- Young Kwak
Chauncy Welliver is walking his fat ass up these stairs again. He doesn't want to be here, in the hot, sticky stairwell of the Paulsen Center in downtown Spokane. He'd rather be sitting at home with his 4-year-old daughter, or at his boxing gym shaping young minds and muscles, or anywhere that's not here.
Chauncy, 35 years old and about 100 pounds overweight, is huffing up 15 flights because on Oct. 13, he's getting back in the ring. His opponent? "King" Afa Tatupu, who briefly held the New Zealand heavyweight championship belt, before getting knocked out in his last four fights.
On the stairs, Chauncy is falling behind his training partner, a local bodybuilder named Theresa Stone, who he met when she came to work out at his gym, BoxFit.
They run stairs together nearly every day. They motivate each other.
"He makes me come," Stone says.
"Whoa whoa whoa, finish that sentence," Chauncy says. "C-o-m-e."
"Don't be dirty," she says. "He likes to embarrass me."
Chauncy is gregarious with a quick smile, a natural ham. Videos of his fights show him chopping it up with anyone in earshot — his opponent, the ref, people sitting ringside.
His rough and rounded edges were shaped by his mama's love, a childhood growing up in Spokane's notoriously gritty neighborhood. The Hillyard Hammer, as he's known, is the youngest in a family full of fighters, though his father never wanted him to box. Rick Welliver Sr. refused to train Chauncy, so he more or less taught himself.
During his 73-fight pro career, Chauncy won the youth World Boxing Council title. He's still never been knocked down, and in 2012 was ranked the fifth best heavyweight boxer in the world — one fight away from a shot at the heavyweight title. Since then, he's lost seven of his last 10 fights.
While he's stopped on the stairs, he recounts how he recently got an award from the Spokane County Sheriff's Office for socking a drunk guy who's accused of hitting a woman. The two were part of a group who Welliver drove around town on the Spokane Party Bus, which he owns with his wife, Sarah.
He also talks about sparring with Mike Tyson, meeting Floyd Mayweather and traveling the world as a fighter. (In China he's known as the Panda.) He explains why he has a tattoo on his shin of a rooster hanging from a gallows (he says his manhood hangs below his knee), and he razzes Stone some more.
"She's actually Kim Jong Un's cousin," he says. Stone is Korean. She laughs, shakes her head, rolls her eyes.
His shirt now drenched in sweat, Welliver says the upcoming fight gives him motivation to exercise. Plus, he's always wanted a homecoming bout.
And for a guy whose identity is so knotted around a sport where there's always another fight, and always more money, Chauncy couldn't say no.
But some around him are concerned. They see the effect boxing has had on fighters in the family and throughout the sport. They wonder how many more. How much will he give? How much of him will the sweet science take?
"You leave a little piece of yourself inside that ring every time," says Rick Welliver, his brother, whose pro career ended in 2004. "All these people who slap him on the back, they have no idea what he's left in that ring."
THE HILLYARD HAMMER
Chauncy Welliver was about 12 years old and doing belly flops off the high dive at the Hillyard pool when another kid started picking on him, his brother Dewey Welliver recalls. The kid was older, maybe 15 or 16, and started calling Chauncy fat, pushing him around. He challenged Chauncy to a fight.
Instead Chauncy and Dewey piled into their mom's car, and Vivian Welliver started to drive away when the teenager shouted at the Wellivers: "If he comes back here tomorrow, we're gonna beat his ass," Chauncy recalls.
Vivian stopped the car and told Chauncy to get out.
"You're gonna fight him," she said.
She gave him her wedding ring: "Punch him right in the face." He was scared shitless.
A mob of kids gathered at a nearby park where Chauncy squared off with the older kid.
"I'm holding my hands up like what I think a boxer is supposed to do," he describes now. "And then I hit him. Boom!"
The older kid got in a good shot and bloodied Chauncy's nose. It stained his new, white Gonzaga shirt.
Chauncy says he didn't win the fight, but it was a defining moment. The name "Hillyard Hammer" wouldn't come till years later, but that fight sparked the flame.
"He proved to everybody around that he was tough," Dewey says. "I think he showed himself that he was tough. He never really knew what he was."
At home that night, Chauncy remembers his mother scrubbing the blood out of his white shirt. The next day, she made him go back to the pool with the shirt on, and told him to walk right through the group of kids to send a message.
Vivian, as she tells the story now, is conflicted. She believes Chauncy needed to stand up for himself, but she questions her decision to let her sons get in the ring.
"Dewey has Parkinson's now," she says. "I'm not saying it's all from fighting, but..."
THE BROTHERS WELLIVER
As a kid, the Hillyard Hammer wanted to be a sports writer. He watched wrestling on TV and stood in the background as his father trained his older brothers.
"He wanted Dewey and Rick to box, but not me," Chauncy says. "There's a part of me that's like 'f—- you.' I was supposed to be a fat little brother."
Rick Welliver is the oldest of the three who boxed professionally. He was admittedly the worst, but arguably the most exciting. He punched hard but didn't have much of a defense. The papers named him the Pitbull.
"I used to knock guys dead," he says.
- Welliver won two titles in China.
Dewey Welliver, just 10 months older than Chauncy, was a textbook fighter — smooth, lightning fast, head like a rock.
At 17, he traveled to Mexico to start his pro career (fighters can't turn pro in the U.S. until 18). Chauncy says he helped organize the fight, unbeknownst to their parents.
