Hector Roca - Everyone Can Box

by Dale Kaplan

Hector Roca, who trained Hillary Swank for Million Dollar Baby as well as 21 world boxing champions , is currently practicing social distancing in his apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn where he spent his 80th birthday cooking rice and beans  and watching TV. Luckily, just before all of our lives turned upside down I had the privilege of interviewing the iconic boxing trainer who has been coaching at Gleason’s Gym for over 20 years. Roca’s humility, and passion for his sport demonstrates a remarkable humanity filled with love and dedication for all who come to train.

Plastered with photos of movie stars and champions, the walls of Roca’s office are a testament to a life well spent.  The coach has trained 21 world champions including Arturo Gatti and Iran Barkley. He has also appeared in 16 movies. Hector trained Hilary Swank for her part in the Oscar winning film Million Dollar Baby and the two have maintained a close friendship to this day. “Hillary is a sweetheart” says Roca. She prepared all the food in my apartment in Red Hook for my 75th birthday.  “She cooked for everyone and stayed until 6 o:clock in the morning. While training for her role, Swank rented a house for Hector in Venice Beach, California where he lived across the street from Arnold Scwartznegger. Hector happily reminisces about the meals Swank prepared for him during that time “Boy, can she cook.”

Like millions of immigrants before him, once he arrived in the Big Apple he decided to stay and never looked back.

The coach was born in Panama where he spent many years working for the government. While his father was a boxing coach and his brother Antonio Amaya was a world champion, Hector’s  true love was cycling.   

At 35 years old, Hector’s life took on a pivotal turn. He had planned to take a trip to New York City and then to travel to Puerto Rico to compete in a race. Like millions of immigrants before him, once he arrived in the Big Apple he decided to stay and never looked back. His first means of employment was working in the shmata business. He transported rolling racks of women’s clothing on foot throughout midtown Manhattan.  At that time the garment district was still the epicenter of clothing manufacturing and these racks on wheels were a commonplace visual within the city landscape.  

Always searching for a better opportunity,  Roca went to school to become a garment cutter. “It was a good job at a very good salary ” says Hector. He did this work for over 8 years but was soon to learn that fashion was not his fate. 

One day he decided to check out Gleason’s Gym which was then located on West 32nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues.  The admission fee to observe the boxers was 25 cents, that was the quarter that changed Hector’s life. He quickly quit his job as a cutter and began his illustrious career as a boxing coach with Gleason’s.  Roca is well known in the boxing communities in both the USA and Europe. He received the great honor of wrapping Muhammed Ali’s fists, the initial step taken before they were cast in bronze. 

“Gleason’s has given me everything.”

“Gleason’s has given me everything” says Hector who has an especially tight relationship with Bruce Silverglade, the owner of the gym.  “Bruce is a wonderful human being who has given so much love and support to the boxing community. He has managed to open up the sport to women and children as well as people with both physical and mental disabilities.” 

Hector trains everyone from beginners to professionals. The price for beginners is very reasonable at  $60.00 an hour and the lesson always stretches beyond 60 minutes. It is for sure the best deal in the hood. “I try not to charge too much, I need money to live but teaching gives me so much pleasure. It makes me happy and I feel incredibly blessed.” says the coach.

“Everyone can box” says Roca. He has trained people with all types of mental and physical challenges. Hector  trained a man with one leg as well as young adults with developmental disabilities. One of his most successful training stories involves the work he has done with people with neurological disorders. “ I trained a woman in a wheelchair with Parkinsons and now she is walking” states the trainer extraordinaire. “She is even boxing on her own two feet.”. 

Roca has trained people from 4 years old up to 80. “The benefits are enormous” states Roca. 

“You cannot beat it for stress relief. It is exercise for the whole body and after a workout you will feel incredibly relaxed.”

When asked if he had a favorite student he replied “Everyone who comes to try is my favorite”

That’s Hector, an incredible coach and stellar human being.

Gleason's Gym

Add a comment