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The Great Irish Hope? 

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

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002

Page 3 of 6

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.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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