Hard-living Idaho panhandle gets its fight back

by @Leah_Sottile December 21, 2014 5:00AM ET

A former pro lightweight wants to bring boxing back to the tough and gutsy Silver Valley

Small Town America
Fight Night in the Wallace Civic Memorial Auditorium, formerly the local high school gym, Nov. 22, 2014.
Jerome A. Pollos for Al Jazeera America

WALLACE, Idaho — The Silver Valley is a fearsome place where winter snowfall is measured in feet and the tracks of wolves, bears and mountain lions make impressions in the snow.

In the early 1900s, the mining town of Burke was booming. But it was a place of seething tempers and bloody fights — clashes between miners and company men kept this part of the panhandle, wild long after the west was tamed. There were gun battles, labor spies, dynamite explosions. Down the road, in Wallace, a bordello saw customers until 1988.

Today Burke is a ghost town. The only sound here comes from the ancient river rocks as the wind tumbles them down the hillsides, plinking like coins dropping from an old slot machine. The fight has left Burke.

Meanwhile the rest of the Silver Valley is in the midst of a different battle. Statistics paint a grim picture of the place. In Shoshone County — a chunk of land larger than the state of Delaware — there are just 12,765 people. Unemployment is high, and most jobs come from the remaining mines. Idaho wages are 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. Diseases you hardly hear of anymore — whooping cough, gonorrhea — are on the rise. “Poor” here means double-wides have wood stoves.

The main street of Wallace, Idaho, where a bordello served customers until 1988.
Jerome A. Pollos for Al Jazeera America
Rick Welliver rose through the ranks as a young man to become a lightweight pro fighter nicknamed “the Pitbull.” But his passion was in coaching kids and building character.
Jerome A. Pollos for Al Jazeera America

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. Last month a kid at a local high school made a hit list. A shop teacher found a shank hidden in his classroom.

So 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, one of those leaders and owner of Metals Bar, a Wallace tavern popular with miners. She tagged along when Welliver — whose uniform is sweatpants, a hooded sweatshirt and a cellphone at his ear — presented his new boxing club — set to open in February — to a gymnasium full of Wallace High School kids.

“He was like the Pied Piper,” Hayman said. “They’d have followed him out of the school that day if he’d said, ‘Let’s go to the gym.’”

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. He called himself Firpo, but reporters nicknamed him the “Wild Bull” for the way he charged his opponents at the sound of the first bell. One Oregonian allegedly wrote of Bardelli in 1937, “There's only one Young Firpo on Earth. No other battler, anywhere, fights as he does.”

It was as if he 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.

John Bardelli, his son — a Spokane, Washington, personal injury attorney — has become something of a historian for his father’s career.

“He had this enormous strength from being out in the hills constantly. And doing hard labor,” he said. “Mucking with a shovel and a pick. Sawing wood. Climbing mountains. Packing. Literally a mountain man.”

A poster of Firpo "Wild Bull" Bardelli, a local boy who dominated boxing matches in the 1920s and 1930s, hangs on a door in Wallace.
Jerome A. Pollos for Al Jazeera America

After a car accident nearly ruined Guido Bardelli’s career, he returned to the Silver Valley to work as a laborer and raise his family. John Bardelli said his father kept his children far from the ring. “He wanted gentleman, and he wanted scholars,” he said. “Dad would say to us, ‘You get in that business, you’ll think there’s nothing else in the world. What are you going to do when you hang up, when your career’s over at 30? Where do you go from there? Then where are all these people that were cheering you on?’”

Bardelli said he struggles to answer one question, Would his father have supported boxing coming alive again in the Silver Valley? It’s dangerous, but is it more dangerous to keep kids from the very thing that might help them?

David Livingstone Smith, a philosophy professor at the University of New England who has done extensive research into man’s inclination to fight, initially bristled at the idea of boxing as a solution to problems in the Silver Valley. But as he spoke, he started to wonder if boxing is an inherent part of the local culture.

“You get cultural pockets — look at Jamaican sprinters. That little island has produced these incredible sprinters,” he said. “It’s just what you do when you’re growing up. And of course, when a few people have gained glory, it inspires other people to pursue that path.”

If history is any indication, maybe the Silver Valley is where people are simply born to fight.

Wallace boxer Coral Devereaux, 21, warms up for his bout on Fight Night.
Jerome A. Pollos for Al Jazeera America

Coral Devereaux, 21, had been training at Welliver’s boxing gym in Spokane — an hour west of the Silver Valley — for 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 went to Welliver, asking to train again.

Welliver looked the kid 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 Devereaux train harder and focus on boxing to stay clean.

For Devereaux, Welliver “is one of the biggest role models in my life.” He has 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,” he 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.”

He 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 through 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 lightweight 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.”

When a barista in Spokane whines to Welliver that she hasn’t been into his gym lately, he tells her to get off her ass. He’s not kidding.

His volunteer coaches aren’t warm and cuddly types either: One has “Fuck you” inked across his neck.

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 daughter.

But boxing is what he knows. He has 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 has 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.

Slideshow: Fight Night in Wallace, Idaho

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

Inside the popcorn-scented Wallace Civic Memorial Auditorium, a painted portrait of Guido Bardelli dressed as a miner, a pickaxe 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 says his favorite food is “itty bitty corndogs,” is in tears at the end of his fight. The ref ends the fight when he sees 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 explains.

James Evans, a lanky 17-year-old Wallace High School junior, squares off in his very first match, 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 him, 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 says 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 unattached fighter. The local newspaper just ran a front-page story on Devereaux’s life story.

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

When the first bell rings, the crowd is on its feet. The publisher of the local newspaper screams, “Go, Coral!” and grimaces when the young boxer takes a hit to the jaw.

Devereaux dodges a punch during his three-round bout.
Jerome A. Pollos for Al Jazeera America

Although Moreno shoves and ducks away from punches, Devereaux proves the winner after three rounds and raises his gloves high as the crowd yells. Across the gym, Welliver takes the mic from the announcer to say it’s the kid’s first anniversary being sober. The crowd already knows this, but it goes 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 goes 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 as he would ringside. Keep fighting. Blue skies are coming.