Posted Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010, at 1:19 AM
The Mack Lewis boxing gym, the old one on the corner of Eager Street and Broadway in Baltimore, was freezing cold in the winter. It was a former dance hall, with a high tin ceiling, and drafts blew through the plastic sheeting over the ancient windows.
This was early 1996, when Mack Lewis—Mr. Mack, to everyone—was 77 years old. The "Mr." was essential. "You come to my club, you won't hear no cursing," Lewis said. "Everybody down there is disciplined. I am Mr. Mack, not Mack, in this gym...If you came in there and you said 'Mack,' they would tell you, point-blank, 'That's Mr. Mack.'"
We had spent most of the short afternoon in the living room of his rowhouse on East Lanvale Street, an orderly, well-kept home on a block in a neighborhood in a city where people had long since stopped caring for houses like it. "One of the worst neighborhoods in the city," he said. He had meant to warn me before I came over, to tell me to stay in my car if there were people lurking on the street. The kids now, most of them, had grown up without discipline, without "Mr." or "Mrs." or "No, sir," or "Yes, ma'am." They would call their elders by their first names, walk all over them.
Nobody cared about anybody, he said. "They'll grab you and get around you, and the next thing you know, you're a dead man," he said. "They'll take your shoes off your feet. 'Cause they ain't got nothing."
Later, when I left the gym for the night, Mr. Mack would insist on sending someone along down the stairs to see me to my car, no more than 20 yards up the street. I thought that was a little much; but in fact, not too long after, a brief story in the Sunpapers would report a man shot dead at the bus stop right there—not somebody looking for trouble, just a middle aged man waiting to go home after working his shift at Johns Hopkins.
That was where the gym was. By the end of Mr. Mack's life, benefactors had set him up with a new gym, not far away, a refurbished Rite-Aid building on Bond Street, suitable for a civic treasure. He had appeared as himself, briefly, in an episode of The Wire, a white-haired embodiment of the tough, old city.
But that ceremonial phase of his career arrived late. He had been managing and training fighters for five decades—good fighters—traveling the world with them. "I've boxed in Africa," he said. "I've boxed in Spain, I've boxed in Brazil..I've boxed in all these different countries with fighters, my fighters—when I say 'I,' I'm talking about the fighters that I had." His own boxing career ended after one professional bout, thanks to an eardrum he'd damaged in the Army.
"I'm a teacher," Lewis said. "I
boxing. I don't just put you in the ring. I teach you what to do and show you what to do. And first, I have to motivate you when you're fighting. If you can't motivate a fighter, you're not much of a manager, a trainer, whatever you might be. You've got to be able to motivate that man."
A person owed it to himself to excel. "I don't care who you are," Lewis said. "I don't care where you're from. This head here, God didn't put no more brains in your head than in somebody else. And the only thing about it is whether you want to do something with the brain that you have. And all mankind—remember this—is created equal. And only one God. God created all mankind equal. I don't know what faith you are. I, myself, I believe in God. I believe in Jesus Christ. Some people would say, 'Well, I don't, I don't know, I don't know.' There's got to be something behind mankind living."
Growing up, he said, he had played sports whenever he could—boxing, football, soccer, baseball. "I wasn't a good baseball player," Lewis said. "I wasn't a good track man. But I could play football and I could box pretty good." In sports, he said, "you've the same chance as the other guy, and I think that's what really kept me interested."
With Larry Middleton in the early '70s, he went to England and beat Joe Bugner, the three-time European heavyweight champion. "The night of the fight, man, the place was packed," he said. "They had bobbies everywhere... Everybody said that we wasn't going to win, because Middleton had never fought over a six-round fight. So the fight started off, Middleton was jabbing and moving and winning the fight. Middleton won nearly every round of the fight. And when it got to the 10th round, I told Middleton, I said, 'Well, now, let him come at you,' I said, 'but just move over a little bit and throw the right hand,' and he did it. And he hit him and broke his—knocked him down and broke his jaw."
They went back again and beat Danny McAlinden, who would be the British Isles champion. "I didn't get nothing when I come back home," Lewis said. "Nobody said too much about it." They lost to Gerry Quarry on points, in 10 rounds, with Quarry moving on to fight Muhammad Ali.
Middleton never fought for a world title, though. Neither did Vernon Mason or Alvin Anderson. Mr. Mack put in 30 years in the civil service, at the IRS, then retired. The decades went by. All the while, young fighters kept coming through, starting as early as age eight, the youngest they could get insurance.
