Giving kids fighting chance Mr. Mack laces on respect, for ring of life has more than 4 corners

Ken Rosenthal

July 30, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

Three young boys sucking Popsicles peer into Mr. Mack's gym. They've already made a passage of sorts, leaving the crowded street, opening the iron door, ascending the long staircase. But after so many years, Mr. Mack isn't easily impressed.

"Sit down!" he cries, and the kids do as they're told, ploppinonto a yellow bench to watch. Maybe one of them is a future world champion, but probably not. This is not about that. For Mr. Mack -- Mack Lewis to everyone but his fighters -- it never was.

Don't be mistaken: Mr. Mack, 72, would love to get his hands on a world champion, just for that rush, just once. But the fact is, he churns out champ after champ in his musty old gym at Broadway and Eager. Just depends how you define the word.

Some trainers work wonders inside the ring. Mr. Mack turnmiracles outside it. Oh, the boxing is important, no doubt. But many of these fighters will never turn pro, much less win a title. Mr. Mack trains them to conquer their own personal Mike Tysons, every day, out on the streets.

"You see where I'm at," he was saying yesterday, pointing out from his second-floor gym toward Broadway and Eager, one of hundreds of real-life boxing rings in this city. "You've got to be a model for these kids."

And so he is. The sign entering the gym says, "No drugs. Ndrinking. No smoking. No cursing." After 40-odd years, Mr. Mack is not kidding. He never uses profanity. Fighters young and old call him "Sir." None leave without saying a proper goodbye.

"As long as I keep these kids doing what's right, that's thobject," Mr. Mack says. "I don't think about a world champion. If I could get one, beautiful. But all these kids respect me. They do what I tell them, treat people fair."

It sounds like small consolation, but it is anything but. "When hsays that, he's telling the truth," says Billy Foust, Mr. Mack's assistant of 18 years. "He's never been a man to be big and mighty. He just always wanted to help someone."

Foust is a classic case in point. He met Mr. Mack when he wa"drinking wine, doing nothing." Today he's trim and fit, a recovering alcoholic with a sanitation job and his own bank account. "I'm not rich, but I'm not hungry," he says. "All you need is somebody to believe in you."

And Foust is just one. Mr. Mack has helped countless othersand along the way trained some pretty good fighters, too: Larry Middleton and Vernon Mason, George Chaplin and Alvin Anderson. Among his current stable of 15, Vincent Pettway is the world's 10th-ranked junior middleweight.

Mr. Mack also is co-trainer for Virginia-based John Jarvis, who is scheduled to fight Darren Van Horn for the IBF super middleweight crown in Monaco on Aug. 22. Boxing's alphabet-soup hierarchy waters down titles, but Mr. Mack concedes it would "mean a whole lot" if Jarvis won the IBF crown.

Not having a world champion "doesn't bother him, but it botherme for him," says Pettway as he changes for a workout. "As long as he turns out good people in society, he feels he's doing a great job. I feel the same way. But for all the people he's trained, a world championship would justify all he's done in boxing."

Not that his contributions have gone unnoticed. Lewis is member of the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame, and one of his former pupils -- Merry-Go-Round president Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, the guy who's trying to buy the Orioles -- is now a partner in financing and promoting his pro fighters.

Still, you wonder if Mr. Mack will ever get his proper due. In 1983he staged an amateur fight card that raised more than $3,000 to sustain a food fund for steelworkers on indefinite layoff. In '84 he held a similar benefit for a Baltimorean named Mark Mitchell who had a liver transplant.

In a game of greed, Mr. Mack clearly is not motivated by profitHe does not charge gym dues, does not extract his one-third percentage until his fighters start boxing eight rounds. After working 30 years for the IRS, he lives off his pension and social LTC security. He is in excellent health, and wants to train until he is "95 or 100."

Has he lost money? "Have I!" Mr. Mack says. "I could havbought two or three homes by now. But I don't think about it." Instead, he lives happily with his wife Annie in a six-room house on Lanvale Street. He has been all over the world, but says with all his heart "there's no place like home."

On this rainy Baltimore day he's preparing a group of youngsterfor an amateur fight card at Martin's Champagne Room. Four other clubs will participate, but Mr. Mack can't guarantee bouts just yet. One kid asks, "Think I'll get a fight tomorrow, Mr. Mack? You know I want one."

The old trainer just smiles. The kids walk by, extend their arms silently and wait for him to lace their gloves. Mr. Mack chastises one, a cocky 14-year-old, for a poor sparring session. Later, the 14-year-old sits down next to him when everyone else is gone.

"When you first come in, he lays it all out on the line -- what he expects, what kind of order he wants," Pettway says. "From that moment on, he gets respect. There are a few who try to do what they want. But longtime guys like myself don't tolerate them. Nine times out of 10, they get run out of the gym."

It happens, but not often. The second floor above Broadway anEager might not be heaven, but it's on the way. Just ask the three young boys sucking Popsicles on the yellow bench. "If you want to fight, you come back in," Billy Foust says. "If you don't, then don't."

They start 'em young here at Mr. Mack's gym.

It's the best time to begin.

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