Legendary boxing trainer Hector Roca celebrated at Gleason’s Gym

One of the sport's greats remembered in Brooklyn

February 6, 2023 Mary Frost
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DUMBO — Hundreds gathered at Gleason’s Gym in DUMBO on Jan. 28 to celebrate the life of the legendary boxing trainer, Hector Roca.

Roca, who coached dozens of world champions to victory, died of a heart attack on Jan. 3 at the age of 82. The memorial was put together by Gleason’s longtime owner Bruce Silverglade.

Gleason’s Gym, founded in 1937, is the most famous boxing gym in the world, and Roca was one of its most beloved trainers. Despite his disciplinarian style and gruffness, he had a way of inspiring his fighters to greatness. Many called him “Papa.”

Roca worked with world champions Iran Barkley, James “Buddy” McGirt and Regilio Tuur, and more recently, Heather “The Heat” Hardy and Alicia Ashley. He also trained celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Wesley Snipes and Hilary Swank (for her Oscar-winning role in Million Dollar Baby).

Legendary boxing trainer Hector Roca passed away Jan. 3 at the age of 82. A memorial service held on Saturday, Jan. 28 attracted admirers from across the country and internationally. Photo courtesy of Gleason’s Gym

Mingling in the crowd at Gleason’s were aspiring fighters, judges and lawyers, finance guys and professional boxers like Armin Mrkanovic, aka “The Bosnian Prince”; former pro boxer Dominic Monaco, once a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden; and Mitch “Blood” Green, who went the distance with Mike Tyson at the Garden. (He lost the fight by decision but knocked out one of Tyson’s gold teeth. He also notoriously fought Tyson on the street in Harlem.)

A small army of waiters in impeccable white coats and black ties slipped in and out with hors d’oeuvres and drinks on silver trays. Roca had coached three generations of Ciprianis — the exclusive hospitality company’s owner, two sons, and grandson. Cipriani catered the event for free.

Bruce Silverglade, owner of Gleason’s Gym and Hector Roca’s best friend for 40 years, speaks at Roca’s memorial service on Jan. 28. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

A life at Gleason’s

Roca was a two-time Olympian cyclist who immigrated to the U.S. from Panama more than four decades ago. He started out in the garment trade, transporting clothing racks and cutting fabric. There were boxers in his family, and he soon found himself at Gleason’s Gym.

Roca was his closest friend, Silverglade told the crowd.

Legendary boxing trainer Hector Roca passed away Jan. 3 at the age of 82. A memorial service held on Saturday, Jan. 28 attracted admirers from across the country and internationally. Photo courtesy of Gleason’s Gym

“Hector was an icon in boxing as a trainer, but personally I’ve known him for 41 years and we spent almost every day together,” Silverglade said. “We traveled all over the world together. We were in China, we were in Europe, South America, Central America — we had some real fine times.”

“As everyone here knows, sometimes he was mad at you, sometimes he loved you, he was always yelling — but obviously he made a good impression because that’s why you’re here,” he said.

Silverglade said that Roca would arrive at the gym at a few minutes past its 5 a.m. opening every day.

“We’d shake hands, say hello, have a little coffee or tea together, and shoot the breeze. And we always told each other how long we were going to live. His mom lived to be 99, and Hector was in good shape, he worked out every day, never did drugs, never smoked. So he was looking for 99. And I said, ‘Well, my parents died at 86, so I’m looking at 86.’

“So you don’t know,” Silverglade said. “Enjoy your day every day, and love your family and friends.”

Roca’s son Hector, Jr., who just retired after 26 years in the U.S. Green Berets, emotionally thanked the crowd for showing up his father. “I know he would be mad if he sees me like this, but I got allergy in my eyes. I’m not crying, okay?”

Mary Feygin started boxing with her dad Dmitry when she was 6 or 7 years old, and trained with Roca on and off. “To me, Hector was my Gleason’s grandpa,” she said. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Roca Jr. had been home in Miami when his father died. “I just want to tell you guys, look to your left, look to your right. If you have somebody you love, please, give him a hug, tell him that you love him. I didn’t get the chance to do that to my father.”

Mario Di Bartolomeo, aka “The Politician,” trained with Roca before moving to Italy. He flew in for the memorial event and presented to Hector Jr. a plaque from the Italian Boxing Federation. “Hector Roca was a great person,” he said.

Armin Mrkanovic said Roca was like a father to him. “I’ve been with him 25 years, and through these 25 years it wasn’t just about fighting and throwing punches. It was more of being a good person, respecting people, learning how to live a life. He said a lot of stuff and maybe when he first said it, it sounded a little disrespectful, a little harsh. But he loved everybody. That was just the way he was.”

Bruce Silverglade, left, owner of Gleason’s Gym, with Rev. Howard Major, a Presbyterian priest who boxes at Gleason’s. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

While visiting Roca recently in the hospital, Mrkanovic said he jumped up to help him with a door. “He looked at me, he said, ‘Hey, sit the f*ck down. Do I look like I need your help?’

“You can learn punches. You can learn how to throw a jab. You can know how to slip. But you cannot teach heart,” Mrkanovic said.

