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 doesn't remain that way. After the tepid first bout, the second match features two boxers who immediately pique the crowd's interest. Vincent Garcia, one of Jerry Maxwell's pupils at the Police Athletic Club, is a skinny 10-year-old in billowing red shorts that all but swallow his spindly legs. This is Garcia's first fight, and moments before, while tying his shoes, he looked up at the crowd and admitted he was nervous. Entering the ring, he sees that his opponent, Kyle Jackson, also 10, is a slightly more muscular black kid. But Maxwell, stationing himself with a bucket and a placid expression in Garcia's corner, has faith. "Vincent's a bright kid," Maxwell says. "Intelligent, and calm as can be."

Those qualities serve Garcia well tonight, as his inaugural fight quickly degenerates into an exercise in self-defense. Jackson, showing his age and lack of experience, displays no discipline whatsoever, opening with a flurry of fast punches that inflict little damage on Garcia but send the smaller boy staggering to a hasty retreat. Garcia buries his head under his gloves and ducks the onslaught against the ropes. "They don't call that fighting!" shouts an old Irishman. "That's wailing and flailing!" And the crowd loves it, roaring its approval as Garcia battles back against Jackson, whose initial discharge of energy has exhausted him, only midway through the first of three two-minute rounds. The young fighters spend the rest of the first round swatting madly at each other, rarely connecting.

After regrouping with Maxwell and Maguire in his corner, Garcia distinguishes himself in the second round. He dances away from the flailing fists of Jackson, lands a few solid jabs that elicit gasps from the audience, and withstands several more tempests. After the final bell, Tony Hall claps along with the standing ovation, enthusing, "Great fight! I don't know where they get all that energy!"

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 judges deliberate for an extra minute before signaling Hall with their decision. The supervisor stands between the two exhausted 10-year-olds, their ribs heaving against slick and battered sides, and draws out the drama: "And the winner ... from the San Francisco Police Athletic Gym ...

"Vincent Garcia!"

Little Garcia is mobbed by family members as he staggers out of the ring, but he only has eyes for his trophy. Escorted to a ringside seat, he plops down with a dazed, drained expression, as if struggling to understand how he got from Point A to Point B, amazed at the reception he's getting from the Irish Cultural Center. All through the next fight, Garcia's still-bandaged hands finger his trophy as his eyes flicker between the plastic boxer and the action in the ring.


Vincent Garcia is still clutching his trophy an hour later when a blast of bagpipes announces the start of the sixth bout. But this isn't just any bout -- this is the fight featuring the Great Irish Hope of the Sunset District, Pat Mullen. As the crowd's thunderous roar rises to match the bagpipes, Mullen, clad in white shorts, proceeds to the stage flanked by Maguire and Maxwell. Mullen climbs into the ring to an even louder ovation, and although the fighter has shaken most of the clapping hands, Tony Hall still introduces him to the crowd, then elicits a chorus of boos by doing the same for Mullen's opponent, a stocky, olive-skinned bull. Adding to the tension, the referee orders a change of headgear before the bout, and an endless stream of shouted encouragement -- "Let's go, Pat! Give it to him!" -- fills the void before the bell rings.

Mullen comes out hooking, his legs splayed, his punches wild. But if his style is unorthodox, it's also relentless, and soon, much to the chagrin of the catcalling crowd, the referee stops the fight to give Mullen's opponent a standing eight-count. Maguire, now a coach as well as an organizer, claps enthusiastically from his friend's corner. In the second round, Mullen takes some heavy punches, and at one point, when the referee steps in to break up the fighting, Mullen almost falls down while backing away. The official warns Mullen not to lead with his shoulder, which brings scorn from the audience. "Don't hit him, whatever you do," shouts one old coot. "We wouldn't want any fighting around here!"

By the start of the third round, an exhausted Mullen has let his guard down. His hands droop, his arms too weak to muster more than a tap against his opponent's face, and his legs splay like a stick figure's. Fortunately, the other guy is in much worse shape; when the final bell rings, the two fighters all but collapse against each other.

"And the winner ...," intones Tony Hall, a hand on each fighter's arm, "from the San Francisco Police Athletic Club ..."

The crowd explodes as one.

"Patrick Mullen!"

His white shorts are speckled with blood, his freckled face is flushed red, but Patrick Mullen has done the Sunset District proud, providing a perfect capper for the evening and winning the "Fighter of the Night" trophy. It's a long five minutes before he can extricate himself from the family members and neighborhood friends who swarm him near the weigh-in station. Maguire stands nearby, deflecting offers for drinks, and someone tells Maxwell, "You could sell out 1,000 seats at $40 a head, and do it every month." But Maxwell shakes his head, calm amid the chaos. "If it leaves here," he says, "it loses the magic."

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