New Mack Lewis gym is a knockout

Friends of boxing legend fund new training facility that will be unveiled today

July 10, 2002|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

Mack Lewis' gym in East Baltimore has lacked running water for years, the ropes of the boxing ring are bound together by duct tape and the worn wood sinks as you step onto the stairs leading to the deteriorating facility.

For five decades, it was good enough. But the legendary boxing trainer knows it's time for a change - and he's getting one.

After 51 years at the gym on Eager Street and Broadway, Lewis, 82, has a new place to train his fighters.

The Mack Lewis Gym, funded by a host of city benefactors, will be unveiled today in East Baltimore at a ceremony attended by state dignitaries.

The gym represents a repayment of sorts for Lewis, an Internal Revenue Service clerk who never charged money during his decades as a trainer. Not only did he train his boxers for free, but he always made sure at the end of the night that they had money for food.

"That's my religion - helping people," Lewis said.

Thousands of fighters trained at his old gym, including former world champions Hasim Rahman and Vincent Pettway. Even "the Greatest" himself, Muhammad Ali, once sparred there.

"This is home," Lewis said yesterday, sitting in his favorite chair near the old ring. "I loved this gym because it was mine. I controlled this gym and the fighters that were in it."

The new gym, in the 900 block of Bond St., is in a renovated building that used to be a Rite-Aid. It's in a tough neighborhood, a short walk away from the old gym. And while it is twice as big and includes such modern amenities as running water and air conditioning, some things will stay the same.

A sign near the entrance spells out Lewis' rules:

No drugs.

No drinking.

No smoking.

No cursing.

The 4,200-square-foot facility had many sponsors. Baltimore developer Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse Inc. will provide free rent for the next 10 years. Also contributing to the $400,000 project were businessman Leonard W. "Boogie" Weinglass, the city's three major labor unions and the nonprofit Mack Lewis Foundation.

Those who trained with Lewis said he always commanded respect.

"If he said something didn't hurt, it didn't hurt, even if you knew it hurt," said Pettway, who became the first Lewis trainee to win a world title when took the junior middleweight title in 1994. He now helps Lewis run the gym.

Lewis purchased his original facility for $1,000 in 1951. He had ended his fighting career several years earlier because of an ear injury he suffered in an Army boxing bout during World War II. He made sure that men of all races felt welcome to box there.

But before anyone could train at his gym, each had to do one thing.

"You always spoke to him when you entered the room," Pettway said. Fighters weren't allowed to train until they asked Lewis' permission. "You were kind of scared of him, because he was stern."

Lewis always ended the night sharing stories and his life philosophy - namely, to help people in need, Pettway recalled.

Lewis and Pettway will try to re-create the same atmosphere at the new gym. Pettway will be the head trainer, although Lewis will continue to train.

The fight posters that hung for years in the old gym are going up in the new one. Foreman vs. Middleton. Pettway vs. Norris. Hall vs. Bozman. The new gym also houses large mirrors that sat in the old gym when it was a Bohemian dance hall in the early 20th century. "I can't believe what they're doing for me," Lewis said. "If it wasn't for them doing this, I'd have been here [in the old gym] for another 10, 15 years."

"It's such a great spirit around Mack," said C. William Struever, who heads Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse. "He's a salt-of-the-earth type of fellow, the type of person that gives you hope about our future."

The new gym will include an upstairs computer lab for an academic tutoring program sponsored by the Mack Lewis Foundation, which was founded last year to benefit children.

But the main focus will be boxing. And although the surroundings might be new, Pettway said boxers will still be held to the highest standards.

"He's gotten a lot milder than he used to be, so I'm going to have to step in and try enforce where he was the enforcer," Pettway said.

"I have to let the new fighters know, `Just because you're getting a new place, you've still got to want it as hard.'"

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