The Great Irish Hope?

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

The original Newman's Gym closed in the mid-'70s, and although one of the trainers relocated to a nearby spot (shuttered a few years ago), San Francisco hasn't had a pure boxing gym of any renown since then. Over the past few decades, the amateur boxing scene in San Francisco has grown decidedly stale; several gyms offer so-called white-collar boxing programs (aimed at executives looking for a different kind of workout and often accompanied by upbeat dance music), and the women's amateur scene has generated some buzz, but most boxing aficionados agree that the city has watched its proud legacy as a fighting town fizzle.

"In the mid-'20s and '30s in San Francisco, before television and all that, you had four-round boxing all over the city," says Diarmuid Philpott, a former deputy police chief and, during his stint as president of the Irish Cultural Center, the man who brought Tom Maguire aboard. "San Francisco was a great, great boxing town, and there's a great legacy of Irish fighters. There's still a demand for it, people are still anxious to see kids stand up and fight, and we just hope [Fight Night] helps to stimulate amateur boxing in the clubs. I think we've pressed a button at the cultural center."

By bringing boxing back to the Sunset District, the amateur fight nights are also serving another purpose: bringing the Irish back to the Sunset. Long a predominantly Irish neighborhood, the area is now more than 50 percent Asian, with many Irish-American families gone to the suburbs. Accordingly, Irish influence over the city's power structure has also waned, although many of the cultural center's 4,200 members remain players in San Francisco's political circles. Still, the center needs a steady influx of new members -- who pay a one-time fee of $200 for a lifetime membership -- to remain financially strong, and that now means looking beyond the immediate neighborhood.

Almost 600 people cram into the Irish Cultural Center 
for Fight Night.
Paolo Vescia
Almost 600 people cram into the Irish Cultural Center for Fight Night.
An exhausted Vincent Garcia, 10, gets a trophy and a 
kiss after his three-round victory.
Paolo Vescia
An exhausted Vincent Garcia, 10, gets a trophy and a kiss after his three-round victory.

"The connection between the Irish and the Sunset is deep, and even if they don't live in the area, their parents or grandparents do," says David Philpott, who followed in his Uncle Diarmuid's footsteps to serve as president of the United Irish Cultural Center. "The Sunset is still a hook for the young Irish, and even if they moved out, down the Peninsula or wherever, if you ask them where they're from, they say the Sunset. For a lot of the Irish, these boxing nights are a reunion."

David Philpott steps briskly through the front door of the Irish Cultural Center. A labor relations administrator at the University of San Francisco, Philpott, dressed in an immaculate suit, leaps without pause into the role of tour guide, showing off refurbished hallways -- paid for by boxing night receipts -- and dispensing plenty of behind-the-scenes nuggets of information. "All but one of our chefs is Chinese," he says while pausing in a kitchen off the center's restaurant, which, like the bar, is open to the public most of the week. "More and more, this place is being rented out by all different ethnic groups. Every major politician in this town has held some kind of event, some kind of fund-raiser, at the Irish Cultural Center."

Philpott flicks a light switch and strides into a barn-shaped room the size of a high school gymnasium, where an old Irish tub cart -- a two-wheeled vehicle preserved from the age of horse-drawn transportation -- occupies a mounted perch. The floor is divided, with tape, into courts for Wednesday night badminton; on summer Sunday mornings, the room hosts live broadcasts of Irish football, a mix of soccer and rugby akin to Australian Rules Football. In two days, the room will host its third night of amateur boxing, and Philpott credits the program's success to Tom Maguire and his friends.

"What you see of Tom Maguire when he's sparring in the ring is the same attitude, the same determination, he's put into this place," Philpott says. "It's a success because of the following the Maguire brothers have. Young Irish feel comfortable here again, and it's because the Maguires are telling people we need their support."

Even if the marriage between the cultural center and amateur boxing is an unusual one, Jerry Maxwell says he thinks the center's members are growing used to its success.

"To expose the center, to get new members, you have to be creative, do things you don't normally do. And even if some parts of it are still frowned upon by certain people who don't follow the sport, they know the money is coming back to them in some form, they know it's not money being wasted," he says. "And word is out: The fighters want to be there, it's become a chosen place for amateur boxing, and there's a lot of energy for the fighters to feed off."

Good reviews from fighters are the ultimate testament to the quality of the center's events, says Peter Howes, one of the few promoters in recent years who has staged successful professional cards in San Francisco. He believes a stimulated amateur scene will lead to better pro fights, so he's thrilled by the Sunset phenomenon. At his most recent event in the San Francisco Concourse, Howes asked the world-famous Michael Buffer -- the announcer who has trademarked the phrase, "Let's get ready to rumble!" -- to plug the Fight Nights at the Irish Cultural Center.

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