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Sunday, October 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Struggling Silver Valley reignites its fighting spirit

By Leah Sottile Special to The Spokesman-Review

WALLACE – When a straight-talking, 41-year-old ex-pro boxer named Rick Welliver stood in front of a panel of Wallace decision-makers last year and said his dream was to revive the long-gone boxing culture of the Silver Valley, it made sense to Marci Hayman.

She tagged along when Welliver – whose uniform is sweatpants, a hooded sweatshirt and a cellphone at his ear – presented his new boxing club – to a gymnasium full of Wallace High School kids.

“He was like the Pied Piper,” said Hayman, who owns Metals Bar, a tavern popular with miners. “They’d have followed him out of the school that day if he’d said, ‘Let’s go to the gym.’ ”

Welliver’s club is set to open next month.

The Silver Valley has a long history of producing beasts in the ring: Herb Carlson, Norman and Leonard Walker, and world boxing hall of famer Guido “Young Firpo” Bardelli, the “Wild Bull” from Burke.

Bardelli – a miner with movie star looks – dominated boxing rings from California to Montana through the 1920s and 1930s. It was as if Bardelli punched with the entire Idaho winter behind him, knocking men out so cold that people feared them dead. He famously wired a Spokane boxing promoter with a challenge to pit him against any fighter out there: “I fear no man,” he said.

Booze or boxing

Local leaders worry about the kids. Though graduation rates are high, there’s just not much to do. There’s hiking, biking, skiing – but there’s booze and meth, too. In November a kid at a local high school made a hit list. A shop teacher found a shank hidden in his classroom.

Meanwhile the rest of the Silver Valley is in the midst of a different battle. Statistics paint a grim picture of the place. Unemployment is high, and most jobs come from the remaining mines. Idaho wages are among the worst in the nation. State lawmakers spend the least in the country on students. The county has one of the highest suicide rates in a state with some of the worst in the country.

Coral Devereaux, 21, had been a regular at Welliver’s boxing gym in Spokanefor two weeks when he drank so much that he blacked out, stole his mother’s car and plowed through the side of a family’s house. After spending months at an in-patient rehab center, Devereaux came back to Welliver, asking for a chance to train again.

Welliver looked the kid, then just 17, straight in the eyes. “Did you learn anything then?” he asked.

“Yeah, I could have killed a family,” Devereaux nodded. “I grew up, learned to be an adult.”

Welliver said the accident wasn’t Devereaux’s first mistake. “He’s fallen through the cracks a few times. But when he says to me, ‘I could have killed a family,’ not ‘I could have died’ – that shows character, shows depth.” Still, Welliver needed to see Devereux train harder and focus on boxing to stay clean.

For Devereaux, Welliver “is one of the biggest role models in my life.” He’s never paid him to train – Welliver takes sobriety coins from some of the boxers as payment.

“You can’t say ‘I’m cutting you off.’ They’ve always gotta know their coach is there for them,” Welliver said. “As a society we’re blowing it. … We’ve forgotten as a society how to put a kid up on a pedestal and make him feel special.”

Welliver doesn’t care if Devereaux becomes a pro boxer. He cares “about him being a man” – a good person, someone who cares about other people. He said he understands these kids because he was just like them once: a kid who needed an outlet, who bounced between 11 elementary schools, who badly needed to feel good at something.

“(Boxing) gave me a reason to wake up in the morning,” he said. “One moment you go from feeling worthless to being on the front page of the newspaper and you realize, ‘I’m something.’ ”

Welliver rose through the ranks to become a light heavyweight pro fighter. They called him “The Pitbull.” But his passion was outside the ring.

As a coach, “the Pitbull” is still there. His love is stern. He sends his fighters demands – “CALL ME,” he texts them. And when they do, there’s no “Hello,” no “How are you?”

“What’s your weight at?” he’ll say. “Good.”

Training these kids comes at a sacrifice. Welliver said he hardly gets paid. He rents a room in the basement of an old house. He drives a 25-year-old truck. He sees his fighters more than his own daughter.

But boxing is what he knows. He’s struggled, he said, to get his hometown of Spokane to embrace the value of helping at-risk kids through sports. But towns like Wallace get it.

Welliver’s friends joke about the times he’s broken up bar fights with his signature line: “Let me guess – you’re the town tough guy?” he’ll say to the instigator. “Well that just changed.”

The Silver Valley, in a way, fits him. It’s tough. Gutsy. A little wild. Free.

Inside, outside the ring

Wallace Fight Night feels like a homecoming of sorts. In the locker room, a wooden reminder is bolted to the wall, with the words scrawled in black marker: “Winners are workers, workers are miners.”

Inside the popcorn-scented Wallace Civic Memorial Auditorium gymnasium, a painted portrait of boxer Guido Bardelli dressed as a miner, a pickax over his shoulder, looks out over the room.

A kid in the ring takes only a few punches before he gets whacked in the nose, blood gushing down his face, spraying bright red drops 10 feet outside the ring – across the judges tables, into the beer garden tables.

Ely Kienholz, a 10-year-old from nearby Kellogg who said his favorite food is “itty bitty corndogs,” is in tears at the end of his fight. The ref ends the fight when he saw him crying. In the corner, his coach John Lunsford wiped the kid’s face with a rag, brushing away the tears. “His eyes water, he gets frustrated,” Lunsford explained.

James Evans, a lanky 17-year-old Wallace High School junior, squares off in his very first match ever against one of Welliver’s fighters from Spokane. Evans takes a low blow, grimacing in pain, and the ref calls the fight. Welliver’s fighter rushes to Evans, jerks his hand into the air and hugs him – as if to say Evans was the winner all along.

“I was in a lot of pain, but I wanted to keep fighting through it,” Evans said later.

Though every fighter here has an entourage of friends watching – many shooting video on their smartphones – it seems all of Wallace is here to see just one fight: Coral Devereaux versus Mike Moreno, an unaffiliated fighter. The local newspaper ran a front-page story on Devereaux’s life story.

Welliver made a show of escorting the lanky Devereaux from the locker room. He smiled like a proud father, an entourage of friends and coaches behind them as if the kid was a pro. James Brown blared over the PA. Devereaux smiled wide.

When the first bell rang, the crowd was on its feet. The publisher of the local newspaper screamed “Go Coral!” and grimaced when the young boxer took a hit to the jaw.

Although Moreno shoved and ducked away from punches, Devereaux proved the winner after three rounds and raised his gloves high as the crowd yelled. Across the gym, Welliver took the mic from the announcer to say it’s the kid’s one-year anniversary being sober. The crowd already knew this, but they went crazy anyway. Later that night when Devereaux walks into The City Limits Pub and Grill with his medal gleaming around his neck, his hair wet and tangled from a shower, the crowd went wild one more time.

Welliver knows there are kids just like Devereaux here in Wallace – kids who need to be told they matter, that they’re good at something. It’s what Welliver thinks about when he’s broke, when he’s fighting to find funding, when he’s driving through snow to get to Wallace, when he’s battling migraines that come after years of fighting professionally.

It’s what he’s thinking about again, a week after the Wallace fight, when he gets a call from a parent that one of his fighters tried to take his own life.

Welliver tells the kid’s father to bring him over. “You have to convince these kids that they matter,” he said. “I sat down with the kid and his dad, and I told him ‘You do matter. You have to know that I get it and you’re going to be fine.’ ”

Stay with it, he said – just like he would from the ringside. Keep fighting. Blue skies are coming.

A version of this story was originally featured by Al Jazeera America.

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