Inaugural 'Pittsburgh Donnybrook' a knockout success


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On any other St. Patrick's Day, Chuck Handerhan and his fellow members of the Pittsburgh Police Emerald Society Pipes and Drums would have been divided into small groups, making stop after stop in Irish pubs and restaurants all over the city.

And, most important to the region's finest bagpipers, they would be paid handsomely for bringing life to the stirring melodies of their homeland.

"This is our night to shine," Handerhan said.

Monday night, Handerhan would take the stage once again. Here he was, decked out in his green kilt and standing atop a table on a balcony holding his instrument, the spotlight fixed on him. Down below in the North Side's Grand Hall, a red boxing ring waited for a night of bouts between some of the best amateur fighters from Ireland and Pittsburgh. Hundreds of observers looked up to Handerhan, who would kick off the proceedings with "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" and "Rakes of Mallow."

Handerhan shined, but this event was different than most others he has worked on March 17 because it was not about him.

"We gave up paying details, thousands of dollars, to be here," said Handerhan, 43, the group's pipe major. "It means that much to us, it truly does. This is more important."

This was Pittsburgh's Irish community at its proud and creative best. It started with the vision of Mike Diven -- a former city councilman and state representative whose late father, Joey, has been called the greatest street fighter who ever lived -- and the savvy of Jimmy Cvetic, the former cop and youth boxing gym founder. Throw in a Rooney -- this would be Tom, cousin of Steelers owner Dan -- and you have a big-thinking trio.

In four months, with the help of many others who liked the idea of honoring Pittsburgh's deep boxing legacy, they were able to get 11 Irish fighters and their coaches to the Steel City and sell out 700 tickets to the inaugural "Pittsburgh Donnybrook." They even fashioned a trophy called the "Ambassador's Cup" that would be given to the winner. The hope, of course, is that the Cup will be fought for annually -- maybe someday in Ireland.

The Grand Hall is often used for wedding receptions, corporate parties and charity fundraisers. But this was an opportunity that Priory Hotel director of operations John Graf, who handles bookings for the hall, couldn't pass up.

"It's really got a lot of buzz," Graf said. "The Irish kids, none of them have been to the States before. It's a big thing for them. It really brings people together and allows them to come out and celebrate the Irish side of their heritage in a real, authentic way."

The majority of the fights, waged in a ring surrounded by stained glass windows from the old church, were spirited affairs, with each young man embracing his competitor afterward as a show of respect.

Tim Conn, the oldest son of Billy Conn, the shamrock-wearing "Pittsburgh Kid" known for his world light heavyweight championship and challenging Joe Louis in the 1940s for the world heavyweight title, sat a few rows back from the fights Monday night and took in the action with a nostalgic air.

"It's a throwback to the way boxing used to be in Pittsburgh," Tim, 70, said. "We had fights every week in Pittsburgh, all great ethnic rivalries, different neighborhoods. This is what it used to be. Now they have to bring in someone from another country."

Hey, anything to bring boxing and Pittsburgh together again. That was the attitude of Bruce McElhaney when Diven approached him looking for financial help for the event.

"They couldn't find any sponsors," said McElhaney, a red-bearded 43-year-old who owns Maxxco, a civil contracting firm. "I said, 'Let's go.' I went all-in, and four months later, here we are, giving back to the community. It's just an amazing thing."

The proceeds of the Donnybrook -- won by Team Pittsburgh, coached by Cvetic and Mike McSorley -- will benefit the local Police Athletic League, which runs youth sports camps and leagues.

"I am absolutely positive that this is going to become a staple for St. Patrick's Day in Pittsburgh," McElhaney said. "It's not necessarily for the Irish community. It's for the kids as a whole."


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.

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