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 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.

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.
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 
victory.
Paolo Vescia
Flanked by Dan Maguire, left, and Fight Night organizer Tom Maguire, Patrick Mullen basks in the glow of victory.
A bagpiper leads local boy Patrick Mullen into the ring.
Paolo Vescia
A bagpiper leads local boy Patrick Mullen into the ring.

"This Friday will be the third one we've had. They've all sold out."

"Where do they do it?"

"Upstairs."

"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?"

"Yeah."

"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.

"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.

"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.

Mullen's style is unorthodox, to say the least, but his dancing around the ring keeps him out of Maguire's reach. His jab has improved over the two years he's been training, but Dan Maguire barks at him to keep his hands up, and his head tucked. "Relax your breathing," Dan tells Mullen between rounds, as Mullen spits blood and water into a ringside funnel, which is joined by a long tube to a bucket on the floor. "How are you feeling?"

"Tired."

"Well, this is the third round, that's when you get your wind back." Dan Maguire, ever attentive, smears Vaseline on the fighters' faces, a coating that protects the dry and battered skin from further glove burns.

Halfway through the third round, Tom Maguire uncoils his bulky arms and unleashes a vicious combination to Mullen's head -- end of sparring session. As Pat leaves the ring, his head swimming, he says, "I don't want to overdo it. I want to fight that night."

Mullen heads upstairs to shower, and Tom Maguire, who has a day job as a brokerage manager at Schwab, removes his gloves and tape, his face flushed from the exertion and direct hits. Swaggering over to one of the vending machines, the man who brought boxing back to the Sunset pops in a couple of quarters. "Oh, man," he says, his broad shoulders sagging, his friendly features crumbling in exhaustion. "I've got to have a 50-cent Hamm's after getting hit in the head that many times."


Given the centuries-old love affair between pugilism and the Emerald Isle, it's a real wonder that no other Irish cultural centers in the United States, to Maguire's knowledge, have tried hosting amateur boxing nights. (Several have called requesting his fight-arranging services; so far, he's politely declined.) In the early 1800s, when the Irish began immigrating to the United States in vast numbers -- driven from their homeland by religious prejudice, political oppression, and a devastating potato famine -- they brought their enthusiasm for the sport with them, and helped make San Francisco one of the country's premier boxing towns.

The Irish were among the first white settlers of California, arriving in the late 18th century, but in the mid-1800s, when gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada mountains (much of it by Irish-American miners), they became a lasting cultural force in San Francisco. Because the city bloomed so quickly after the Gold Rush, with no time to entrench the often-racist social hierarchies of established East Coast cities, the Irish rose from the working class to assume powerful, invulnerable positions in government, commerce, and industry. With no preordained ghettos to confine them, the Irish spread to all corners of the city, eventually forming the backbone of neighborhoods that became the Mission and Sunset districts. In 1867, San Francisco elected an Irishman, Frank McCoppin, as its ninth mayor, years before any other major American city -- including Irish-American strongholds such as Boston, New York, and Chicago -- followed suit.

By 1870, one-third of the city's 150,000 residents were Irish, one in three Irish men owned property, and many of the Irish who found gold in the mountains poured their newfound riches into San Francisco's first agricultural industries. As small-scale farming, livestock, and dairy enterprises thrived, so did the Irish-American businessmen who set up banks to fund them. James Phelan, who immigrated to New York from the county of Laois in Ireland, arrived in San Francisco on the heels of the Gold Rush and established the state's first national bank. Many other Irish entrepreneurs of the era -- their names now immortalized on streets, parks, and buildings -- saw their fortunes rise along with the city's, and Tom Hayes, an immigrant from County Cork who owned land where the present-day Civic Center stands, dreamed up the first public transportation in the city: the rail line from Market Street to Mission Dolores.

At around this same time, San Francisco was establishing itself as a hotbed for boxing -- especially in the amateur ranks. By the turn of the century, almost every working-class neighborhood had a warehouse hosting Friday night fights, and bouts were also common in shipyards, on barges, in parks, and at racetracks. The apex of the city's boxing scene arrived in the 1950s and '60s, when Kezar Stadium was the place to see fights; in 1955, it hosted Rocky Marciano's ninth-round knockout of Don Cockell, a battering that earned Marciano the world heavyweight title.

But the undisputed champion of the San Francisco boxing scene was Newman's Gym, on the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth streets in the Tenderloin, which for more than 60 years served as the training venue of choice for the world's greatest boxers: Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Jim Jeffries (winner of four heavyweight titles in San Francisco between 1901 and 1904, all of them knockouts), Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman. It also served as a second home for Jerry Maxwell, who trained there in the early 1960s.

"It had two rings up top, one downstairs, and all the premier fighters of the day would train there," say Maxwell wistfully. "At any given time, you'd have half a dozen contenders and champs coming through there, 50 people training, and sometimes they'd charge people just to watch. Sparring matches in that gym would be like championship bouts today."

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.

"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.

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!"

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?"

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!"

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."

Mullen, too, is getting some career advice. As he poses for pictures, still wiping away blood from his nose, he dismisses his admirers' suggestions that he take a stab at the Golden Gloves tournament. "I'm just a working man," Mullen wheezes, his hands still taped as he waves to the crowd. "It's for the people out here that I do this."

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