This boxer’s toughest opponent is cerebral palsy
It is 8:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day, and “The Champ” is training in the gym, covered in sweat, fighting his worst enemy: cerebral palsy.
His record is 11-0. All have been knockouts. Sean McCarthy’s amateur bouts against able-bodied fighters are dubbed “special fights.” McCarthy, 45, says USA Boxing would never allow him in the ring, although he has sparred with professionals.
For those who can’t believe that someone with cerebral palsy can fight, just ask former champion Vinny Paz. He put a medal around McCarthy’s neck after one bout.
“Sean is a beast!” writes Paz in an e-mail. “A perfect example of do what makes U happy in this crazy world & don’t let Nothing Stop U!
“Kinda like coming back from a Broken Neck to win World Titles!!!”
Mike Tyson friended McCarthy on Facebook. Peter “Hurricane” McNeeley attended a bout and encouraged the Milton fighter to keep punching.
McCarthy’s trainer at Fit Factory in Braintree is in awe of him.
“He’s the hardest worker ever,” said Bill Jalbert. “He never stops, never complains. He’s a gladiator.”
One thing is for sure. The Champ, who got his nickname from his father, is knocking out the stigma of cerebral palsy every time he enters the ring.
His arms are strong from intensive training, but the disease weakens his leg muscles and affects his balance. But nothing stops him.
“The hardest part is getting in and out of the ring,” said the 5-foot-7-inch, 180-pound southpaw.
He is at his most vulnerable as the opening bell sounds and he is marooned in the middle of the ring.
“I’m safer up against the ropes,” said McCarthy. “It gives me more security just in case I fall. I know there’s a rope there.”
His ring strategy is definitely rope-a-dope.
“Touch gloves, get him in the corner — boom boom — and you just don’t stop,” said McCarthy. “That’s my method.”
His training regimen includes hitting the mitts for 45 minutes, lifting weights, and then doing balance work. He wears a “Champ” T-shirt with his photo emblazoned on the front and Team McCarthy’s mantra on the back: “You can play baseball and basketball, but you can’t play boxing.”
Before each bout, he likes to go to St. Elizabeth Rectory in Milton to receive a blessing. But his biggest blessing is his invincible spirit.
“I don’t have a disability,” he insisted. “I’m physically challenged.”
McCarthy doesn’t want special treatment in the ring.
“I tell my opponents, ‘Don’t go easy on me, because I will hit harder,’ ’’ he said.
One opponent had to learn the hard way, according to McCarthy.
“He was taunting me,” said McCarthy. “Something like, ‘You’re going to get your face rearranged.’ ’’
The opponent stuck his face out and dared McCarthy to hit him.
“I said, ‘OK, do it again,’ and he did it again,” said McCarthy, who flattened him with a right hook. “I told him, ‘Next time, train harder.’ ”
He has been knocked down himself in the ring.
“I just get back up,” he said.
He even got a nasty shiner a while ago.
“I posted it [on Facebook],” he said, “and my sister and mom got all worried, and I said, ‘Mom, it happened eight months ago.’ ”
His mother, Barbara Ruth McCarthy, 81, said she was shocked when Sean sheepishly announced that he started boxing a decade ago.
“I said, ‘Are you a goddamn fool?’ ” said his mother.
McCarthy worked for the National Parks Service for 18 years as a ranger. But doctors told him to spend more time working out to minimize the effects of cerebral palsy.
“As long as I am in shape and the doctor gives me the green light to box, I will continue to box,” he said.
His latest bout was on a Saturday night at The Ring in Brighton. His opponent, Paul J. Murray, a personal trainer from Dedham, is bigger, taller, and has more reach. He boasted on Facebook that McCarthy’s odds of winning were 1 in 200,000.
McCarthy survives the mid-ring opening bell and heads for the ropes. But early in Round 1, he goes down — a slip on those unsteady legs — as the crowd gasps. Murray gallantly lifts his opponent back up, and the fight resumes.
“Come on, hit me,” taunts McCarthy, who wears a sweatshirt and sweatpants to warm up his muscles.
Midway through the second round, Murray gets hit with a left and does not retreat. McCarthy, his face now serious and his gaze steely-eyed, unleashes a quick combination of unanswered punches.
Murray flips over once, and is done. The referee counts to 10, and then “The Champ” lifts his right hand skyward.
Afterward, McCarthy is smiling, but there will be no champagne.
“I can’t drink,” he says. “The meds make me sleep.”
Family and friends come over to congratulate him. His older brother Stephen, who once pitched in the Cincinnati Reds minor league organization, brings over his children. The police chief of Milton shakes his hand. His mother beams with pride.
“He’s my baby and he’s terrific,” she says.
There might be another fight in Rhode Island for charity in December. But, at 45, the clock is ticking. McCarthy’s legs are tightening, and the cerebral palsy never takes a day off. He would like to train young boxers in the future, he said, when his fighting days are done.
The defeated Murray watches the Champ hold court. His eyes are watery, and not from the fight.
“Hopefully someone will learn from this experience,” says Murray. “It’s a life lesson. Never give up. He wakes up every morning, 4:30 in the morning, and goes to the gym. Doesn’t complain. He’s a true warrior.
“I’ve dealt with so many people that are not motivated. He motivates everybody. 24/7. Every moment of his life is a challenge. For him to get in the ring is impressive and inspirational.”
The Champ’s face glistens with sweat and his smile lights up the room.
“You know what?” he says. “You put your heart into it and you really want to do it, you can do it. You can do anything you want.
“I ain’t kidding. ‘’