Mack Lewis offered troubled kids a way out through boxing

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."

He sure was. Pettway went on to become Lewis' first world champion, winning the junior middleweight crown in 1994 after the old man had already been in the fight game 50 years.

But Lewis treated everyone the same, champ or chump, pro or amateur, black or white. If you showed up at the gym and worked hard, you were one of his boys — the son he and his wife of 67 years, Annie Pearl, never had.

"He'd say: 'I don't care if you become a world champion, as long as you become a productive member of society,' " Pettway remembered.

Boxing was Lewis' life and his fighters thrived under his tutelage.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he had three fighters ranked among the top 10 in the world: welterweight Vernon Mason, junior middleweight Alvin Anderson and heavyweight Larry Middleton, who fought Joe Bugner, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton and Jerry Quarry.


Vince Pettway took him to the top with a world championship in the '90s and Lewis trained heavyweight champ Hasim "The Rock" Rahman for a time, too.

Over all those years, there was nothing Lewis wouldn't do for his fighters.

He checked their report cards, drove them to fights in his old Ford station wagon, took care of their food bills on the road, delivered food and presents to their needy families at Christmas.

He taught them how to conduct themselves like men. And even though women were banned from his gym for being too distracting — a boxer could get his head knocked off in the ring checking out a pretty girl — he urged his fighters to be faithful to their wives and girlfriends and treat them well.

Pettway recalls driving up to Atlantic City with Lewis to watch the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks fight in 1988, shortly after Pettway had become engaged to be married.

Tyson knocked out Spinks in 91 seconds — the round-card girl was still putting on her lipstick when Spinks thudded to the canvas.


Moments later, Lewis and Pettway were riding in a hotel elevator when an attractive young woman looked at Pettway, smiled and said: "You must be a boxer. Can I have your autograph?"

Pettway signed for her. Suddenly, Mr. Mack reached over and grabbed the paper from the woman's hands and studied it.

"He would check autographs to make sure I wasn't getting phone numbers or giving out my phone number," Pettway recalled with a laugh. "He wanted to keep us on the right path."

But no matter how hard he tried, Mack Lewis couldn't keep everyone on that path.

He couldn't save Reggie Gross, for one. Gross was a promising young heavyweight who got mixed up with a drug gang in the late '80s and was convicted of three brutal street killings. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences and sent off to prison, where he remains to this day.

They say a little piece of Lewis' great heart seemed to wither the day they locked up Gross. Then he went back to working with his fighters with an even greater sense of urgency.


Wednesday I went over to the gym on North Bond Street, the new place he moved into after shuttering the old joint in 2002. A faded blue sign over the front entrance read: "No drugs. No drinking. No smoking. No cursing."

The place was empty — fighters wouldn't begin drifting in until late afternoon. But in the eerie quiet, in the fight posters that lined the wall and the discarded mouthpiece on a table and the heavy bag swaying gently from the ceiling, Mack Lewis' presence could still be felt.

Vince Pettway will be running the place now. But the mission remains the same: helping kids through boxing. Maybe the need is even greater than before.

"We want to keep Mr. Mack's legacy alive," Pettway said, "and do everything he did."

Everything Mack Lewis did? That'll be a hard one to pull off.


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