Mack Lewis, boxing trainer, dies at 92

Neighborhood mainstay inspired thousands of young men

  • Mack Lewis trained boxers in Baltimore for decades.
Mack Lewis trained boxers in Baltimore for decades. (André F. Chung, Baltimore…)
November 13, 2010|By The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

For more than half a century, six nights a week, Mack Lewis climbed the 20 creaky stairs to the converted dance hall on the corner of Eager and Broadway where he taught thousands of young men to box and counseled them on life.

The gym later moved to a vacant Rite Aid in the nearby Church Square Mall on Bond Street, and Mr. Lewis' supporters worked to have it turned into a state-of-the-art 4,200-square-foot gym. But nothing about how Lewis approached his work changed.

Mr. Lewis, who died Friday night at Good Samaritan Hospital at age 92, trained contenders and pretenders, fathers, sons and grandsons. In the '60s, he tutored and managed world-ranked boxers — including heavyweight Larry Middleton, junior middleweight Alvin Anderson and welterweight Vernon Mason — and, after 50 years of trying, a world champion in Vincent Pettway, who won the junior middleweight crown in 1994.

Mr. Pettway, who shared a Nov. 9 birthday with his mentor, celebrated with Mr. Lewis last week at Emerald Estates, where the trainer lived with his wife, Ann Perl Lewis.

"He kept asking me when was the next show," said Mr. Pettway, 45, a Randallstown resident. "He was always the great promoter and actually wanted to put on a match for the senior center."

Mr. Pettway was a scrappy 8-year-old trying to stand up to neighborhood bullies when a friend introduced him to Mr. Lewis.

"From that day on, I trained with him," said Mr. Pettway, who retired from boxing in 2001 and is now manager of the gym. "He was a very disciplined man who showed me how to give and get respect. He would help everyone. But, when we'd leave, he would always say, 'You are on your own, son.'"

Mr. Lewis was equally proud of hundreds of his ring pupils who remained amateurs and never earned a penny by fighting, but proved successful in other professions.

"He trained every last one of us in that gym," Mr. Pettway said. "He was still coming to Bond Street until about two years ago."

Artist Joe Sheppard trained at the antiquated gym, and so did an anonymous millionaire, who turned out to be clothing executive Boogie Weinglass.

Masquerading as an average amateur boxer named Bobby Wein, Mr. Weinglass became so impressed by Mr. Lewis' work with the young fighters that he anonymously donated money for ring equipment before later helping to subsidize the gym costs and several local fight promotions featuring Pettway.

Over the years, Mr. Lewis received countless commendations, including letters from Mayor William Donald Schaefer and then President Richard M. Nixon. He was also voted into Maryland's Boxing Hall of Fame.

Many of his former fighters would return as middle-aged men to help Mr. Lewis train boxers or just to seek advice or the warm atmosphere of the gym that was often bone-chilling cold in the winter and stifling hot in the summer.

"A lot of cold nights I was tempted to bring an overcoat," Mr. Lewis once said. "But I couldn't give myself comforts the kids didn't have."

William Tank Hill, who fought for Mr. Lewis as a welterweight in the mid-'60s and later promoted area bouts, said, "Mr. Mack wasn't necessarily a father figure. He was more like a godfather." He recalled the many nights sitting around a coal stove at the gym and just talking.

Mr. Lewis was the man "you wanted your own kids to take after," Mr. Hill said. "He really could make a kid into a man in a year's time. All you really had to do was listen."

Born near Richmond, Va., Mr. Lewis moved with his family to Baltimore in 1924, and grew up in a multi-ethnic Patterson Park neighborhood.

"There were only two black families in the area back then — the Lewises and Joneses," he once said. "It was mostly Polish and Irish, but we were all so poor during the Depression, there was no jealousy."

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 beat Jack Dempsey for the heavyweight title and the old News Post had a special edition printed," he once said.

Mr. Lewis fought three years for Douglass High when the city's then-segregated schools had boxing teams. He also lettered in football, and received a scholarship to Morgan State where, as a two-way lineman, he played on the Bears' unbeaten 1940 team.

The start of World War II ended his college career. He resumed boxing in the Army while stationed at Fort Lee in Virginia and decided he would ultimately turn professional.

After being discharged in 1943 with a punctured ear drum, Mr. Lewis, a middleweight, became the first black fighter to train at the Eager Street gym then operated by Mickey O'Donnell. His pro career lasted only one fight — a first-round knockout of Jimmy Louden.

A doctor advised him that if he continued fighting, he could lose his hearing. Mr. Lewis quit boxing and began training fighters at night while working for more than 30 years as an information clerk with the Internal Revenue Service. There were long stretches when keeping the gym open proved a deficit with few of his professional boxers making substantial purses. But Mr. Lewis persevered.

"This is where I belong," he would say. "These kids need an outlet, and, secretly, you think the next kid who walks through the door could become a champion. Mickey O'Donnell used to keep track of all the guys that trained here. But when it got to over 2,000, I quit counting. But in some way, I remember all of them."

And, to be sure, they all remembered Mr. Mack.

Plans for a memorial event at the Bond Street Gym and a memorial tournament are incomplete.

Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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