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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rick Welliver welcomes all while teaching life lessons at his boxing gymnasium

During a break in sparring, Justin Bishop, 26, who has used boxing to help him overcome his alcohol issues, speaks with Spokane Boxing Gym owner and coach Rick Welliver. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Sometimes the best way to battle your demons is to strap on a pair of gloves.

And have the right guy in your corner.

At 17, Justin Bishop tried to flee a “tough upbringing” in the West Central neighborhood, but he only succeeded in falling off the wagon. Now 25, he’s been fighting alcohol addiction for almost a decade.

Bishop’s life has been a series of self-administered eight-counts followed by the painful climb back into the ring. But at three boxing gyms, former pro fighter Rick Welliver has welcomed him back, sometimes with a punch to the gut.

That’s boxing – and life. They’re one in the same at Welliver’s gym, where the sweet science of boxing is flavored with vinegar.

“Radical hospitality,” Welliver calls it, a philosophy that embraces forgiveness with the understanding that “there will be consequences.”

Bishop knows that, but always comes back for more tough love.

“No matter what, Rick has always accepted me,” said Bishop, who’s now enrolled in the fluid hydraulics program at Spokane Community College.

Along with school, boxing offers focus.

“It’s something to pour my heart into, and I get a feeling of having some power over things,” Bishop said.

“My life is turning around,” Bishop said.

A change of scenery

The Spokane Boxing Club and Martial Arts gym sits on the ground floor of a 109-year-old building in a downtown Spokane neighborhood that’s slowly finding new life – much like the folks in Welliver’s gym.

Around the corner on a rainy Monday night, a middle-aged man is passed out on the vomit-stained pavement. Other people gather outside two nearby homeless shelters.

The gym, located at 115 S. Jefferson Street, is straight out of “Rocky,” with exposed brick, high ceilings and old hardwood floors.

“I love this place,” Welliver said.

Developer Daniel Sanchez bought the Jefferson Building and adjoining Norman Building in the summer of 2015. The upper floors, dubbed the West End Lofts, are filled with condos selling for upward of a quarter-million dollars.

That seems incongruous with a sweaty boxing gym, unless you’re not thinking outside the box. Sanchez saw the potential and asked Welliver to relocate his gym from Browne Street.

Welliver’s paying customers couldn’t care less about the rough neighborhood.

They constitute most of the boxers on a typical night. Ranging from age 7 to 70, they see boxing as another path to fun and fitness.

Nicole Branstetter, a 23-year-old health-care recruiter, is hitting the heavy bags with the enthusiasm of the newly converted. After watching the animated movie “Mulan” at age 5, she joined a karate dojo “so I could save China like Mulan did.”

Martial arts took a back seat to her studies at Eastern Washington, but Branstetter was hooked after her first visit to Welliver’s gym.

One of several women at the gym, Branstetter said, “When you walk in here, you’re treated like an equal, because you are.”

A life in the ring

That message of equality might be a tough sell for Welliver’s other clients, the ones who pay with tokens that prove they haven’t been skipping their meetings at Alcoholic Anonymous.

Welliver hoists a bucketful of tokens and spills them on the table. He grabs one in a calloused hand and holds it up as if to say, “This represents a life worth saving.”

But lifesavers aren’t cheap, said the 44-year-old Welliver, who drives an old truck and lives with a friend in a basement on South Perry Street. He’s not getting rich in this gig, and can only do so much for at-risk youth.

Several donors have contributed, including attorneys Bill Etter and Bill Maxey, Nick Murto of Seven2 marketing and especially the Mackin & Little contracting firm.

Welliver dares to hope for more.

“There’s been a lot of lip service so far,” said Welliver, who mentions he could use some sponsorships and donations.

Welliver has a few hot-button issues – don’t ask him about MMA or Donald Trump – but inequality tops the list.

“Spokane never quite gets it right,” Welliver said. “People say, ‘We support youth sports,’ but which ones?”

As Welliver sees it, traditional youth sports programs have largely catered to the middle class, as juice-box-sucking children romp on the soccer field, then play on their iPhones as parents chauffeur them back to their comfortable homes.

“What about the rest?” asked Welliver, who is Hillyard-raised and proud of all things underdog. Especially young boxers.

He points to his cellphone, a necessary evil in today’s world.

“A lot of these kids, they don’t see a lot of hope,” he said. “A kid who can’t even afford a cellphone, he’s detached from social media, and he automatically feels different. He feels disconnected.”

That was Welliver as a child in Montana, until his uncle introduced him to boxing at age 9.

“It was that classic ‘the light turned on’ moment for me … I was finally good at something,” said Welliver, who went on win a Golden Gloves championship in Montana.

Fighting professionally as a 185-pound cruiserweight, he had a record of 12 wins, five defeats and one draw.

Retirement brought a void that was only filled when Welliver stepped back in the ring as a coach.

Always in their corner

As a youth, Welliver fancied himself as a teacher. And now he is.

His first lesson: “Other sports build character, but boxing reveals character.”

Eight years ago, Coral Devereaux had been a regular at Welliver’s old gym for all of two weeks when he fell off the wagon. So drunk that he later blacked out, Devereaux was only 17 when he stole his mother’s car, drove off the road and struck a house.

Before reporting for inpatient treatment, Devereaux asked Welliver if he could return to the gym.

Welliver had a ready answer.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m cutting you off.’ They’ve always gotta know their coach is there for them,” Welliver said.