After a lifelong career in the ring, Lewis finds opening at the top


Mack Lewis swings open the rusty gate of his gym on the corner of Broadway and Eager and slowly climbs the 20 creaky stairs to the converted dance hall that has served as a proving ground and second home for thousands of Baltimore boxers during the past 50 years.

After some quick math, Lewis estimates he has made this climb some 13,000 times.

"When I first came here, I used to run up the stairs," recalled Lewis, 75, a retired Internal Revenue Service clerk. "Now, I'm just thankful I can still make it to the top."

On Friday, for the first time, Lewis will try to get one of his fighters to the top in a title bout. Vincent Pettway is facing International Boxing Federation junior middleweight champion Gianfranco Rosi of Italy at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

Lewis' gym is far from the Las Vegas glitter. The flaking walls are covered with colorful posters dating to the '50s, carrying the names of Lewis' ring students. Those fighters learned to survive sweltering summers with out air conditioning and frigid winters minus heat in the gym.

"A lot of cold nights, I was tempted to bring an overcoat to the gym," Lewis said. "But I can't give myself comforts the kids don't have."

During the years, Lewis has trained fathers and sons, contenders and pretenders, plus three world-ranked fighters -- heavyweight Larry Middleton, junior middleweight Alvin Anderson and welterweight Vernon Mason.

"Mr. Mack," as he is called by his boxers, is an East Baltimore legend and member of Maryland's Boxing Hall of Fame. His rowhouse on Lanvale Street is filled with plaques and citations from the likes of William Donald Schaefer and Richard Nixon.

Perhaps the only thing missing from Mr. Mack's long list of achievements is not having trained or managed a world champion.

"Over the years, I've had hundreds of disappointments trying to develop a champion or big-money fighter," Lewis said. "There's got to be a bug inside you to leave your wife at home every night and come down to this place to train kids. I've thought more than once about giving it up. But one night, a new boy comes to the gym, and you say to yourself, 'Maybe this is the one who finally makes it.' "

Lewis has that feeling about Pettway. The boxer has spent the best part of his life at Mr. Mack's gym, starting as a scrawny 8-year-old who lived across the street.

Pettway quickly developed into an outstanding amateur boxer, winning 189 of 200 fights and being granted a trial for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.

But Lewis, who lost promising amateurs Young Beau Jack, Jimmy Richmond and Percy Harris to fast-talking managers, did not risk losing Pettway, who injured his hand in the pre-Olympic camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., after winning four bouts.

"I had a friend, Pappy Gault, who used to help coach the Olympic teams," he said. "Pappy tipped me off that some wise guy kept approaching Pettway after he kept winning in the trials. I signed him to a pro contract as soon as he came home.

"A lot of fighters [jump] after the money. They forget who weaned them. But Vincent has always remained loyal."

Lewis has come close to putting a fighter into a world title bout several times, particularly with Middleton, a clever heavyweight who upset England's Joe Bugner on his home turf in 1971 and came within one quarter of a point of beating perennial title contender Jerry Quarry on a referee's decision.

"After Middleton beat Bugner, a guy named Hal Conrad came to my hotel room in London," Lewis said. "He said he represented the promoter, Bob Arum, and offering me a non-title fight with Muhammad Ali. It never happened, but I still have a copy of the contract in my basement."

There were also several efforts in 1972 by Baltimore promoters to match Middleton, ranked as high as third in the world, with then-contender George Foreman, but that also did not materialize. Instead, Foreman opted to fight Joe Frazier in Jamaica and came home with the heavyweight crown.

"I had Alvin Anderson fight Ayub Kalule in Denmark," said Lewis, who has carried his fighters to Africa, South America and Australia. "Kalule went on to became the junior-middleweight pTC champion. Alvin was about five pounds over the weight [154] a few days before the fight.

"He had to keep running around this park in Copenhagen in pitch-black darkness. Alvin later developed dysentery, and Kalule just wore him down."

Lewis negotiated several six-figure purses for George Chaplin, a stocky heavyweight with an elusive style. Chaplin beat Earnie Shavers and Duane Bobick and lost two controversial decisions to future heavyweight king Greg Page. But Chaplin's career nose-dived after losses to David Bey, former champion Gerrie Coetzee and Gerry Cooney.

Boxing has been a big part of Lewis' life since his adolescent daysgrowing up near Patterson Park.

"There were only two black families in the neighborhood -- the Lewises and Joneses," he said. "Mostly Polish and Irish, but we were all so poor during the Depression, no one was jealous."

As a youth, he earned money collecting used whiskey bottles for bootleggers, shined shoes and sold newspapers. "The most money I made was the day Gene Tunney upset Jack Dempsey, and the old News-Post had a special edition printed."

Lewis fought three years for Douglass High when the city's segregated black schools had boxing teams. He also lettered in baseball and football. He was a good enough two-way lineman to gain a senatorial scholarship to Morgan State and played guard for the unbeaten 1940 team.

The start of World War II ended his college career. He resumed boxing in the Army at Fort Lee in Virginia and would be consumed by the sport, ultimately making it his life's work.

After being discharged from the Army in 1943, Lewis became the first black fighter to train at the gym then operated by Mickey O'Donnell. When a busted eardrum forced him to quit boxing after winning his only pro bout by a first-round knockout, Lewis became O'Donnell's partner and began training fighters.

"This is no game for cowards," he said. "If boys have enough nerve to fight, I've got enough nerve to train them and work their corner."

Lewis has railed against judges, referees and state athletic commission members over perceived injustices. "No one is going to fight for these kids but me," he said.

A number of his former fighters still frequent the gym and help with the training.

"The man tells you things that stay with you the rest of your life," said Tank Hill, a crowd-pleasing welterweight in the '60s whose career was cut short by a drug bust.

"He'd always warn me, 'It takes you one second to do something you'll regret the rest of your life.'

"I wasn't smart enough to listen. But I got my life straightened out with his help. That's why this gym is like a long-term investment. You put money in the bank and wait for the dividends. It may not come back in money, but it will be worthwhile."

Lewis took his assistant trainer, Billy Foust, from a halfway house 17 years ago, securing him a job with the sanitation department.

"I've learned the hard way there is nothing there for me out on the street," Foust said. "This gym is my chapel of life and salvation."

"Mr. Mack" still anguishes over the ones who failed, such as Reggie Gross, an explosive heavyweight who rocked Mike Tyson in the first round before Tyson came back to knock him out in Madison Square Garden. Gross is serving three consecutive life terms for murder as hit man for a drug gang.

"It hurts, it still hurts," said Lewis, who gets monthly calls from Gross. "Reggie could have been a champion if he had set his mind to it."

So Mack Lewis keeps Pettway's title bid in perspective.

"It's been a long, long wait," he said. "But it doesn't excite me. As long as Pettway goes out and does what he has to do, he'll win it."


Who: Vincent Pettway (36-4, 29 KOs), Baltimore, vs. Gianfranco Rosi (57-3, 17 KOs ), Assisi, Italy.

What: For Rosi's International Boxing Federation junior-middleweight title.

When: Friday, approximately 9 p.m.

Where: MGM Grand, Las Vegas.

TV: Showtime. The Pettway-Rosi fight will be shown on tape delay Saturday. Four other championship bouts will be split between Friday and Saturday for cable viewing.

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