The Great Irish Hope?

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

And "Irish" Pat Lawlor, whose professional career in the 1990s earned him the nickname "Pride of the Sunset," is a regular fixture at the boxing nights. "Anything that gives repeated exposure to young fighters is great for the city, and this is definitely a big boost," he says, then lets a deep, rumbling laugh out of his barrel-shaped body. "What could be better than Fight Night at the Irish Cultural Center? I went to the fights and dinner broke out!"

From the bed of his truck, parked across the street from the Irish Cultural Center, Tom Maguire lifts two cardboard boxes of plastic trophies -- mass-produced golden boxers jabbing atop faux marble pedestals. "I forgot these at home, so I had to go back and get them," Maguire says. "That would have been a disaster."

Although the first day of November brings crisp, clear weather to the southwest corner of the Sunset District, the harried look on Maguire's face and the sweaty San Francisco Giants T-shirt clinging to his stocky frame suggest the splendid afternoon is perilously close to becoming one of those days.As if on cue, a woman materializes at Maguire's elbow: "Tom! Where have you been? There's someone on the phone for you!"

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.

Maguire totes the trophies through a rear entrance into the center. On one end of the vast hall, five tough-looking Latinos from Santa Rosa are sweating and grunting, their biceps straining and tattoos stretching, as they erect a raised boxing ring, the ropes slack and not yet draped with bunting. Eight bouts are scheduled for the center's third Fight Night, but as Maguire arrives with the statuettes, a trainer from Oakland greets him with bad news: Make that seven bouts.

"The kid's got a headache," the coach, dressed in a black jacket emblazoned with the logo of Brooklyn's world-famous Gleason's Gym, tells Maguire. "He's been iffy about fighting all week. I just got off the phone with him, and he's not coming."

"Are you sure?" Maguire eyes his handwritten sheet of prospective matches, making the coach repeat what he's just said. Desperate, he asks the guys setting up the ring if any of them can fight at the now-open weight. They can't, but they might know a guy who can. Cell phones emerge, fighting friends and local gyms are paged, and when Maxwell arrives, lugging a black bag full of headgear and boxing gloves, Maguire immediately breaks the bad news about the last-minute dropout. "Oh, Jesus," Maxwell sighs, then peruses his own list of potential bouts, suggests a few more gyms to try, and watches the crew fasten screws into corner posts.

Four hours later, as the gymnasium steadily fills with fighters, their entourages, organizers, boxing officials, and more than a few fans who got in early, Maxwell buzzes everywhere, cajoling trainers and representatives from USA Boxing (the national sanctioning agency that provides referees and judges), consoling the fighter who no longer has an opponent, and defusing minor problems before they flare into crises. Tom Maguire, stationed near the doctor, keeps his ear fixed to a walkie-talkie while the mostly teenage, mostly minority fighters weigh in. When Maguire signals the doors to be opened, Pat Mullen becomes the de facto greeter, shaking hands or exchanging hugs with almost every other person who files in. "I guess I'm the guy from the neighborhood," Mullen says.

VIPs and prominent Irish Cultural Center members are awarded choice seats on a raised stage; the rest of the nearly 600 attendees cram the auditorium on the other side of the ring, lining up five-deep at the bar and milling about in jovial clusters. It's a remarkably diverse crowd: High school kids mingle with old Irishmen; local politicians rub elbows with the families of fighters; and at one point, the crowd parts to make way for a trio of Hells Angels, clad in trademark jackets and clomping boots. Swaggering to prominent ringside seats, even they exchange a few hugs along the way.

As boxers tape up backstage and shadow-punch against the walls, Supervisor Tony Hall climbs into the ring, grabs a microphone, and lowers the crowd to a steady murmur. The lights dim, creating a spotlight effect on the ring. After a quick greeting, Hall launches into the national anthem, a rendition in keeping with his nonpolitical career as a wedding singer -- when he hits "land of the free," he throws a peace sign -- and after soaking up the applause and smoothly plugging Sean Connolly for judge in the upcoming election, Hall introduces the first pair of fighters, 119-pounders, one 28 years old and the other 17. The referee makes a few last-minute inspections of their headgear and mouthpieces, then the boxers jog to the center of the ring and touch gloves.

The bell rings.

And it's a pretty bad first bout. The fighters mean well, but neither can establish much rhythm; their jabs land sloppily, their counterpunches miss wildly. Faced with an awkward fight, the audience supplies its own entertainment, barking helpful advice in heavy brogues that rise above the thud of glove against skin. "Get away from the ropes! Get out of there!" shouts one older man who furrows his snowy eyebrows into a fixed scowl. "Jesus, he's wide open! Jab! Jab! Use your combination!" Then, realizing the volume of his voice, he turns to his companions and snaps, "Why is it so deathly quiet in here?"

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