The Great Irish Hope?

How amateur boxing matches -- and a bunch of mostly black and Latino fighters -- are resurrecting Irish culture in the Sunset

"It's a phenomenon," says Jerry Maxwell, 53, the sagacious and charismatic matchmaker who arranges the center's bouts. "San Francisco is getting to be a very white-collar town, where boxing doesn't appeal to a lot of people, but nothing has flourished like this has." Maxwell, a man with a perpetual glint in his eye, rubs the crown of his head, bald except for a ring of white hair. "Who knows? Maybe we'll make San Francisco the fight town it used to be."

It's three weeks before Fight Night, and Tom Maguire steers his green Dodge Ram truck across Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, its shores lined with idle tankers awaiting some kind of resolution to the West Coast dockworkers' strike. As dusk falls on desolate industrial wasteland, Maguire weaves between dilapidated buildings until he crunches to a stop in a gravel lot abutting a dark, ramshackle structure. Someone looks out a second-tier window, spots Maguire's truck, and shouts, "Sunset in the house!"

This is the San Francisco Police Athletic Club, the only dedicated boxing gym left in a city whose boxing history stretches back to the 1800s. Jerry Maxwell runs the gym as a training facility for his stable of amateur fighters, who range in age from 8 to 35. An enormously respected figure in the San Francisco boxing scene, Maxwell fits the role of mentor perfectly, dispensing aphorisms about the sport -- "You can neutralize skill with ferocity" -- that apply to the rest of life, too. He grew up a tough kid in the Mission District, gravitating to boxing because, as he puts it, "I figured if I'm going to be fighting all the time, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability." As a teenager in the early 1960s, he fought in the amateur ranks and sparred with professionals at the legendary Newman's Gym in the Tenderloin District. But the politics and backstabbing so common to the sport caused him to leave boxing and join the countercultural revolution instead.

As admiring youngsters look on, Patrick Mullen gets 
taped up before donning gloves and entering the ring.
Paolo Vescia
As admiring youngsters look on, Patrick Mullen gets taped up before donning gloves and entering the ring.
Flanked by Dan Maguire, left, and Fight Night organizer 
Tom Maguire, Patrick Mullen basks in the glow of 
Paolo Vescia
Flanked by Dan Maguire, left, and Fight Night organizer Tom Maguire, Patrick Mullen basks in the glow of victory.

"It was summertime in San Francisco during the 1960s, I was 18, and there were a lot of good things going on," says Maxwell, the glint in his eye disappearing behind a wink. "At that time, I didn't think that being involved in pugilism day in and day out was conducive to my higher consciousness. As I was becoming a man, boxing was very impacting. When you become a man among gladiators, at least on the physical level, it's very lasting. For me, it built a sense of fair play, sportsmanship across all ethnic lines.

"Now you've got fantasy boxing -- everyone wants to do it, but no one wants to get hurt. But that's all part of the real aspect of boxing: understanding how to get hurt, how to hurt somebody, and how not to get hurt."

Maxwell has created a community at his gym based around these principles, and as Maguire climbs out of his truck, he finds his older brother, Dan, already waiting for him outside the building, clad in a San Francisco Irish T-shirt. Dan Maguire parlayed several championships in late-'80s Golden Gloves tournaments into a professional career, and he has stayed lean and quick. The Maguire brothers are here to coach and spar with Patrick Mullen, a lanky 29-year-old plasterer and lifetime Sunset resident who will box for the pride of the neighborhood on Fight Night. He began training formally only two years ago; until then, he says, he confined most of his fighting to "outside the ring."

"Back when I was still drinking, people would be pissed off at me, saying, 'Why are you fighting?'" Mullen says with a chortle. "Now they want to shake my hand, because I'm fighting without any drunks getting tossed." But in the ring the pressure is greater, and he's eager to get in a few last workouts before his performance at the cultural center.

Inside the gym, vintage vending machines -- stocked with Coke and Hamm's beer for 50 cents -- line a hallway, giving way to long-faded promotional posters for heavyweight fights at Kezar Stadium, the Cow Palace, the Civic Auditorium, and Candlestick Park. The hallway leads to a boxing room replete with punching bags, medicine balls, and exercise equipment dating back to the 1970s. Under watchful photographs of legendary fighters, Mullen, his red hair cropped above a thin goatee, begins skipping rope. Mullen and Tom Maguire have been friends since they were 8, when they met playing soccer in the Sunset, but they hold nothing back in the sparring ring.

"I don't know if I can last four rounds," says Tom Maguire as his brother assists him in lacing up his gloves. "We'll shoot for three, see if I can make it."

Tom Maguire quit boxing when he was in high school, after only a couple of amateur bouts, deciding he'd rather gain the weight necessary to play football. He's kept the weight ever since, and he's as round and solid as Mullen is long and wispy. It doesn't make for the best matchup -- "You're trying to move a mountain," Dan Maguire tells Mullen at one point -- but if Mullen can hang in against Maguire, he'll do just fine against whomever he draws at the Irish Cultural Center. As Dan Maguire's four kids buzz around the room, playfully bobbing and weaving, Tom Maguire and Mullen climb into the ring, exhaling noisily through their noses, their mouthpieces curtailing further conversation. A wall-mounted timer buzzes, and the sparring match begins.

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