Down for count, he's still fighting

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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.

By 1979, he was out of jail, working in a construction job and bragging about being the next Muhammad Ali. Co-workers and friends challenged the boastful kid to prove himself and to sign on with Lewis, trainer of hundreds of boxers over several decades.

Lewis, whose eyes popped at Gross' 6-foot-3 body and his instincts, took him into his gym, trained him to fight, molded a muscular young man into a light heavyweight boxer. He liked him, worried about him, scolded him, admonished him to stay away from bad guys. And from women.

For a while, Gross followed at least part of that admonition. (The first of his four children, a son, was born that year.)

"In one month with Mr. Mack, I was ready to fight," said Gross, who had a 19-3 record as an amateur. "In 11 months I turned pro. Eleven months! I was 19. I wore Pro Keds for my first fight, against a guy from Virginia."

Fighting as a light heavyweight, Gross at one point had a 14-0 record. Things were going good.

But, even with the promise of a boxing career and the mentoring of a legendary trainer, he could not elude the long reach of Baltimore's illegal drug trade.

In recalling this part of his life, Gross mentions a slightly older and savvier man he knew as "Wimpy."

Wimpy - Gross said he never knew his full name - drove a Datsun 280Z. In March 1983, he drove it, with Gross in the passenger seat, to Atlantic City, N.J., for a light heavyweight championship fight between Michael Spinks and Dwight Braxton.

"On the way up in the car, he showed me $80,000 in the glove compartment," Gross said, still awed by the vision of so much cash. "Eighty thousand dollars! I was green, man. I was living with my grandparents. I didn't know nothin'. He whipped the cocaine out. It was raw, good stuff. One sniff and it made you want more. I knew I couldn't do it."

But, apparently, Gross did use the cocaine.

"I had did it," he said during the interview. "But I stopped."

He was still going to Mack Lewis' gym, still training to fight and still serious about a ring career.

In spring 1984, Gross' son, 5-year-old Philip, died from burns he received in a fire at his grandmother's rowhouse.

After that, Gross lost his heart for boxing, in the opinion of many people who were watching him closely.

But he kept going and trained as a heavyweight, hoping for a shot at Tyson the next year. He showed some promise by knocking out a fighter named Jimmy Clark in Philadelphia. When Tyson's managers agreed to a date - the day after Christmas 1985 - Gross trained with greater conviction. He ran up and down the back hills of Druid Hill Park with future world junior middleweight champion Vincent Pettway, also a Mack Lewis protege, and another boxer named Warren Boardley.

"I was in shape," Gross said. "I'd never been in shape like that before. I scared myself."

But the Tyson fight was postponed - a payday Gross could not make up with his fight, a month later, against future World Boxing Federation heavyweight champion Bert Cooper.

"I needed money," Gross said. "So I went out on the corner."

During the next year, Gross said, he committed numerous street robberies all over Baltimore in an effort to get drugs or money for drugs. And his boxing buddy, Boardley, became a ruthless and ambitious West Baltimore drug dealer who employed Gross to do his killing in what became known as "the war against the Downers." This urban shootout took place over the summer months of 1986 as Boardley's gang - according to federal prosecutors, one of the most profitable and violent in Baltimore history - fought for territory against brothers Spencer and Alan Downer.

Even as Gross became more deeply involved with Boardley and the gang's $50,000-a-week drug operation, he managed to train and to fight, his trainer unaware of his addiction.

That summer, he got his delayed shot at Tyson. Gross was one of three heavyweights booked to fight the 19-year-old knockout artist as Tyson primed for a title bout with Trevor Berbick.

In Fire and Fear, a book about Tyson, former world light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres writes: "Of the three boxers scheduled to fight Mike - Reggie Gross, William Hosea and Lorenzo Boyd, I was most concerned with Gross. I had seen him in vicious battle in Pennsylvania against Jimmy Clark and I was so impressed with both fighters I urged [Tyson's manager] to keep an eye on them and to put them on his list of possible opponents for Mike."

On June 13, Gross met Tyson at Madison Square Garden and came out swinging his big arms. In the first round, he unleashed a 10-punch flurry, including a jolting uppercut that briefly stunned Tyson. "The crowd released a collective murmur as if they'd shared the pain," Torres wrote in his memoir.

"I say to myself, 'Oh my god, I hit him,' " recalled Gross, 15 years after the bout. "I hit that man on the chin. I say, 'Suppose I hit him one more time with this right hand. I'm gonna knock his block off.' "

But Tyson exploded from a crouch with a left hook that sent Gross to the canvas.

"I say to myself, 'Oh my god, I'm on HBO, let me get up!' "

And Gross got back to his feet.

"Tyson landed two more left hooks to floor Gross again," The Sun's Alan Goldstein reported. "He gamely regained his feet, but referee Johnny Lobianco decided he was in no condition to continue."

Gross received $50,000, his biggest payday as a fighter.

When he looks back on his record of earnings, Gross said, he feels he should have done better - and might have, he added, with a more sophisticated manager. He received as little as $1,000 for some of his best fights. In 1987, he did better, making $10,000 for fighting future WBF heavyweight champion Adilson Rodriquez in Brazil, $15,000 for going eight rounds with future WBC heavyweight champion Frank Bruno in Spain. In 1988, he earned $8,500 in his defeat to Canadian champion Donovan "Razor" Ruddock on the undercard of a Spinks-Tyson title bout.

