Spokane Journal of Business

Pugilistic passion

Former pro boxer enjoys helping others.

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-—Kevin Blocker
Spokane Boxing & Martial Arts owner Rick Welliver says the gym’s membership has doubled in the last three years.
-—Kevin Blocker
Rick Welliver, right, works out Aaron Chenoweth, a 16-year-old student at Rogers High School. Welliver estimates half of his clients are boxers, and the other half are there to get in better shape.

Spokane Boxing Club & Martial Arts owner and operator Rick Welliver says his club’s membership has nearly doubled in the last three years as people of varying ages and both genders seek new ways to stay in shape.

While boxing has seen a drastic reduction in popularity in recent decades among mainstream sports audiences across the U.S., locally, Welliver claims the club, located in a 4,000-square-foot leased space at 159 ½ S. Browne in downtown Spokane, is busier than ever.

“In the last few years, club membership has gone from about 25 to 30 members to 45 to 50,” says the 43-year-old Welliver, a retired professional boxer.

That doesn’t seem like a lot to support a thriving concern, but the club owner says he’s pleased by that growth nonetheless and hopes it will continue. Welliver says the club—and his salary—are dependent on the donations of many individual supporters and businesses in the community who recognize the importance of the club’s work with at-risk youth.

“I’ve testified before judges. I was on the phone with police at 4 this morning about a young fighter I’m training right now,” Welliver says. “This is a full-time job.”

Welliver is working to secure a new location for the club in the Jefferson Building, located at 115 S. Jefferson at the southwest corner of Jefferson Street and First Avenue. He wants to be in the new location—which he says has roughly 4,000 square feet of space—by this summer.

It would be the club’s third location. Welliver originally opened the club along the east 1800 block of Sprague Avenue in 2001.

Welliver, the club’s lone employee, thinks membership may increase further with a central downtown location. He draws on the help of four volunteer instructors to teach students. Membership fees are $55 per month.

Says Welliver, “There are a lot of different fitness trends out there. In the process of finding what they want to do, a lot of people, including women, have discovered the fitness regimen of boxing, which is still tried and true.”

Welliver believes women pick up the fundamentals of boxing faster than men.

“Guys think they’re the authority on fighting. Showing men to box is like training men to ask for directions,” he says. “Women come into the gym and are motivated to learn the sport. Sometimes they’re motivated to learn something new, maybe it’s for self-defense or just for the benefit of their health. Either way, they tend to be more open-minded than men and tend to pick up the sport quicker.”

Welliver estimates half his clients are now more interested in learning to box for fitness purposes than for actual fighting in the ring. 

The club’s oldest member is Rod Sweigle, who is 78. Since fracturing his hip in 2010, Sweigle realized he needed to be more physically active to help combat future injuries. Sweigle says a female friend referred him to Welliver’s club.

“I’ll never forget my first lesson. I was the only guy in here,” he says.

Sweigle says after three years he’s found himself hooked on boxing.

“I’m here four times a week and lifting weights on the nights I’m not here. You get to a point where you don’t dare stop coming to the gym,” he says.

Matt Leonetti, 32, says he’s been training in the gym for close to a decade. He credits boxing for turning his life around.

“When I was 22, I weighed 330 pounds and was just struggling, struggling with everything,” Leonetti says. “Rick just helped me get grounded, started working me out in August 2006. By November that year I think was down 100 pounds.”

He’s competed as an amateur heavyweight at as low as 195 pounds and has built a record of 14 wins against four defeats. He estimates he’s now around 230 pounds.

For Leonetti, boxing has built toughness the way other sports and fitness regimens weren’t able to achieve for him. 

“You have to perfect the art of not getting hit,” he says, “and it took me a long time to figure that out.”

Leonetti also was unemployed and looking for work when he first started boxing. Through contacts he made at the gym, he eventually got into the security business, he says.

“You build camaraderie in here,” Leonetti says. “I still look up to those who helped me out.”

Welliver’s passion for the sport has led to the creation of a series of fight nights during the year in Idaho’s Silver Valley. 

On Saturday, April 10, Wallace, Idaho, will be the Pacific Northwest’s boxing capital as the Wallace Civic Memorial Auditorium will host nearly 30 amateur youth bouts featuring boxers ranging in age from 8 years old to adults. Five boxers from the Spokane boxing club are scheduled to compete.

Boxing clubs from across the region will have boxers at fight night. Saturday’s event will be the first of two fight nights this year in Wallace with the other scheduled to occur in November. Nearby Kellogg also will host a fight night this summer. It’s the third straight year the bouts have been held in the Silver Valley, Welliver says.

Welliver says he originally opened his gym just before his professional career ended because he didn’t know what to do with his life beyond boxing.

The gym initially drew lots of young boys and men who resembled him in his childhood, raised in a single-parent household without an influential male role model.

“If not for boxing, I don’t see anything good coming out of my life,” Welliver says.

Born in Bozeman, Mont., before moving to Kalispell, Welliver recalls attending up to nine different elementary schools before middle school.

 However, his uncle, Pat Welliver, introduced him to boxing when he was 9.

 “It was that classic ‘the light turned on’ moment for me … I was finally good at something,” he says.

Welliver went on to win a Gold Gloves championship in Montana and later would have 16 professional fights. He fought as a cruiserweight—between 190 to 200 pounds—and had a record of 10 wins, five defeats and one draw.

Boxing is his passion, but his heart is more invested in people, whether it’s a woman who wants to learn to protect herself or a boy in search of a nurturing environment.

“What I didn’t realize when I started this club was that adults were going to one day want to learn to box. There are now businessmen and businesswomen coming in here who have learned to box and have taken on these mentor roles for kids helping them train,” Welliver says.

“They work with them, they interact with them. A few years back I remember looking up and seeing that there’s a lot of mentoring going on in this gym,” he says.

“I’ve been around most sports, but there is something about boxing that breeds a sense of family that I just don’t always see in others,” Welliver says.

 “Other sports build character; boxing reveals character. You can learn some things about yourself when you’re getting hit in the face. What most people, especially men, discover is that they aren’t nearly as tough as they think they are,” he says.

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