November 10, 2004

Gene Lewis settles his 80 years into the soft, brown chair that looks like it’s been around as long as he has. His beard and hair are gray, his eyes weary.

He hasn’t been feeling well lately, but he figures that’s what 50 years of hard work will do to a man.

"My doctor told me, ‘We got to do something about you being tired,’ " Lewis said. "I said, ‘I’m old, man.’ "

He laughs at the line. Thankfully, the laugh has not been touched by age. It’s the same high-pitched cackle that’s bounced around downtown Mesa and into the ears of young boxers for the past 50 years.

The 29th annual Gene Lewis Invitational Boxing Tournament will be Thursday through Saturday at the Broadway Recreation Center just south of downtown Mesa. Amateur boxers ages 10 and older from across the country will compete.

Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children.

Lewis, as usual, will be ringside. He doesn’t do much of the training anymore; he leaves that to Joshua Benjamin, who’s been assisting him the past nine years.

"Josh makes them respect me," Lewis said. "But they call me Mr. I’m not any Mr. I’m Gene Lewis."

It’s not flattery to call Lewis a city treasure. He’s part of Mesa’s fabric. He worked at Peterson’s service station on the corner of Robson and Main Street for 25 years before becoming a custodian for the Mesa Parks and Recreation Department in 1978.

He never took a sick day in the 25 years he worked for the city, and when his shift ended each afternoon, he was at his gym, teaching kids how to become better boxers and, more importantly, better people.

"He was kind of a port in the storm for a lot of kids," said Harvey Prezant, who worked with Lewis from 1978 to 2003.

Prezant, a retired banker, recalled his first meeting with Lewis. They were in Lewis’ home in central Mesa — Lewis has lived there for more than a half-century — and Prezant asked how Lewis handled the finances of putting on his tournament.

"Shoot, here’s how I do things," Lewis said.

He opened a drawer, pointed at a bundle of money and said, "That’s my tournament money."

There was $6,000 in the drawer.

"We got it in the bank," Prezant said with a laugh.

Lewis’ money may not have been in the right place, but his heart always was.

Prezant said one girl showed up at the gym every day for four years. She never put on the gloves or climbed in the ring.

She just wanted to talk to the old man with the easy smile.

"Coach is really a positive force in these kids’ lives," Benjamin said. "I’m from Charleston, South Carolina, and we grew up on old black men we called

granddaddys. That’s Gene."

The kids haven’t changed over the years — "some want to train, some want to get in the corner and hide," Lewis said — and neither has their trainer.

A boxer in Lewis’ care better be prepared for harsh but well-meaning criticism, for Lewis has no room in his life or his gym for pretension.

"Coach doesn’t waste words on people," Benjamin said. "When he tells a kid he can do something with himself, he means it, because I see 50 kids in here he’ll never say those particular words to.

"He’s not always the easiest-going guy, but nobody ever complains. The kids know he cares about them."

Lewis still arrives at his gym every day at 4:30 p.m., unlocks the padlocked chainlink fence and, with a wave of his arm, invites the waiting kids in.

He’s there as much for himself these days as he is for them. Lewis can’t stand the boredom of retirement. His heart problems — he’s had a pacemaker installed — preclude him from even digging in his flower bed, so he spends much of the day on his couch, watching television.

He hasn’t been to a boxing tournament — besides his own — for two years because travel wears him out.

"I tell you, it’s a job to stay home and do nothing," Lewis said. "I have to come here every day. If I quit, I’d probably go crazy."

Lewis often thinks about all the fighters he’s trained over the years. Some he can’t remember. Some he’ll never forget. Like the "bad gal" who came to the gym, straightened out her life and recently asked Lewis if she could, as a member of the junior ROTC, carry the color guard for this weekend’s tournament.

Lewis’ only regret: He never trained a professional champion.

Titles don’t make a man, though.

Life does.

And for 50 years, there’s always been a champion in Lewis’ gym.

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