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Duck, Jab...and Don't Spar With Neighbors


January 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 


Mickey Rosario, right, hung a heavy bag in the hallway of the Wagner Houses in East Harlem 35 years ago.

PHOTO: G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times


The narrow hallway in this East Harlem public housing complex hardly resembles a boxing gym.

A trash chute serves as a spit bucket, and equipment is stored in an empty fire hose box. Instead of the dinging of ringside bells, the cries of babies and barks of dogs seep from neighboring apartments. The fighters who train here run the graffiti-strewn stairwell and do situps on the kitchen floor of the couple who live in Apartment 11C.

Next to the elevators here on Tuesday night, a wiry man with graying hair and thick gold chains around his neck danced a tight circle with a young boxer who threw uppercuts at the coach's big red mitts. A woman wearing fuzzy blue slippers sat in a doorway, timing them with a stopwatch. "Ay, caramba," the man said. "Step into the punch. You have to know how to use your power."

Some 35 years ago, the couple in 11C, Mickey and Negra Rosario, hung a heavy bag in this 11th-floor hallway of the Wagner Houses, at First Avenue and 124th Street. Here, they began coaching young boxers from East Harlem, moving from church basements to community rooms. In 1978, they settled into the Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center, in a city park at 112th Street and First Avenue.

There, the group, known as the Gladiators, grew into a city powerhouse in New York amateur boxing, producing dozens of Golden Gloves champions and such eventual professionals as Hector Camacho. The Gladiators won the Golden Gloves team trophy four years in a row in the late 1970's, and Mickey and Negra were featured in books and documentaries.

But now the Gladiators club is back where it started, after being ousted from its longtime gym by the city's Parks Department last year. It has shrunk to the point that it will have only three or four fighters with a shot at winning the Golden Gloves tournament this month.

Now the Rosarios, East Harlem fixtures, are faced with the club's dying off, and so are considering moving out of their East Harlem home. "The kids have gotten disgusted training in a hallway," Mr. Rosario, 66, said. "The neighbors don't love it either."

The Gladiators' tale is the kind that can get lost in a big-time sports town like New York. Nevertheless, the group is an institution in an overlooked neighborhood. Its story is full of heart, ingenuity, perseverance and an enduring belief in discipline and desire.

"They've saved lots of lives in East Harlem," said the couple's oldest son, Mike Rosario Jr. "Their biggest accomplishment is not making champions but making doctors and lawyers out of street gang members. Now they've come full circle and they're starting from scratch in the hallway again."

Mike Rosario, 43, won the Golden Gloves three times and is now the chief official of the International Amateur Boxing Association for the Northeast. He said that his father was hurt by the city's decision and "is licking his wounds."

William T. Castro, Manhattan borough commissioner for the Parks Department, said yesterday that the room used by the Gladiators was needed to create multi-use space for dance, karate, aerobics and youth activities. The Gladiators hurt themselves when two members assaulted a Parks Department worker, he said, adding that this was one of a "history" of similar incidents.

The Rosarios maintain that there was only a scuffle that occurred after a parks worker insulted Mrs. Rosario. "Bottom line, they found a way to kick us out," Mike Rosario said. "Our club came in and helped clean the park up from drugs and crime. Then one day, the city said, `We don't want these thugs in the park anymore.' "

Either way, the once-proud partnership between the Parks Department and the Gladiators has broken up.

For three decades, the Rosarios have imparted to local kids the science of boxing and the art of staying off the street.

The month of January used to mean taking their young warriors downtown on the subway from El Barrio and marching proudly into Madison Square Garden for the Golden Gloves.

But Mickey and Negra have always insisted that whatever gym they used, the home of the Gladiators has always been Casa Rosario, even if that is a housing project hallway.

The senior Mr. Rosario is a former gang leader and an admitted hothead. His discipline and tough love have, he believes, built character in his fighters. He has always kept a Bible in the gym and insisted on three rules for his fighters: no earrings, no cursing and no fighting outside the ring.

A master corner man, he has a longstanding tradition of giving his fighters a hard slap in the head before Round 1. ("It wakes them up," he says.) But he has been suspended from the Golden Gloves tournament at times for trying to wake up the referee that way.

Still, Mr. Rosario, who never knew his own father, has become a father figure to scores of young fighters and the legal guardian to some. He has allowed dozens of Gladiators over the years to sleep on his couch and floor. His fighters' children call him Grandpa.

Mr. Camacho pops in often, as do other former Gladiators, including the hip-hop impresario Damon Dash. Mr. Rosario organizes smokers to raise money for his fighters' entry fees and memberships.

Mickey and Negra immigrated to East Harlem from Puerto Rico as children. Mrs. Rosario, 63, is a pioneer in female boxing. In 1968, she became perhaps the first female boxing coach certified by New York State's Athletic Commission. Everyone who knows her swears that she has psychic powers. Many Gladiator fighters believe that the herbs she puts in their boxing shoes before their fights for good luck really work.

The Rosarios say they have passed up the chance to follow dozens of their fighters into the big money of pro boxing, preferring to pursue boxing as a sport, not a business.

"If it was about money, I'd have a million-dollar home now," Mr. Rosario said in his cramped apartment. "I'd have a different color Cadillac for each day of the week, not an apartment in the projects."

Their cozy apartment blends a décor style of Catholicism and pugilism. There are Jesus statues adorned with boxing medals and boxer statues wearing Jesus medallions. Boxing equipment is heaped on the bed along with grandchildren's teddy bears.

In the hallway on Tuesday night, fighters shadow-boxed against the dull metal of the elevator doors. The polyrhythmic punching of sparring boxers blended with the conversation coming from Miss Alice's bible study in apartment 11E. One fighter danced with Mr. Rosario in front of the elevator doors. The fighter, Guadalupe Castillo, 27, of East Harlem, boxed from the crouch and threw a flurry of short punches at his mentor's hands.

Mr. Castillo began training with the Rosarios at age 11 and was a runner-up in the Golden Gloves tournament last year at 139 pounds.

Afterward, he said that boxing skills taught by the Rosarios had "kept me alive," both on the street and in prison, adding, "They fix people's lives."

He watched a group of young men in puffy parkas smoking cigarettes in the stairwell. One of them dropped to the floor as a joke and did a few push-ups.

Mr. Rosario poked his head into the stairwell and yelled at him.

"Hey," he said. "You box?"

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