BEVERLY — Martin McGarry can't take a punch like he used to.
The long-time boxing coach who converted his garage into a gym to train kids in the sweet science has been battling a rare genetic disease that's stolen his strength.
"I have good days that are better than others. I just keep sticking and moving like Muhammad Ali told me," McGarry said, recounting the advice "The Greatest" gave him years ago.
Now, Ali's daughter and grandson have teamed up with the Celtic Youth Foundation to honor McGarry's legacy of helping South Side kids stay out of trouble through boxing.
On Thursday, Rasheda Ali-Walsh is set to host a boxing exhibition that aims to raise cash for the Martin McGarry Service To Others Scholarship, which will provide tuition assistance for students at St. Barnabas School in Beverly.
"Service to others is exactly what my dad stands for," she said. "There's his famous quote, 'Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.' "
And Ali-Walsh, whose twin sister is married to Michael Joyce, one of McGarry's long-time pupils, says she was touched by not only the Beverly coach's dedication to local kids but also by the courage he's shown battling against an incurable disease much like her famous father who has suffered the effects of Parkinson's disease for decades.
"Marty has been a fixture in Chicago boxing for more than 40 years and he's helped so many children as a trainer, teacher and mentor who showed them the importance of volunteering and giving back," she said.
"I really want people to come out and support our cause for Marty and for the kids all over who are trying to find a way to get away from violence but just don't know how."
And to help draw a crowd, Ali-Walsh gave the OK for her youngest son, Nico, 13, to fight a three-round exhibition at the benefit on Thursday at 115 Bourbon Street in Merrionette Park.
"I think a lot of people will find it interesting to watch Muhammad Ali's grandson in the ring," she said. "He wants to help the cause for Marty and because his grandfather taught him to pay it forward. I don't know if he can do the Ali shuffle, but he says he's gonna do it to pay tribute to his grandfather. Nico is pretty fast, so it'll be fun to watch."
Nico, unlike his grandfather, refused to talk even a little trash when I tried to goad him into taunting his Thursday night opponent.
"I don't know who it is, yet. It could be some 20 year old so I want to be careful so I don't want to have to take my words back," Nico said.
Money raised at the boxing exhibition will fund the McGarry scholarship and other boxing programs for minority kids at the Celtic Boxing Club, which is part of the Police Athletic League.
"This one program isn't going to stop all the violence in the city. It's not going to solve the issue," Ali-Walsh said. "But maybe it can put a dent in it and if it saves one child from experiencing violence by giving them a good program that's a positive influence, it's a good start."
She knows from her father's life story that even a tiny boxing gym can change a kid's life forever.
After all, it was at a Police Athletic League boxing gym in Louisville, Kentucky, where "The Greatest" first learned to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."
"Dad was about 10 years old when his bike — a new red Schwinn, the god of bicycles back then — got stolen. He was devastated. He told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to beat up whoever stole his bike," she said. "And the police officer told him if you want to beat him up you better go to the gym and learn how to box first. And the rest is history."
For more than three years now, McGarry has been fighting against Amyloidosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes the liver to produce proteins that attack the heart, kidneys and other organs. It killed his mother and two brothers. There's no known cure.
In 2012, a team of volunteers helped raise cash to help McGarry get medication not yet approved by the FDA from a doctor in Germany.
"It's been helping out. I'm fighting neuropathy and … it's hard to keep the weight on," he said. "I'm not doing too bad. I'm still stickin' and moving."
McGarry hopes he'll have the strength to catch a fight at the fundraiser for the scholarship named after him.
"It's a pretty nice honor and some kids will really benefit from it, you know," he said. "It feels good when you can help someone out. … It's about getting kids to do something positive and to work hard to get a scholarship. You gotta work for it because when your hard work pays off that's when you really appreciate it."
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