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The United Irish Cultural Center squats in a tan brick building on 45th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard, adjacent to a Days Inn Motel and within earshot of screeching monkeys at the San Francisco Zoo. Its exterior is windowless and imposing, interrupted only by Gaelic crests and massive green doors. On a dark, quiet Wednesday evening near the end of October, the only guy in the bar -- the first room, dim and cozy, off the main entrance -- chats lazily with the bartender, his brogue growing more exaggerated with every swig of beer. The bartender, half-watching a basketball game on television and wiping his rag across the counter, bristles when his peace is interrupted by the noisy jangle of the phone.
"'Tis probably another call about the fights," he says, before dispatching the caller with a few "ayes" and "nos."
The customer, who looks to be in his mid-30s, rocks forward on his stool. "They have boxing here?" he asks.
"This Friday will be the third one we've had. They've all sold out."
"Where do they do it?"
"You're kidding! They can fit that many people up there?" The guy scratches at a tuft of blond hair poking out of his cap. "Can you drink?"
"Holy shite," the guy says. "But I've got a volleyball game Friday." He taps his fingers on the counter, considering, then takes a long pull from his beer. When the draft ends, so does his deliberation.
"Volleyball, Christ. I'm coming to the fights."
The fights at the Irish Cultural Center -- amateur bouts between Bay Area fighters, some as young as 10, most of whom are black or Latino -- are the brainchild of 29-year-old Tom Maguire, a second-generation Sunset resident appointed to the center's board a few years ago, when the private social club was facing a grim situation. Its 25-year-old building, constructed by an all-volunteer crew, was showing signs of age, and its activities -- bridge clubs, badminton tournaments, wedding receptions, political speeches, and the like -- weren't exactly setting the younger generation afire.
"Every meeting they would read off new members and deceased members," says Maguire, who became the youngest member on the center's board. "The deceased members, you'd read off five names a month. The new members, you might get one or two. That's what we were trying to shift, and that was tough."
But if even older members professed a desperate need for "new blood and fresh faces," only Maguire, a former amateur boxer, took it literally. And his idea prompted more than a few tsks and groans when he pitched it at a membership meeting. One elderly Irish woman asked: "What's next, are we going to have mud wrestling out here?"
"I understand the reaction," says Maguire, his round, goateed face breaking into a grin at the memory. "Imagine you build a place, and a younger guy comes in wanting to do something outlandish. The hall upstairs is for wedding receptions -- I had mine there in January -- and the next thing you know, they're having a fight up there. People thought, 'There's going to be riots.' It's a different idea, but it can't just be a center where old ladies come to play bridge. That's great, but we need more new people. And I was really putting my neck on the line. It could have been a disaster."
Instead, it was a success beyond anyone's expectations. For the first boxing night, held in June 2001, Maguire printed 550 tickets and sold them all for $10 at Irish sports bars. Fight Night went off without a hitch, and Maguire agreed to arrange a second one for February. This time, the center upped the price of tickets to $20 and put them on sale at the box office; with no advertising, a line formed two hours early and the tickets sold out in half that time. "We haven't had too many sellout events here," says David Philpott, a past president of the center. "But I tell you, coming out here and seeing a line out the door, people even trying to scalp tickets, it's created some excitement. This is a ticket you want to have."
Beyond their success as pure social spectacle -- San Francisco supervisor/wedding singer Tony Hall serves as master of ceremonies, a bagpiper performs at intermission, the bar does a predictably brisk business, and the energetic crowd spans a convivial mix of ages and ethnicities -- the boxing nights tap into something deeper: a blue-collar love for pugilism that many had declared gone from San Francisco. Since the city's heyday as a boxing mecca in the 1950s and '60s, the amateur scene had grown moribund, with only the annual Golden Gloves tournament providing a regular public showcase for local fighters. But the events at the Irish Cultural Center, where the proceeds from Fight Night fund scholarships and structural improvements, are proving that, strange as it may sound, a building more used to bridge clubs than boxing rings might be a genuine chance for San Francisco to rebuild its reputation as a haven for the sport.