I used to tag along with my older brother whenever he went to the gyms—places that had words like shadow or star in their names and almost always, a clogged toilet. I watched him train with featherweight Jose Resto. They called Resto a trial horse, the type of fighter who could test a young prospect. Possibly my first vivid memory of this sport was of Resto taking a deep breath, sucking in his kidneys, liver, and intestines until they were tucked under his rib cage. “Hit me,” he’d ask me with a smile. “In the stomach – I no feel it.” My second clear memory was of Hector Roca.
“Sangre Mexicana!” That’s what Hector Roca was shouting the first time I saw him. It was a few years after Resto took that deep breath and in a gym with a bathroom that you could use. Hector was in the ring holding a towel under the bleeding nose of an amateur boxer.
I had been to Gleason’s Gym before to watch Pipino Cuevas and Wilfred Benitez train. That day, when a Mexican amateur had his nose bloodied, was the first time I had gone alone. I was about 14 and should have been in school.
Maybe there was a report due that day or, maybe I didn’t have a fresh set of pants and did not want to wear the same clothes on back-to-back days. Whatever the reason, I flashed my school transit pass at the station, checked to see if the graffiti on the seat’s backrest was dry before sitting, and headed north when I was supposed to go south.
Hector’s appearance changed little over the years. Back then, in the early 80s, his hair was fuller and darker. Like always, he was well dressed and wore just enough jewelry to let you know that he knew where the line was that separated style from bad taste. “You should be in school,” he told me. “Not here getting your nose broke.”
“I’m coming from the library,” I lied. He held up the bloody towel and pointed to the pink stains. “Sangre Mexicana,” he repeated. “You pay for your mistakes. Sometimes with blood.”
Hector Roca was one of the new guys back then. A few years later, after Gleason’s moved to the other side of the East River, he was the trainer of a world champion. Before he and Buddy McGirt left for Texas to win that title, Hector was in the ring with Buddy, going over those Jersey Joe Walcott moves that McGirt perfected. “He’s coming back a champion,” Hector repeated.
Hector worked with several champions over the years. He embraced women’s boxing from the start and led a few to glory. Then came the models and the actors. There was Michelle Rodriguez and Hilary Swank and the guy who played Max Baer in Cinderella Man. Hector even turned singer Usher into a respectable Sugar Ray Leonard for “Hands of Stone.”
‘Those actors are dedicated,” he nodded to me a few years ago. “As dedicated as champions.”
Even after all the championships and the red-carpet premieres Hector treated me, and everyone else, like a friend. Even those who questioned his boxing credentials behind his back. “He’s not a boxing guy,” they’d sometimes say whenever he wasn’t close by. “He’s a cyclist.”
In the early 1970s, Hector Roca had reached a level of fame in Panama after medaling in the 1970 Central American and Caribbean Games. A pair of Olympic appearances solidified his reputation. Despite having had some experience helping his father train boxers in Panama, Hector worked his way from the bottom all the way to the top. It’s doubtful any trainer put in more gym time than Hector did during the 1980s and 1990s and throughout his success, he did not change much and handled the extra fame about as well as anyone could expect.
He still had time for the kids and the people with Parkinson, about as much time as he had for the champions and the movie stars.
That guy is a lawyer, he’d tell me. He’s a music producer, he’d point. He’s a doctor, he’s a Boricua. Hector knew everyone, knew what they did, and treated everyone like a familiar face. He’s a good trainer, he’d say, even about the ones who a few years earlier tried to discredit him.
He thanked me when he found out I wrote a book about his countryman, Panama Al Brown. “That’s my man. He’s from my country,” he’d say proudly. He caressed the cover of the book I gave him and asked, “You ever hear of Ernesto Marcel?”
“He beat Arguello,” I replied.
“Oh, you know him? He was from Panama too,” he said. I know, I told him. “Let’s see if you know this one,” he challenged. “A featherweight from way back – first Panamanian to fight for a title.”
Without batting an eye, I gave him the right answer. “You’re good,” he told me. “I’m glad you’re writing about them.”
Now I’m writing about Hector Roca. I didn’t see him often and now I won’t see him again. It’s a painful lesson in how fleeting even forty years could be. I should have stopped by more frequently, plunked down a couple of twenties, and let him hold the pads for me.
I could’ve used the exercise and Hector Roca loved teaching. And he was one of the best teachers the sport has seen. Even on his last day, he managed to teach at least one person a valuable lesson. (Editor Note: Link to the GoFundMe can be found HERE)
Editor Note: Thanks to Jose Corpas for this excellent recollection of an NYC fight game fixture. Read more from Corpas, author of Black Ink, the biography of Panama Al Brown, and also New York City's Greatest Boxers