Dewey started boxing at a young age, and has racked up more than 100 amateur wins. He's a five-time national amateur champion and a one-time international champ. As a teenager, Dewey bought a house outright on the west side and fell in the lifestyle that beckons many young boxers with cash in their pockets.
"Fast cars, fast women and slow horses," as Dewey describes it.
Now at 36, his speech is noticeably slurred, and he confirms that he has the early stages of Parkinson's disease.
Chauncy has avoided the pitfalls that gripped his brother, but "he's been a sparring partner for Mike Tyson, for Wladimir Klitschko, for a lot of the top guys," Dewey says. "He gets hit by some of the big, huge, hard hitters, and he's able to take it. He's gotta have some kind of damage inside his head somewhere."
Personally, Rick says he too feels the effects of a boxing career including problems with his memory.
Studies have linked chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to boxing, as "boxer brain" and "punch drunk syndrome" have been long been a part of the sport's history. Some have called for a ban on boxing altogether.
Like Chauncy, Rick runs a local gym, Spokane Boxing. Those who know the two brothers say that Chauncy opening a competing gym was the start of the bad blood between the two. They rarely talk and have opposing coaching philosophies.
Rick, more of an in-your-face drill sergeant, wants nothing to do with the professional boxing world and believes his job is to protect the kids he trains. Turning them pro before they're ready, if they ever are, can be dangerous, he says.
"All these kids think being a pro fighter is cool and sexy, and my brother perpetuates that, but it's not. It's gross," Rick says. "At that point, it's a business, and you're a prostitute for pain. The pureness of the sport is totally gone."
Chauncy believes fighters should compete against the best and get paid to do it. Pro fighters jump through more medical protocols than amateurs, he says.
"Rick doesn't like to put his guys in tough fights because they get exposed," Chauncy says. "You should fight the best. I have confidence in my coaching ability, and I've never gotten anybody hurt."
- With his trainer, Joe Hipp.
Rick says he will not attend Chauncy's fight later this month but wishes his brother well. "It's an unforgiving sport, and I just don't want to see my brother take any more punishment."
In June of 2012, Chauncy fought Sherman "The Caribbean Tank" Williams in Macau, China. Looking back now, he says he coasted into that fight with cockiness, and it cost him.
He lost the fight by decision, and along with it his shot at Alexander Povetkin and the world heavyweight title, not to mention a six-figure payday.
In an early round, Williams unleashed a thunderous hit that sent a buzz through Chauncy's body, like a stun gun to the top of the head.
"I had never been hurt up to that point, nothin' bad at least," he says. "But he hurt me, and I don't like saying that."
He would go on to lose six of his next eight fights through 2016. Today, he knows his shot at the title, fleeting though it was, is all but completely gone. So why keep going? Why take more hits?
The money doesn't hurt, though it's a relatively small purse. And he says the fight gives him a reason to get in shape.
But there are selfish motivations at play as well. Chauncy loves seeing his name in ink and hearing it on people's lips.
"Now that I'm training fighters and standing on the sideline, it sucks," he says. "I come from a family with addictive personalities, and I'm addicted to the crowd."
Chauncy is the Hillyard Hammer after all. Boxing is a major part of his identity, and in the world of professional boxing there's always one more fight, one more payday.
"That's the lure of boxing," Rick says. "You can poke a vein, you can smoke it, you can snort it. But there's nothing as high as hearing the roar of the crowd."
Chauncy's wife, Sarah, who is an event coordinator for the Coeur d'Alene Casino and is promoting the fight, is cautiously supportive of her husband's comeback.
"His life ahead is very promising, and I don't want to ruin that for a 15 grand fight at the casino," she says. "If it was up to me, my hope is that he gets what he needs out of this, and then he leaves it."
- Young Kwak
- Welliver trains sixth-grader Grant Wacker five times a week.
ALWAYS ONE MORE
Chauncy Welliver wants to sit down. On a sunny weekday a few weeks before the fight, he's walking through Riverfront Park with his wife and daughter. His hip bothers him. The cartilage is completely gone.
Lemyn, his 4-year-old, climbs on his 6-foot-2-inch frame. From her seat on his shoulders, she playfully bats at his head while he talks.
Chauncy has had to train differently for this fight. He's always had fast hands and quick feet, especially for a heavyweight. But his reflexes have slowed considerably. He knows that.
That means strengthening his legs to sacrifice agility for power.
"I've seen this kid before, he can really punch," Chauncy's trainer Joe Hipp says of his opponent. "Chauncy's gotta wear him down to the body, and hopefully the rest will take care of itself."
Hipp was the first Native American boxer to fight for the World Boxing Association world title and later won the World Boxing Federation heavyweight world title. Chauncy is half Native American, and Hipp was his idol growing up.
"This is not gonna be a boxing match," Chauncy says. "This is gonna be a fight."
Chauncy swings his daughter off his shoulders. He shows a text conversation on his phone with a Russian promoter offering him $25,000 to fight. He would take it, he says, but it's scheduled for the same night as his event in Coeur d'Alene.
Plus, he's got at least three or four fights lined up in the next several months. Because there's always one more. ♦
House of Fury boxing: Chauncy Welliver vs. Afa Tatupu • Sat, Oct. 13 at 7 pm • $25/$40/$60 • Coeur d'Alene Casino • 37914 S. Nukwalqw, Worley • cdacasino.com • 800-523-2464