Mack Lewis offered troubled kids a way out through boxing

Mack's Gym

Elmer Johnson, left, and Charles Fleming reminisce about boxing trainer Mack Lewis at his gym. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / November 17, 2010)

Mack Lewis wanted to save them all.

All those kids with hard eyes who grew up poor and fatherless and heard the call of the street corner and easy money — those were the ones he thought boxing could save.

They'd come around the old gym at the corner of Eager and Broadway, a converted dance hall with all the charm of a spit bucket. Inside, they'd see "Mr. Mack" up there in the ring, working with yet another fighter, shouting at him to stick the jab, throw the uppercut, move in and out, and what they'd sense in the hot, sticky air was hope and redemption and maybe a way out.

That's what folks will remember most when they hold a public viewing Thursday for the legendary trainer and manager, who died Friday at the age of 92.

"His duty was to take the guys in the neighborhood and make them better people," Lewis' nephew, Elmer Johnson, said.

And he did that for generations of young fighters in East Baltimore, taught them discipline and values, the importance of hard work and a good education.

Mack Lewis saved the terrific boxer Vincent Pettway, that's for sure.

Pettway was just 8, living on 43rd Street and Wrenwood Avenue when a neighborhood bully grabbed one of his games and ran.

"I stood behind a telephone poll with a pipe and waited for the guy," Pettway recalled.

Luckily a neighbor spotted the young Pettway before he could crack the other kid's skull.

"My neighbor said: 'With an attitude like that, you need to channel it into something positive,'" Pettway said. "He said I was either going to jail or I was going to be dead on the streets.

"I thought: 'Whatever. I'm still gonna bust him in the head.' "

But he didn't. Instead he agreed to accompany the neighbor to Lewis' gym the next day.

It took about five seconds for Pettway to figure out Lewis was a man who commanded respect.

You addressed him as "Mr. Mack" or "Sir.' Or else you didn't address him at all.

"Do you think you can fight?" Lewis asked.

"Yes, sir," Pettway said.

"OK," Lewis said to a helper, "get him ready."

"They got me a little [protective] cup, a headgear and some gloves," Pettway said, "and I was on my way."


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