Israel Alvarez is 13 years old and an eighth-grader at Sacajawea, and like a lot of young teens a big part of his life is sports – football, wrestling, soccer.
He’s been at it for seven years, and at the end of the month he’s off to Independence, Mo., for the National Silver Gloves, the third time he’s qualified for that tournament. He’s not just an enthusiastic advocate for the sport – citing lessons he’s learned about humility, sportsmanship and confidence – but a salesman.
“This year I did have about four friends come down to the gym and check it out, and a couple of them were looking like they might want to try it,” he said. “But I’m still trying to get them back.”
Yes, boxing in Spokane can be a tough sell.
For the third year in a row, a major national tournament has set up shop in the city for the better part of the week. In 2012, it was U.S. Olympic Women’s Boxing Trials, which sent two survivors to the medal stand in London. Now the USA Boxing Elite National Championships finishes up its second run here tonight at Northern Quest Casino, with a return scheduled in 2015.
But for all the top-level amateurs who’ve put on a good show, who have stopped in to train at local gyms and signed autographs and even donned punch mitts and offered advice while absorbing the popping jabs of kids like Alvarez, the rub-off effect on the vitality of the sport locally has been negligible.
Boxing in Spokane?
“It’s sick,” offered Ray Kerwick. “Wait, don’t say that. It’s, uh…”
“That would be a better word,” he said.
Well, then, it mirrors the national health of the sport, at least given the batting average of U.S. male boxers on the world scene in recent years.
Kerwick runs the Howard Street Gym, the downtown incarnation of the old Spokane Eagles club that had been the pulse of amateur boxing here since the 1960s. It’s one of three active local clubs. Rick Welliver’s Spokane Boxing and Martial Arts, a former fixture on East Sprague, has new digs in the old Grotto at Pacific and Browne. Brother Chauncy Welliver runs his own club, Boxfit, on North Division.
At the moment, only Kerwick’s club is registered with USA Boxing, one of 23 in a far-flung administrative region that stretches from the Cascades to Montana, Oregon to the Canadian border.
And his registered roster numbers just 17.
One of them, Antonio Tessitore, competed this week in the Elite nationals, and though he dropped a decision in his first fight to DeVonte Williams of Houston at 152 pounds he still called it “an amazing experience.”
Getting his chance took some scrambling.
The tournament’s entry criteria require a fighter have 20 bouts. Last fall, the 25-year-old Tessitore had just 16, and the dearth of competitive opportunities locally made it necessary to seek out matches in Seattle and Ontario, Ore.
“Just getting those four bouts cost me over $750 in gas,” said Kerwick, noting his club is “just about broke now.”
And lack of official competition can be just one of the things that keeps club rosters churning.
“My kids, if they’re lucky, will get 10 bouts a year,” Kerwick said, “and that’s if they’re good. I’ve got some kids in the gym who have just one bout and they’ve been here for two years. If they don’t get any bouts, they get frustrated.”
But that’s only part of the challenge in hanging on to kids.
Despite its burgeoning appeal as a fitness alternative for adults with money to spend, historically boxing has drawn from a different demographic – low-income, at-risk, hard-knocks being the handy labels. Even as part of a club, it’s an individual endeavor without the structure and peer connections of school and AAU-affiliated team sports.
“And life gets in the way,” Rick Welliver said. “School gets in the way. A job. Girls get pregnant. Mom and dad divorce. ‘I don’t have a ride to the gym.’ It’s a battle all the time, and I don’t have any solutions.”
He’s met with city officials about the possibility of a parks-and-rec affiliated program to reach out to more kids. Kerwick has sought the help of the Spokane Sports Commission in lining up a low-cost – or preferably no-cost – venue for monthly fights. And Welliver thinks USA Boxing could have more of an impact at the grassroots level with sponsorship programs targeted at kids who can’t so much as rustle up a registration fee.
There is one thing amateur boxing has no shortage of: testimonials. Tessitore, who came back to the sport after run-ins with the law and drugs, said the sport “has shown me I can go further than what I ever thought.”
“Once you put a kid who has nothing in a position to feel special, he’ll go through a wall for you,” Welliver said, “and do what he has to do to make his life better.”
A struggling sport, maybe. But worth the struggle.