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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 5 of 6

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.

About The Author

Matt Palmquist


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