Here is what happens when you refuse to give up

To: Kids of Gary, Indiana

From: Mary McGee

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To the kids of Gary, Indiana,

It’s not easy growing up here. There aren’t a lot of jobs. Abandoned buildings are everywhere. Drugs and violence overwhelm our streets. This past year, Covid-19 has only added more struggle to our community.

Even so, I know you still have dreams and goals. While they may seem unrealistic or impossible right now, don’t give up. Everything in life is a fight. And my story is proof of what can happen when you keep fighting. From the very beginning, there were so many moments I could have quit and other people probably would have quit.

When I was 13 or 14 years old, I was supposed to be cheerleading at a basketball game when I snuck away from school with another kid who was going to a boxing gym. When I walked into the gym, I saw this ring and guys hitting the bag and working out.

I thought to myself, “Oh my God, this is different. This is cool.”

Right away, I went up to the coach and told him that I wanted to box.

He said, “You don’t want to box, little girl.”

I said, “Yes, I do.”

Everything in life is a fight. And my story is proof of what can happen when you keep fighting.

Both of my parents struggled with drug abuse when I was younger (they are clean and sober now), so I lived with my grandparents. As a child, I was angry for the simple fact that I didn’t have my mom and dad in my life. At school, I got into a lot of fights. I loved the idea that I could hit people and not get in trouble. But the coach didn’t think a little girl should be boxing.

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When I came back to the gym, he put me in the ring and let me get beat up.

I got beat so badly.

The coach thought, “She won’t be back no more.”

At that moment, I could have quit.

Instead, I kept going to the gym every single day after school. After the gym, I would shadowbox in my backyard for hours.

I fell in love with boxing and I already knew that I wanted to be a world champion.

At first, my grandma didn’t say nothing about me boxing because it kept me out of trouble. However, as I got better, I became more well-known and one of my fights ended up televised. My grandmother is a Jehovah’s Witness and when she went to the Kingdom Hall, they told her I couldn’t box because it promoted violence.

At 17 years old, my grandmother said I had to quit or move out.

I remember laying across my bed, looking at a poster of Nelly on my ceiling and thinking to myself, “I don’t want to see another girl boxing on TV one day and say that ‘that could have been me.’”

Instead of quitting, I moved out.

For a while, I stayed at friends’ houses but kept all of my clothes in my car.  One night, my promoter, Octavius James, wanted me to eat with him and a coach. He followed me to my car. When I opened my trunk, he saw all of my things.

He said, “Man, if I were a fool, I would think you lived in this car.”

I laughed and said, “I do.”

He said, “That’s not funny.”

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Octavius paid for an apartment for me. For about a year, he helped me pay rent. On April 25, 2009, he was so proud of me when I won a WBC international title. But a little over a month later,  my brother was killed in the streets. Sad and hurting, Octavius was there for me. He spent a lot of time with me and encouraged me to go back to school. Then, on July 24th, I kept calling him all day and I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t picking up the phone. A day later, I found out he died of a heart attack in his sleep.

In shock, I felt like God hated me. After he died, I had one fight, and I lost. I didn’t fight again for almost two years, but that fire was still inside of me. I had so much pain and anger in my life. Boxing was where I felt free. When I returned to the ring,  I won my first fight back, but then I fought two top fighters, including Holly Holm, and I lost to both in 10-round decisions.

I stopped getting calls for fights and in 2013, I got pregnant with my son. In 2014, I had a C-section, and I felt like I wasn’t ever going to box again.

But something in my heart just wouldn’t let me give up.

My coach said to me, “I’ve never told nobody to go back to boxing, but I’m going to tell you.”

I said,” Why?”

He said, “You lost fights, but you’ve never been beaten.”

I said, “What do you mean? If I lost, I got beat.”

He said, “No, you just lost. You did not get beat. When you did lose, they did not fight the best (version of) you that night. You come back and you are 100 percent serious, you will become a world champion.”

My health wasn’t right because of my C-section. When I tried to train, my stomach would fill up with fluid, so I had to take more time off. By 2016, I started to heal and began going really hard. But I wasn’t getting any opportunities – none at all.

Now and then, they’d have a fight in Gary and I would beg to be on the card. They told me if I could sell tickets, I could fight. Sometimes, I was outside at 2:00 in the morning, driving around, trying to sell $10,000 worth of tickets so that I could fight. Somehow, I did it. And I got back into the ring and moved up the ranks.

Photo: Ed Diller/DiBella Entertainment.

In 2019 hall-of-fame boxing promoter Lou Dibella called me. He believed in me and he invested in me. On December 5th, that same year, he gave a small-town girl from Indiana a chance to fight for a world title.

My opponent was a three-time world champion and the favorite, but I knew I was going to beat her. I just knew it. I went out there, and I kept punching and punching until the referee jumped in between us and said, “No, that is it!”

I ran around the ring and said, “Oh my God, I won. I’m a world champion.”

I didn’t even run to get the belt. I couldn’t believe it.

All the pain, all the hard work, all the days that I wanted to give up –  it was all worth it.

Without money, without support, without the people that started with me, I fulfilled my dream.

As hard as life is here in Gary, if you have a dream or passion in your life, don’t give up. Follow your heart. No matter who supports you or what challenges get in your way, always believe.

And if you can’t find inspiration around you, fight so hard that you realize the inspiration is within yourself.

Great things happen when you refuse to give up.

Remember, champions don’t quit.

Mary McGee
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