Chicago attorney and Golden Gloves boxer Christopher Helt trained with Roca and became a close family friend. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Treated everyone the same

“Although he was an icon in the sport of boxing, Hector was a down-to-earth person that would train anybody that came into the gym,” Silverglade said. “If a youngster walked in from the projects and said, ‘I don’t have a lot of money, give me a lesson,’ I’d say, ‘Hector, the kid needs a lesson,’ and by all means Hector would train him with the same vigor that he put into anybody else that he trained.”

David Everett, a federal judge in Westchester (and former assistant DA in Brooklyn), said that when his now-31-year-old son was 12 years old, he had a medical condition and as a result, lacked confidence. The boy started with Roca. “And this was the beginning of not only a relationship with Hector, but a transformation that helped make him the confident young man he is today,” Everett said.

Olympic silver medalist Mohamed Aly trained with Hector Roca. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Silverglade said that Giuseppe Cipriani “trained diligently” with Roca starting 40 years ago. After the elder Cipriani returned to Italy, his two sons Maggio and Ignazio trained with Roca. “And now Ignacio’s son was coming in and training with Hector. So the family has been an intricate part of Gleason’s for 40 years and Ignacio was extremely emotional when he got the word about Hector passing away,” he said.

“I told him I was having a memorial, and he offered to cater it at no charge. His chef was here, he had the managers here, they set up the coat room, everything … We had over 250 people here. So you can imagine the expense. Cipriani did this out of his love and his family’s love for Hector,” Silverglade said.

“Hector was a great trainer, and he knew how to explain in the simplest terms to me what I needed at that time,” said five-time world boxing champ Alicia “Slick” Ashley, left. “There was no other trainer for me.” said her brother Devon Cormack, pro boxer and three-time world kickboxing champion. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Didn’t want to disappoint Papa

Roca’s students said that he was tough on them, but he had an indescribable quality that made them reach further and try harder than they ever thought they could.

Former pro boxer, trainer and author David “Awesome” Lawrence, known as “The King of White Collar Boxing,” was Roca’s close friend for more than 35 years.

“He was my trainer for ten years, six days a week,” Lawrence said. Roca coached Lawrence through his six pro bouts and worked his corner for more than 50 White Collar fights. Lawrence said that Roca made him believe in himself.

“Hector was a stickler for technique, but his strength was building up my courage,” he said.

“He was my friend, my coach, my mentor, my brother, my father, my son, my family…. Since he passed on I come into the gym every day looking for him,” Lawrence said.

Almost every inch of the walls and pillars of Gleason’s are covered with photos and posters of boxing legends who have trained there — Jake La Matta (“Raging Bull”), Muhammad Ali, Roberto Duran, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather Jr., to name a few. Gleason’s owner Bruce Silverglade has begun a wall of honor for Hector Roca. Photo: Mary-Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Heather Hardy, champion boxer who won the WBO featherweight title with Roca, said that he continued to give her tips even from his hospital bed. She wrote on her Facebook page, “I loved him so much and my heart is absolutely broken.” Hardy attended his memorial but was too broken up to speak, Silverglade said.

Brooklyn Heights resident Rebecca Brown trained with Roca for four years. “From the moment I first trained with him, I wanted nothing more than to make him proud,” Brown said. “The second time I showed up at the gym, he strapped on headgear, threw me into the ring with, as it turns out, Cipriani, and told me to go knock his lights out.”

Roca became like a father to her, and a proud godfather to her new baby. “He was the first person I visited when I got home from the hospital. … he was one of the first people who visited my newly-born son and he proudly posted photos of his next heavyweight champion,” Brown said.

(Left) Dominic Monaco, Golden Gloves champ and ex-pro fighter, a popular Italian fighter from South Brooklyn, fought in Madison Square Garden many times. (Right) Mitch “Blood” Green, Golden Gloves champ and ex-pro, fought Mike Tyson at the Garden and lost, but also infamously fought Tyson on the sidewalk in Harlem. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle
Rabbi Yuri Foreman is Israel’s first world boxing champion. While Roca wasn’t Jewish, Foreman said, “Hector impacted a lot of youth, adults, made champions, and with this, from Jewish perspective, it’s a sort of immortality.” Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle
Former pro boxer, trainer and author David “Awesome” Lawrence, left, was a close friend with trainer Hector Roca. Amy Bridges, a therapeutic boxing trainer who trained with Roca, developed the first ABA-inspired Autism Boxing Program. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle
“You can learn punches. You can learn how to throw a jab. You can know how to slip. But you cannot teach heart,” said Armin Mrkanovic, aka “The Bosnian Prince.” Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle
Jill Diamond, International Secretary of the World Boxing Council and International Chair of WBC Cares (and Emmy award winner), presented Hector Roca Jr. with a WBC medal. Sitting next to her is Mike Burke, who trains at Gleason’s. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle
Hundreds gathered at the famous Gleason’s Gym in DUMBO on Jan. 28 to celebrate the life of the legendary boxing trainer, Hector Roca. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle
After an illness, David Everett’s young son gained confidence after training with Roca. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle
“When I came to this gym when it was 77 Front St., I learned from Hector; he taught me to be a good trainer,” Panama said. “He was a very, very nice person. Rest in peace.” Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

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