Boxed Out

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These days, gyms seem to come and go without much notice. But in East Harlem, the demise of a 30-year-old boxing program has politicians lining up for and against it, as the owners’ son and grandson try to avoid jail time for assaulting city Parks workers.

Last January, the city Parks Department kicked the Gladiators, a boxing club started by local activists Mickey and Negra Rosario in 1973, out of their headquarters at the Thomas Jefferson Recreational Center on First Avenue.

The eviction came after more than a decade of out-of-the-ring altercations between the center’s employees and the Rosarios–at least 20, according to records marked “The X Files” kept by the rec center’s manager.

The final straw came on the night of January 4, when Mickey’s son Ralph, 35, a former Golden Gloves boxer, and Mickey’s 22-year-old grandson Miguel allegedly beat up a Parks worker at Thomas Jefferson. A week earlier, the city had suspended Mickey from the center for a month for getting into a shoving match with a few city employees. The younger Rosarios spent the night in jail and were charged with assault and harassment. They claim that they were the ones who were attacked. The case goes to court on November 21.

“Over the past 10 years, this group has demonstrated far and away the worst behavior by its leadership of any of the many community-based organizations which use our facilities,” says a Parks Department spokesperson.

The Rosarios, however, argue they have done nothing but good for the neighborhood. A former gang member and 82nd Airborne veteran, Mickey began teaching his two sons and other kids in the neighborhood to punch the bags that hung from their living room ceiling in the 1960s. In 1968, with the support of local police, he started the boxing program, and five years later, the club moved to Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center, where the Rosarios trained about 90 kids each day.

“They devoted a lot of time to the youngsters, getting them off the street, teaching them a sport,” says retired Detective Carmelo Ortiz of the 25th Precinct.

But after some territorial conflicts, the Parks Department didn’t take to them so kindly. “It was clear that Parks wanted the Gladiators out,” says Ralph Rosario.

To try to keep the club going, the director of the nearby LaGuardia House community center on East 116th Street has given the Gladiators its basement. The Rosarios “have done wonderful work for quite a long while, not just boxing-wise but human-wise,” says Lew Zuchman, executive director of the Supportive Children’s Advocacy Network at LaGuardia.

But with meager facilities there, some local elected officials are trying to get the city to reconsider and bring the Gladiators back to Thomas Jefferson. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney has written letters to the Parks Department, while state Assemblymember Adam Clayton Powell IV and state Senator Olga Mendez have publicly and privately voiced their displeasure.

Not every elected official is in the Rosarios’ corner, though. City Councilmember Phil Reed says the family’s behavior “can’t be tolerated. We need to find alternative programs for kids in this neighborhood.”

For now, the city has filled the old boxing gym with a new fitness and weightlifting area, along with expanded aerobics and martial arts classes that now draw an additional 160 people, mostly adults, to the center.

Some local boxers are still hoping that the Rosarios can continue to do what they’ve been doing. “What Mickey and Negra have given me can’t be put into words,” says Angel Olivares, 41, a stocky, gap-toothed, crew cut heavyweight who’s been boxing with the Gladiators since he was 11. “If you believe in tooth fairies, the Rosarios are them.”