In 1973, when Mr. Mack was in his mid-50s, an eight-year-old named Vincent Pettway had started training at the gym. In 1994, Pettway knocked out Gianfranco Rosi for the IBF light middleweight championship of the world. "He's there with me 21 years, to win a world title," Lewis said. "That's how long it took us to win that title. Twenty-one years."
Eleven months after he'd won the championship, Pettway lost it to Paul Vaden by TKO. The day I sat down with Mack Lewis, Pettway had just had another chance to fight for the title, and had lost again by TKO, to Terry Norris. Mr. Mack believed that Norris had spent the fight landing illegal punches to the back of Pettway's head, and that it was an illegal kidney punch that had knocked Pettway down.
"But we're not crying," Lewis said. "We lost the fight. He was ahead of the fight. No argument about that. But the only thing I said is the illegal punches that he hit Pettway was one punch to the kidney, and the other punches, I don't know how many times he hit him in the back of the head, you got the tape, you look at it. And you just count the times that Pettway was hit behind the head. And that's not reasonable."
And though people had overlooked it afterward, Pettway had gotten to Norris in the third round. "He grabbed Pettway and hugged Pettway and held on," Lewis said. "He was almost out. But Pettway just didn't try to—just didn't get in there and finish him off like I've seen him do fighters. He hurt him very bad that round. He started doing everything then after that. I mean, I don't—no alibis, we lost. So I told Pettway, 'We don't make alibis, we lost.' That's it. We lost. We tried, but we lost. In a boxing match, somebody's going to win, and somebody's going to lose. And we lost."
The belt, 50 years coming, was slipping away. Pettway would never get another title fight. But Mr. Mack stuck with him. Meanwhile another Baltimore boxer, a heavyweight by the name of Hasim Rahman, had passed through the gym. One of Mr. Mack's old fighters, Lou Butler, spotted the big, rough kid on the streets, dragged him up the stairs, and put gloves on him.
Rahman went pro, but he didn't stay with Mr. Mack. Later, someone would say that Lewis had been too focused on Pettway, on that dream of a championship, to give Rahman the attention he wanted. Still, when the day came in 2001 that Rahman knocked out Lennox Lewis in Johannesburg, and he came home as heavyweight champion of the world, the parade in his honor formed up at the corner of Broadway and Eager.
Life was long. Mack Lewis moved to Baltimore from Richmond, Virginia, in the 1920s, at the age of six, settling into what was a mostly white neighborhood. He lived half a block from one school, he said, but the school was all white, and he had to walk more than 20 blocks to get to the segregated school for black children.
"In that neighborhood, the white boys and I, we grew up together," Lewis said. "Six years old, all of us young boys who grew up together. We didn't know no different, we didn't try to be different... I ate in their house, they ate in my house. That's the way I was raised. That's why I understand people. I understand you. You might not understand me, but I understand you. I understand most people I deal with. Because that's the way I was raised."
People lived how they had to live, all over the world. In South Africa, he remembered seeing how people fought for food scraps from the hotel. In Brazil—"You know where the people live there? They live in pipes....Whole families live in them big pipes, great big pipes, big around as this room. They're sewage pipes, actually...
"But you know," Lewis said, "I went all those places by myself. Just me and the fighter. All those places by myself. It's just my way of being lucky, I guess. I came out of those places. Everywhere I went, I went by myself....Then when I got to the place, I would hire somebody to work with me in the corner, that night of the fight."
One of his nephews was Reggie Lewis, the Boston Celtics star, who had collapsed and died of a heart attack three years before, at the age of 27. "We're not going to live always," Mack Lewis said. "You, me, nobody. One day, we're going away from here. That's one thing every man's going to do...You're gonna die. Sure as you live, you're gonna die."
He had seen a lot of things, he said. Places on the road to Richmond that wouldn't sell a black person gasoline or a cup of coffee. "I used to get out and go in the stores to get it. 'We don't sell coffee to niggers.' 'We don't sell gas to niggers.' Unbelievable...That's a part of my life. That's what I have to live through. That's what I had to look at. That's the things I have to think about.
"But remember," he said. "You never hate.
didn't do nothing to me. Other people didn't do nothing to me. The ones, probably, that did all these things is dead. They're gone now. Gone to heaven or hell or wherever they go.
"So now I'm going to get ready," he said. "I'm going to go to the gym."