700 to see local, Irish boxers meet in March 17 tournament

Local boxers will have a rare matchup against their Irish counterparts in a Donnybrook -- or brawl -- that puts national pride on the line



In a small, makeshift gym behind a banged-up door in a North Oakland parking garage, a score of young amateur boxers are slugging their way through a Wednesday evening.

They're black, white, 14 years old or 30 or somewhere in between. When they spar in a roughshod ring under exposed pipes and unframed photos of Pittsburgh boxing greats slapped on the white cinder-block walls, they're not playing. They're ferocious. Yet they invariably end three rounds by slapping gloves or hugging before heading into the cold, gloomy garage to do their weighted running drills.

It's like "Rocky" to the nth power, this Pittsburgh team taking on an Irish one coached by an Olympic gold medal winner. Some 700 screaming fans will squeeze into a converted church on the North Side Monday night, St. Patrick's Day, to watch 11 locals take on peers from across the pond.

A tall and lean Irish team flew in Thursday. For most, it's their first trip to the States and for some it was their first plane ride. For all, it's their first time riding in the Pittsburgh St. Patrick's Day Parade.

It's being called Donnybrook, an Irish expression for a public brawl, and the last ticket available in the Grand Hall at the Priory was sold Feb. 28. That includes 150 standing-room ducats. There's already talk of a rematch in a Dublin hotel next year.

"This is more important than the states [championship]," Caleb Parish, 18, of Aliquippa, said not long after going toe-to-toe for three sparring rounds with Hugo Garcia of the North Side recently. "The states happen every year. This might not happen for another 50 years."

The last time Pittsburgh had one of these was 42 years ago. The late North Side sports promoter Bernard "Baldy" Regan brought the All-Ireland Olympic team to the Civic Arena in May 1972. The Irish won eight of 10 bouts.

Organizers of this Donnybrook, many of whom played as boys in basketball tournaments organized by Mr. Regan, didn't know about the 1972 bouts when they put this together. But when a city Pittsburgh's size takes on a country Ireland's size, there turn out to be connections across generations.

Michael Carruth, 46, who won Ireland's first boxing gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, is the Irish coach. In Pittsburgh the week before Valentine's Day to promote the event, he was shown a list of the Irish fighters from '72. He said his wife's Auntie Emily wound up marrying the 119-pounder, Mick Dowling.

As Mr. Carruth shook hands at Mullaney's Harp & Fiddle last month on a promotional bar hop, Mr. Carruth himself looked like a young Art Rooney. At least that's what Jamie Rooney, nephew of the Steelers founder and son of Vince Rooney, said when he saw Mr. Carruth. Art Rooney won an AAU welterweight belt 15 years before he founded the Steelers, and his brother Vincent boxed under the name Duke York.

Another local connection is Gerald Sherrell, 20, a 2011 Perry High School graduate who intends to go pro this summer. He's fighting as a middleweight for the Pittsburgh team. His great uncle, Willie Sherrell, was scheduled to box as a 132-pounder against an Irishman in '72, but a last-minute substitute took his place.

Gerald has seemed fated to follow Willie since wandering into a West End gym and sliding on boxing gloves as an 8-year-old. His father, also Gerald, later told him that his grandfather had boxed as a Marine and that his great uncle was an even more accomplished Golden Gloves fighter who had at least one bout at the Civic Arena.

"I was like, 'Wow,' " young Gerald said. "I wondered why I was so good at it."

He now has his great uncle's boxing shoes and gloves.

Make no mistake, this is a brutal game. The object is to knock out the opponent, even as other sports are becoming more conscious of keeping their players, well, conscious. But Mike McSorley, Team Pittsburgh's head coach, says true knockouts are rare among amateurs, and the good ones know how to protect themselves.

This crew has used the Internet to scout the Irish, combing Facebook and YouTube for information and even fight videos. One Irish teen's trash talk about what he's going to do in Pittsburgh also found its way here, psyching up the locals.

Watching a future opponent can't take anyone all that far. Conditioning and training can. Amateur boxers will get up well before dawn to run 4 or 5 miles before work or school and maybe squeeze in some sprints on their lunch hour. Both Irish and Pittsburgh fighters reported they shed as much as 20 pounds -- or 10 kilos -- preparing for this.

Ask Caleb Parish why he boxes and he'll say, "Why does the wind blow?"

Boxers have to box. They make time to go to gyms so obscure most people don't even know they exist. They do this to gain the right to get knocked around for two- and three-minute stretches, and then wait to see if judges think they knocked their opponents around even more.

"I will try my hardest to make Pittsburgh proud," says Mike Manna, the oldest of the Pittsburgh fighters at 30, who says he grew up brawling in Brighton Heights yet entered a ring only four years ago. "I've been bare-knuckle boxing my whole life. It's gloves I have to get used to."

Jimmy Cvetic, a retired Allegheny County police detective who runs the Western Pennsylvania Police Athletic League, gathered these fighters from gyms in and around the city. He made a point to tap Irish-Americans -- head coach Mike McSorley, Bob "Muscles" Healy, Jack Conway, Joe Mullen -- to lead his dozen coaches, but the fighters themselves are diverse.

That's fitting. Roy McHugh, 98, who covered boxing for The Pittsburgh Press, said that in the old days other ethnic fighters took on Irish names because Irish boxers drew larger crowds. Art Rooney Jr. said his father managed an Italian fighter named LaQuatra who fought as Mike Hogan at his father's request, and Hogan liked that so much he kept the name and refereed under it for years.

"Everyone's going to be Irish [on fight night]," Mr. Cvetic said. "If you can't have fun on St. Patrick's Day in Pittsburgh, something's wrong with you."

The poster of Billy Conn and other boxing memorabilia in the Oakland gym are the gift of Tim Conn, son of "The Pittsburgh Kid." It's called the Conn-Greb Boxing Club to honor Billy Conn and another local great, Harry Greb, the world middleweight and American light-heavyweight champion in the 1920s.

By the time Billy Conn was 23, he'd fought against nine world champs in three weight divisions, had beaten them all and was the light-heavyweight champion. Yet nine of every 10 times Conn's name is mentioned in Pittsburgh, particularly around St. Patrick's Day, there's one fight they talk about: Conn's loss to heavyweight champ Joe Louis before 55,000 screaming fans in Manhattan's Polo Grounds on June 18, 1941.

Here's the oft-told synopsis: Conn had staggered Louis in the 12th round, and all he needed to do to win was keep away from him. But Conn preferred to try knocking Louis out -- and got kayoed himself in the 13th round. Asked later why he didn't just dance around the bigger man, Conn famously joked, "What's the sense of being Irish if you can't be stupid?"

Mike Diven, lead promoter and organizer of this event, likes that story and a lot of other old fight tales. He is the son of the late Joey Diven, often called the greatest street fighter of them all. His father was Conn's close friend and bodyguard, and Mike Diven was a pallbearer at Conn's funeral in 1993.

Tim Conn, watching Matt Conway of Brookline and Johnny Spell of the North Side spar last month, was impressed by them and other teenaged fighters he saw. More than one probably has dreams as big as Billy Conn's.

Apart from what they've learned from the Internet, they don't know much about these fellows from the Drimnagh Boxing Club in Dublin, except that they must love fighting, too, or they wouldn't be crossing an ocean looking for a bout.

PCNC, the Pittsburgh Cable News Channel, will televise the bouts from 7 to 10 p.m. Monday.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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