By Alejandro Danois
Special to The Baltimore Sun
March 14, 2006
This past Halloween, on an unseasonably warm evening, the new Mack Lewis Boxing Gym, nestled in the shadows of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 900 block of North Bond Street, was alive with its usual activity.
The night's soundtrack: the thud of padded fists crashing into heavy bags, a buzzer that sounds every three minutes, the grunts and groans of men pushing themselves to their physical limits and the staccato wisp of jump ropes. Seated in a corner near the entrance, wearing a radiant smile, was Lewis himself. The legendary trainer's eyes sparkled with energy, as sweat-soaked fighters of all shapes and sizes moved around him, like orbiting planets around the sun - from middle-aged men working to stay fit to world-class professionals training for a shot at championship glory.
One of those fighters once was Hasim Rahman, the Baltimore heavyweight who defends his World Boxing Council crown Saturday in Atlantic City, N.J., and who got his start at Lewis' old, ramshackle gym.
On that October night, Lewis, now 87, undeniably was still in charge. He occasionally yelled out instructions, but mostly observed as a handful of former pupils passed along the lessons he once sternly advocated. When Lewis stepped outside the gym, though, he really took over.
Former junior middleweight champion Vincent Pettway, who drives his former trainer and mentor home each evening, found his car had a flat tire. Before Pettway could arrange another ride home for Lewis, though, the trainer was barking out orders.
"Hey! Help Pettway fix this tire!" he shouted toward a group of fighters and trainers as they begin to pile in their cars. Within minutes, someone found an air pump. As the tire filled, Lewis entertained his rapt audience with tales of Jack Johnson.
"Never leave a man when he's in trouble," Lewis said with a wink, climbing into the passenger seat as the small crowd scattered.
One such troubled man was the young Rahman.
In 1993, Rahman climbed up the 20 rickety stairs in the dilapidated building on the corner of Broadway and Eager Street in East Baltimore that housed Lewis' old gym.
The problems that dogged Rahman on the streets did not follow him through the rusty gate of Lewis' gym, where, for more than 50 years, fighters trained without running water, heat or air conditioning.
"I liked him from the first time I met him," Lewis said. "He was very mannerable, strong, dedicated and always willing to do whatever he was asked to do."
Under Lewis' stewardship, Rahman honed his raw talent, pounding speed bags reinforced with duct tape and sparring in a plywood-based ring covered by old carpet and a dingy gray mat.
Although he went to train with Kevin Rooney, Mike Tyson's trainer, at the tail end of his amateur development, Rahman acknowledged his debt to Lewis when he returned to Baltimore in 2001 after his improbable knockout of Lennox Lewis to capture the undisputed heavyweight crown.
"Mack Lewis gave me an outlet and probably saved my life," Rahman said.
An avid reader as a child, Lewis devoured stories about his favorite fighters, Johnson and Kid Chocolate. He frequented the New Albert Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue, staring wide-eyed at the grainy black and white images of Depression-era black boxers.
When he was 13, his father would pit him in back-alley fights against other neighborhood kids. He joined the boxing team at the city's segregated Dunbar and Douglass high schools, played football, baseball and soccer, and he managed himself on the local amateur boxing circuit.
Attending Morgan State College, Lewis played football on the school's undefeated team in 1940. He enlisted in the Army after one year at Morgan, eventually being assigned to the Special Services boxing team.
After about 100 fights and two punctured eardrums, Lewis was discharged in 1943. Returning to Baltimore, he joined Mickey O'Donnell's gym at Broadway and Eager, becoming the first black fighter to do so.
But Lewis' damaged ears stalled his career as a boxer. O'Donnell took him on as a partner, and Lewis commenced to training young men. He scraped together $1,000 to purchase the facility in the early 1950s.
Lewis and his wife, Pearl, have lived in the same humble rowhouse on Lanvale Street for more than 40 years. The cramped living room on the first floor overflows with plaques and certificates from his career as a clerk for the Internal Revenue Service. An oil painting by renowned artist Joseph Sheppard, whom Lewis once trained, hangs on one wall. It depicts a handsome, muscular, wavy-haired teenager from the 1930s squaring off in a classic boxer's stance.
"That's me," Lewis said, before pointing to other pieces in the house - a letter from President Nixon, the ceremonial first pitch baseball he tossed out at a recent Orioles game and a 1994 picture of Lewis with Pettway and perpetually smiling promoter Don King after Pettway won the International Boxing Federation crown.
Although the Lewises never had children, any fighter who anted up the admission price of hard work and discipline at the gym at Broadway and Eager automatically gained entry into Mack Lewis' family.
"I've had lots of kids over the years, all boys," Lewis said. "All of them are like my sons."
When Pettway was 8, an older boy stole some money from him while he played outside. Furious, Pettway chased after the culprit to no avail. His anger visibly boiling, he grabbed a pipe and stationed himself behind a pole on the corner of 43rd and Wrenwood, waiting to exact revenge.
"I was waiting to bust that guy in the head with that pipe," Pettway said.
A neighbor who once boxed for Lewis noticed Pettway brandishing the weapon and coaxed him into the gym. Moments after meeting Lewis for the first time, the trainer asked the young boy a question.
"Do you think you can fight?"
"I mean, Yes, sir!"
Pettway found himself in the ring before the day was out, fighting against older and bigger boys. Mack Lewis had adopted another son.
"I watched these people, the sparring and the competition. It was amazing and beautiful all at the same time," Pettway said. "I came into the gym on Tuesday and won my first official amateur fight on Friday."
Lewis would toss Pettway into the back seat of his car when traveling to Atlantic City to work the corner of one of his professional fighters. He dragged the boy up and down the East Coast. If he couldn't bring him home, he assigned the task to someone else.
And after every fight and workout was the lecture on everything from the proper training diet to earning respect in and out of the ring. Before any fighter left the gym for the night, Lewis made sure Pettway and his other fighters at least had money for something to eat.
Plenty of proverbial sharks circled around Pettway during his career, trying to steal him away from Lewis. When being fitted with the championship belt, he was wearing it not only for himself.
"It was a dream come true for Mr. Mack to have a world champion," Pettway said. "This man treated me and every other kid in the gym like his own son. People offered me things to leave him, but that's not who I am and who he taught me to be."
The new gym opened in summer 2002. The 4,200-square-foot facility, complete with an upstairs computer lab for academic tutoring, was a gift to Lewis by a host of city benefactors, including clothing chain magnate Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, developer Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse and the city's major labor unions, among others.
"They did all this for me," said Lewis, surveying his modern digs. "I'm just a man that tried to help somebody. I must have done something good."
Large mirrors from the old place sit inside the renovated Rite-Aid building. Tattered fight posters dating to the 1950s hang on the walls. Pictures of Alvin Anderson, Larry Middleton, Vernon Mason, Ernie Knox, Reggie Gross, Boom Boom Lester and hundreds of other local boxers offer a glimpse into the gym's past.
"This here is a country club compared to the old gym," Ed Griffin, a Lewis protege who had a 26-fight pro career, said.
Pettway, Griffin, Kenny Blackstone and Kenny Wilson are now training the next generation of Mack Lewis' boxers. But Lewis is still there, looking for the next champ.
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