Having lost to Mike Tyson in 1986, Reggie Gross was still working out at Mack Lewis' gym in the summer of 1987

Time counting down: Having lost to Mike Tyson in 1986, Reggie Gross was still working out at Mack Lewis' gym in the summer of 1987, but two years later he would be convicted of three murders. (Sun photo by Perry Thorsvik / November 5, 2001)

EDGEFIELD, S.C. - This is where the long, hard fall of Reggie Gross ends - in a two-man cell deep inside a maximum security prison on the piney outskirts of Strom Thurmond's rural hometown. He hasn't had a visitor in seven years. He hasn't seen his daughters in 12. Parole is a distant cloud. "As it all shakes out," predicted one of the men who prosecuted Gross, "he'll die in prison."

Once upon a time, Reggie Gross was a promising heavyweight fighter from Baltimore - the last one to make headlines before the emergence of Hasim "The Rock" Rahman on the international boxing scene.

For a few good years in the 1980s, with the legendary trainer Mack Lewis in his corner, Gross built an impressive record, first as a light heavyweight, then as a heavyweight. He traveled to Europe and to South America for fights. He fought, among others, teen-age sensation and then-future champion Mike Tyson at Madison Square Garden. Reggie Gross was once Lewis' pride and joy.

And maybe his greatest disappointment.

And not because Tyson finished him off at 2:36 of the first round.

But because Gross lived a double life: He was an enforcer for one of Baltimore's most violent drug gangs. Federal prosecutors accused him of serving as paid assassin for a heroin dealer who waged bloody war to control drug commerce in and around a West Baltimore housing project that no longer exists. In an indictment aimed at busting that drug gang, a federal grand jury pinned three brutal street killings on Gross, all occurring in September 1986, just three months after his main event with Tyson.

Gross pleaded guilty to the charges in 1989, got two consecutive life sentences and went to prison. Under guidelines that existed at the time of his crimes, his sentence is viewed as 60 years by the U.S. Parole Commission. He'll be eligible for parole after serving a third of that, about 2009. But it will be difficult for an admitted hit man to win parole at first eligibility unless he owns up to his crimes - Gross denies committing the murders - and lives a clean life in prison.

"I haven't had any fights, no violence," Gross said in an interview, his first since being incarcerated. "I don't bother nobody. I keep to myself. I mind my own business, and nobody bothers me. They know I can fight. Ain't no use in me going around bragging or none of that stuff. I don't do that. A lot of people say, 'Man, why you in prison? You don't belong in prison, man.' They say that because of my personality. I don't bother anybody."

Friendly manner

Now in his 13th consecutive year behind bars, the 40-year-old Gross still has a bright smile and a huge handshake, the same friendly manner that made it so difficult for people to believe he could be a cold-blooded killer. His arms still seem like long, thick branches of trees jutting from a mighty trunk. In his first years as a prisoner, when he was housed at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Gross ballooned to more than 300 pounds. But these days, at the 1,600-bed Edgefield prison, he appears to have his weight under control. He's careful about what he eats, even within the limits of Edgefield's daily offerings, and he excercises to keep in shape.

But there's no boxing. It's not allowed.

Gross writes frequent letters to Lewis, now 82 and enjoying the reflected glory of Rahman, the world heavyweight champion who, like Gross, got his start at Lewis' old gym, at Broadway and Eager.

Rahman, who in April knocked out Lennox Lewis in South Africa for the World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation crowns, will defend his titles in a rematch Nov. 17. Rahman stands to make tens of millions of dollars from the fight in Las Vegas.

This has not gone unnoticed at the low-rise, gray-block institution here, where Gross earns $200 a month in the prison factory, sewing button-hole plackets on uniform shirts for the Army and Air Force.

He uses a good amount of his wages for telephone calls to "Mr. Mack" at his East Baltimore rowhouse. Lewis, the last man to visit Gross in prison, remains his only contact from the glory days.

"I hear from him all the time," Mack Lewis said. "I really feel sorry for him. But, you do what you can. I can't correct everybody."

Troubled youth

For a time, boxing and Mack Lewis were among the few positive influences in Reggie Gross' life. Raised by a single mother - his father, Russell Allston, was stabbed to death during a West Baltimore street fight when Gross was 3 days old in 1961 - the big, friendly kid with the ready smile was never far from trouble. Some of the neighborhoods in which Gross' mother rented homes were populated with heroin and cocaine addicts. When he was 13, he was arrested in connection with a purse snatching, and police found a toy gun in his possession.

He spent several years in a group home for juvenile offenders. While there, he met another teen-ager - "Sugar Ray Leonard's sister's boyfriend," Gross said, unable to remember his name - who knew some boxing fundamentals and training exercises. Gross learned to block punches and to shadow box. He jogged every day.