connors. The sprightly 70-year-old is Welch’s right-hand man, a former super featherweight who once knocked out an opponent at the Garden with a punch three seconds into the first round.

Southie was one of many Boston enclaves to host regular “smokers” — unsanctioned prizefights in rec halls and men’s clubs. Sending boys to the Golden Gloves was a source of community pride. Boston was well-known for producing champion boxers, including heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan and welterweight king Tony DeMarco.

In recent decades, however, interest in boxing has declined, as the sport became dominated by a small handful of superstars — Tyson, Pacquiao, Mayweather — who earn huge paydays. Any system of development, which tended to be robust only in specific areas anyway, has atrophied.

“This is a neighborhood sport,” said Welch, who grew up in the Old Colony projects, a New England Golden Gloves champion who had a 5-0 record as a professional fighter before opening his gym. And he’d like to reassert it as such — in no small part because of the quality of life he’s earned for himself through the sport.

“I would’ve been an angry kid,” he explained. “I would’ve went around smashing things.” He was saved when he discovered the focus and discipline of training. When his friends were out drinking, “I’d run by them at 1 in the morning. . . . It sounds cliché, but that’s the bottom line.”

Welch, a stocky former light-heavyweight with trimmed gray hair and a nose that’s been on the receiving end of more than a few padded fists, lives and breathes the sport. On a rare moment of rest over the holidays, he went to the movies to see “Grudge Match,” the comedy featuring aging actors Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone as rivals set to duke it out one more time.

“The Fighters” follows the great tradition of boxing’s enduring up-from-the-bootstraps narrative. In the first episode, Welch’s man is sleeping in his car while he tries to raise the security deposit for a new apartment. His opponent, meanwhile, tells the camera about his struggles with alcohol and substance abuse.

The show plays up a hardnosed, parochial side of Boston that has been waning, much like the sport. One rival trainer from another gym jokes profanely about the preponderance of shamrocks around Welch’s proud-Irish gym.

Both the gym and the show have been part of his effort to preserve the culture of Southie, said Welch: “To disgrace my neighborhood is a big no-no in my book.”

Welch’s friend Richie Hogan, who grew up in Southie, now lives in Weymouth. He brought his sons, 13-year-old Francis and 9-year-old Richie Jr., to the gym for the premiere party for “The Fighters.” They both train at Welch’s.

Hogan travels around New England and as far as New York to enter his sons in tournaments. They have their eyes on the nationals next year.

“The record doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s about getting in there.”

The viewing party doubled as an open house for the new gym. The crowd was a mix of weathered men in scally caps and others, mostly younger and of various ethnicities, dressed for a night out. Connors and Welch, fresh off a plane from a special Chicago screening of the show’s debut, stood ringside, hollering greetings to old friends over the din of the crowd and the steady beat of a guest in a far corner testing out the speed bag.

A big back room felt more like a nightclub, with blue lights illuminating the mural and a caterer shucking oysters behind a huge block of ice. Flat-screen TVs showed YouTube clips from Lowell legend Micky Ward’s epic fights with Arturo Gatti; an old RCA television screened black-and-white training footage of Brockton’s Rocky Marciano, the late, great heavyweight champion.

Dorchester resident Denise Mitchell stood over her 8-year-old son, Joseph Alves, who was sitting on a mat playing a video football game on a mobile phone. Big for his age, Joseph has already taken part in a couple of Southie’s annual Evacuation Day youth boxing competitions, for which Welch is holding tryouts. Joseph’s older half-brother, Matt O’Donnell, will be featured on an upcoming episode of “The Fighters.”

Matt, said Mitchell, has had a few setbacks in his boxing career — “bleeding on the brain, a broken arm.” Yet the sport got her son off the streets, she said.

“Discipline, respect, self-esteem — all of it,” continued Mitchell, who lived for 13 years in Southie before returning to her native Dorchester. “It’s not just about punching people’s faces in. I love the sport.”

In an era of growing concern for the well-being of young athletes, Welch knows he has an uphill battle ahead as he tries to bring boxing back to the prominence of his youth.

“You can’t influence all the people,” he said, “but I know what means the world to me.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com and on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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