But when you've become addicted to drugs - and when the police have come after you and charged you with murder - that kind of money disappears fast.

Murder arrest

In fall 1986, Baltimore homicide detectives arrested Gross in connection with the execution-style killing of a rival of the Boardley gang, a street dealer named Andre Coxson. Gross allegedly approached Coxson on Fayette Street in West Baltimore, shot him once, then stood over him and fired five more bullets into his head as he begged for his life and tried to crawl away. Though at trial the state produced several witnesses who said they saw Gross carry out the killing then flee down an alley, the fighter was found not guilty of the charges by a jury in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The acquittal, in May 1987, was a victory for longtime criminal defense attorney Harold Glaser, who was paid with most of Gross' take from the Tyson fight. When the trial was over, there was a brief celebration and Gross returned to his training at Mack Lewis' gym - but not without a warning from Glaser that FBI agents were on his tail.

Still, Gross claimed to have been the victim of snitches, lying witnesses and overzealous prosecutors. "Now that I was found innocent, where are all the apologies? Someone's got to pay," he told The Sun in 1987.

That year, as Gross was traveling overseas for big fights, a combined force of federal and state investigators was slowly stripping away the defensive shell of the Boardley gang. One of Boardley's intimates, Larry Donnell "Donnie" Andrews, cooperated with the investigation and wore a hidden microphone so the FBI could record his conversations with, among others, Reggie Gross.

The focus of the investigation was on the bloody war of September 1986. When the U.S. Attorney's Office released an indictment in the case, 10 operatives of the Boardley gang were named in it, including its alleged enforcer, the once-promising Baltimore heavyweight. Gross was accused not only of the Coxson killing, but also in the sub-machine-gun deaths of two other men who were mid-level drug dealers.

Set for trial in summer 1989, Gross pleaded guilty to the charges at the last minute, admitting to killing Coxson on Sept. 12, 1986, and, 11 days later, Zachary Roach and Rodney Young on Gold Street in West Baltimore.

"I was strung out on [heroin] by that time," Gross said in a small visiting room at the prison here. "I was doing drugs hard. I was robbing people just to get fixes. ... I [overdosed] once, was taken to the hospital to be revived after a month of every day getting high. ... I had my car and my house and my girl and everything, but she didn't know I was going around robbin'. She used to fuss at me all the time and find needles in my shoes. We'd been robbin' people all over the city, all month, for drugs and money for drugs."

On Gold Street, he said, "There wasn't supposed to be no killin'."

But the government said the killings were hits and that Gross received $3,000 for each.

He entered guilty pleas, expecting a 75-year-sentence from U.S. District Judge Paul V. Niemeyer.

"I made some huge mistakes. I can't change the past, but I can do better in the future," he told the judge. "I know that I will be going away a long while. I just pray that it will not be for the rest of my life."

But Niemeyer did something unusual, going beyond the prosecutors' recommendation and giving Gross a sentence of three life terms - two of them to run consecutively. "You fell from a most promising career as a boxer," Niemeyer told him. "Unfortunately, you elected a life in which you would pursue some of the most brutal crimes."

Gross should be eligible for parole for the first time in about eight years.

His final record as a professional fighter was 19 wins, eight losses.

Prison life

His drug-dealing pal, "Wimpy," was shot to death in 1986. So was another Boardley operative Gross knew as "Shorty." One of the victims of the September 1986 westside war, Alan Downer, has been a quadriplegic since he and his brother were shot in an assassination attempt. Boardley went away for 47 years, with a judge recommending he serve 40 before being eligible for parole. Other gang members went to prison, with sentences ranging from eight to 18 years. Some who cooperated with the investigation got life sentences with recommendations for early eligibility for parole.

In prison, Gross has earned a high school equivalency certificate, learned to operate a forklift, completed a course in pest control and attended numerous counseling programs, including one for drug abuse. He's taken part in "scared straight"-type sessions with at-risk teen-agers from South Carolina and Georgia. His team won the prison basketball championship.

Mack Lewis, accompanied by Pettway, made the last visit to Gross, and that was years ago, during his stint in Atlanta.

His two youngest daughters visited Gross in 1992, when he was housed at the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa. None of the girls has seen him since, and Edgefield is a long trip from Baltimore. Gross hopes for transfer to a prison closer to his hometown.

"I get frustrated," he said quietly. "I wanna talk with my kids. I wanna talk with my family. I can't do all this time."

In a letter from prison last summer, Gross wrote: "I have contact with my mother, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews, even the 18 new ones that were born since I've been in prison. I love them all dearly, though I don't call that much. When I do call, they all ask the same thing: 'When are you coming home? We love you and we miss you.' "

He watches television and follows sports. "Anything from Baltimore I root for," he said, and that includes the reigning world heavyweight champion, Rahman.

"Hasim has a good punch. ... I told everyone here he was going to beat [Lennox Lewis]," Gross said. "I stayed up all night waiting to hear the decision on my radio. When I heard the decision, I felt good for him, his family and the city of Baltimore."

He watched video replays of Rahman's victory on television.

"I like what I saw. What I want Hasim to do is work on his stomach. I saw him get hit in the gut, and he was almost like Larry Holmes. When he got hit in the gut, he spit out water. Got to work on his stomach."

Gross sent that training advice to Rahman in a congratulatory card he mailed to Mack Lewis' house. He asked the world champ for an autographed photo, something he could hang in his prison cell. He hasn't heard back.