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.
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.