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"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.