Hector Roca, the Panamanian cyclist turned boxing trainer who fashioned a home base for himself at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, where he was revered for his teaching ability, and more than that, his spirit and his soul, has died.
He was 82 years old.
Roca's last days were spent in Brooklyn Hospital, battling the effects from kidney failure and an abdominal aneurysm. Surgery got scheduled for Tuesday morning, and but of course, those who know him will understand, he wasn’t in a woe-is-me state. That was his temperament, yes; but any uncertainty he felt about this prospects were minimized by the overflow of visitors who came to show love and respect to the beloved tutor.
“He was telling jokes, and flirting with the nurses, until his last day,” said Heather Hardy, the Brooklyn-based pugilist who called him “Papa.” She fought off tears long enough to share some of what made Hector so very special with NY Fights. “We were watching golf on the TV, and I said I never golfed. He said, ‘Maybe when it gets nice I’m gonna teach you how to play.” Her voice faltered.
Roca had a heart attack at about 3:30 am Monday night/Tuesday morning. Personnel worked to re-start his heart, to no avail.
Information will soon be made available regarding services/memorials. A man who exemplified the merits of New York's “melting pot” makeup will be buried in Panama.
Arturo Gatti was his best-known client, or maybe it was Hilary Swank, he got her ready to play a fighter in “Million Dollar Baby.”
He did a great job, it’s fair to say, Swank won an Oscar for her role in the flick co-starring Clint Eastwood. Hector fashioned the righty into a left-hander, the desire of director Eastwood.
You get a sense of Hector’s personality in this January 2005 Q n A with New York Magazine. Roca as a younger buck had excelled as a cyclist, apparently Olympic-level.
He came to America at age 35, and found work in the Garment District, first as a sweeper, then a cutter. Boxing got into his blood, though, and wouldn’t be expelled. “My father, my brother, they box,” he told Jada Yuan. “I fight myself, but I’m a very bad fighter.”
That article also showed his wise side in his approach to day to day living, he’d not get too up or too down. He’d seen it with fighters, everybody wants a piece of you when you are on a winning streak, less so when you take a couple Ls. The query: How popular are you now, because of “Million Dollar Baby?”
“Like, ten times more than before,” Roca answered. “But you know, that’s fantasy. When the movie’s gone, everybody gone again.”
Usually that’s true, but if Hector worried he’d face surgery without anyone watching his back, that notion was quickly rendered null.
He could get just two visitors at a time—NY real estate issue, basically. Several times, the line to see him would be so long, that Heather Hardy would get there, and seeing the line of those loving Hector, she’d leave, do some errands, and come back in two hours.
Right now, the pain is fresh, and immense for many folks who knew the genial fight game lifer. Bruce Silverglade, the boss at Gleason’s, has lost an irreplaceable buddy. When he started at Gleason’s, Roca greeted him, and they became tighter than a Hector Roca hand wrap.
Hector’s gentle spirit, you might think, didn’t fit in a fight gym, if you aren’t acquainted with the milieu. Here’s an example of his prevailing mindset, which will live on in those he affected.
“My conditioning coach would tell me to run faster, improve my time,” Hardy recalled to NYF. “Hector would say, ‘No, running is time to watch the birds.”
Roca cornered top tier practitioners, like Buddy McGirt, Renaldo Snipes, David Telesco, Iran Barkley, Michael Olajide, and seconded Hardy in her last fight, a UD6 win on Oct. 13, 2022 against Calista Salgado.
Hardy couldn’t recall the first time she met Hector, but their bond started fast and stayed strong.
“He’s been ‘Papa’ to me this whole time,” she said. “He told everyone at the hospital I was his daughter.”
The legacy of Hector Roca will largely be that of a high level “boxing trainer,” but maybe more accurate would be this: he taught people how to live, how to behave in a world that can and will whack you around, like a novice in the ring with a seasoned fighter.
Every day, even the gray ones, even the ones that didn’t on paper seem promising, Hector would thank a higher power for giving him a crack at making the day a good one. That’s a good blueprint for having a decent life, and Hector Roca can be remembered as someone who passed that wisdom down to those in need of guidance.
NOTE: On Saturday, Jan 7, there will be a viewing, from 10 am to 1 PM, at Cobble Hill Chapels, 171 Court St., Brooklyn, NY.
On Saturday, Jan 28, there will be a salute to Hector Roca gathering at Gleason’s Gym. The memorial will run 6-9 PM ET.