BEVERLY — Martin McGarry is all fighter — broad shoulders, heavy fists and a face that’s taken a beating.
He grew up in Ireland where his older brothers taught him how to punch, lessons he put to good use at school and neighborhood dance halls.
When he was 17, McGarry whipped a world champ in his first-ever boxing match: a last-minute bout in London that helped him make a name for himself.
In 1969, he moved to Chicago and fought his way to a Golden Gloves title, two state championships and even won a few professional fights. Got knocked down a few times, but never knocked out.
Now, the 61-year-old has another fight on his hands — this one is for his life.
He’s facing long odds against a formidable opponent: Amyloidosis — a rare genetic disorder that causes the liver to produce proteins that attack the heart, kidneys and other organs, the same disease that killed his mother and two of his brothers.
There’s no known cure.
Last year, McGarry began suffering symptoms and suddenly dropped 20 pounds — down from middleweight to a welterweight. And he can’t come close to keeping up with his weekly regiment of pull-ups, sit-ups, sprints, sparring, climbing rope and hitting the heavy bag.
“I lost the pep in my step,” he said.
McGarry might be on the ropes, but he doesn’t let on.
“It’s like Muhammad Ali told me,” McGarry said, ‘Stick and move. Don’t let ‘em know you’re hurt.'”
At all hours, you’ll see fighters going inside the baby-blue barn McGarry converted into a Beverly boxing temple for local kids. Golden Gloves champs and Olympian Michael Walker trained there. Former WBC Light Heavyweight Champion Montell Griffin remains a regular.
But more than teaching kids how to punch, it’s McGarry’s unselfishness that made him a neighborhood legend.
Over the last 15 years, McGarry used his boxing club to help people when they were down. McGarry Boxing Club sponsored exhibition fights that raised cash for local parishes, community groups and families who really needed help.
“It gives me a lot of satisfaction. Not everybody is as fortunate as I am sometimes, you know,” he said. “People are less fortunate so you gotta help them … get a good life.”
Now, McGarry’s the guy who needs someone in his corner.
After a series of tests and a trip to the Mayo Clinic, doctors gave him three choices: Get a liver transplant, try drugs only approved in Europe or do nothing.
McGarry’s brothers died after liver transplants, so that was out. And there’s no way he’d throw in the towel. So he’s taking a chance on drugs not yet approved by the FDA.
First, McGarry went to Washington to plead with the FDA to approve the drugs in the U.S. only to be told more clinical trials were needed.
So, McGarry hopes a doctor in Germany will give him access to buy the medication — drugs that will cost him about $170,000 a year.
His insurance won’t cover a penny of the cost and it’s more than a retired pipe fitter can afford. But he's got a lot of folks — family, friends, union guys from Local 597, cops, firefighters and, of course, boxers — helping him out.
For months, a committee 50-people strong has gotten together to organize a fundraiser to help foot the bill. They put up a website to tell McGarry’s story and there’s already 1,200 people on Facebook who confirmed plans to attend the Sunday fundraiser at 115 Bourbon Street in Merrionette.
“It’s all so heartbreaking. This is how we’re dealing with it,” said McGarry’s daughter-in-law, Meghan McGarry. “He’s a guy who never sat still. He was always running around, always helping people and now he can’t get out as much. His legs aren’t as strong. And the kids, his kids they’ve see this happen to their uncle. We’re all hoping for the best.”
Kathy McGarry, the girl McGarry met at a bar, married and who “would never let him go,” said all the support makes them feel humbled and hopeful.
“It’s really hard to be on this side. It’s so much easier to be the one that’s giving. We appreciate so much what everyone is doing. The kids and his friends are working so hard,” Kathy McGarry said. “Hopefully because this drug is so expensive it will allow him to get the drug and hope it works. Lots of ifs, but we’re trying to be really positive and just make the best of a bad situation.”
And Martin, well, he’s mostly looking forward to the party.
“I got some great people in my corner. … They want me to stick around a little longer,” he said.
“I don’t give up. If you do then you’re defeated, you know? So, I’m gonna go down fighting."