By Matthew Yoder
North Bayside Road cuts right through the heart of Cheriton. Situated in the center of town between the Northampton Farm Store and a frame shop with artists’ studios sits Box at Roc’s. New York native Rocco Debellis is the namesake behind the recent downtown addition. Debellis has been coming to the Shore with his family for years, attracted by the area’s tranquility and close-knit relationships. When I met Debellis he was engaged in playful banter with his neighbors at the Farm Store, just unlocking the doors to his own establishment.
Inside the gym a spirited and candid conversation immediately took shape. As Debellis put it, Box at Roc’s opened its doors a year ago both to provide a specific need for the community and on a personal level, to give back.
“This is a passion project, I didn’t open as a profit center, it’s more of a community center,” said Debellis.
The project comes from Debellis’ past, which he openly speaks about, and from both the challenges he overcame and the strong influences that mentored him, to help build a solid life for himself and his family. Both the interior and exterior of Box at Roc’s is adorned by American flags and Debellis is unrepentantly proud of his country and the prosperity afforded to him through support and his own ethic of perseverance.
“I love my country, I love the opportunities that were given to me, I came from humble beginnings, I had good people in my life, this is my give back for somebody helping me,” said Debellis.
By circumstance, Debellis had been working diligently to make ends meet during his formative years, therefore he didn’t discover the sport of boxing in a structured setting until he was in his 40s. After training in New York with amateur champion John Carlo, Debellis had insights into the health qualities inherent in the sport, namely in regard to anxiety.
“I fell in love with it so much that I never stopped doing it,” Debellis said.
Though his experience with boxing became more hands-on as he got older, the walls within Box at Roc’s tell the story of a man who has had an affinity for boxing much of his life. Autographed photos of highly regarded champions, one with Debellis standing side-by-side with the likes of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, offer a glimpse into his love for the sport. One boxer in particular looms prominently on his walls. For Debellis, Muhammad Ali set himself apart from a generation of great fighters based on the content of his character.
“It was the way he spoke, his intelligence and moral value, standing up for what you think are the right things,” said Debellis.
That brings us to present day, in this gym on the remote Eastern Shore, where character plays heavily in what Debellis is trying to teach.
Boxing classes are available to a broad spectrum of people, but Monday and Wednesday evenings are reserved for a specific group of impressionable young individuals. More than a dozen kids started entering the doors with eager enthusiasm before class started, and Debellis was there to greet each one of them with the positivity of a father figure, while not losing step in conversation with the reporter.
“What’s up champ,” said Debellis to 5-year-old girl carrying her pink boxing gloves, the youngest in the class.
Many in this group are regular attendees, and Debellis assessed what he believes keeps kids coming back.
“I don’t promote boxing for fighting, I promote it for health, particularly the mental side, I want my kids to protect themselves against the bullies, people don’t pick on people that are more confident,” Debellis said.
That approach has secured the growing community Debellis set out to foster, and the effect has been received well equally by the adults that routinely bring their children to classes.
Rick Seay is one of the parents who stays to observe intently the transformation of strength and attitudes of those in attendance, and also helps promote the gym on social media platforms, particularly Facebook.
“Roc’s been a godsend as far as the lower Shore goes, he’s terrific with the kids, every kid is like his own,” said Seay.
Jennifer Moser drives two of her children two nights a week. Her son, Vincent, was first through the doors on the evening and maintained an expert focus through the entire hour, displaying a skillset beyond his years after only months of training.
Moser remarked not only of the physical strength she has seen in her son, but the steadfast resolve he’s shown to maintain a disciplined level of punctuality for a teenager.
“When he showed up, he wanted to keep coming back, when this opened up it was great for our family,” said Moser.
Central to her praise of the place was the profound undivided attention she sees Debellis offer all the children who walk through his doors.
“Roc is good at pushing them, he’s a good mentor, he loves it, he goes up to each kid and tells them something great about them, he gives each kid individual attention,” Moser said.
The structure of the evening was centered on individual training, while Debellis, along with his son Tate, and trainer, Andy Robbins, took kids aside at times to focus on specific technique. On occasion local champion boxer, William Wise, who scored a career defining upset of Julio Cesar Chavez in 1999, is present offering his expert input. Calisthenics, lifting, working bags, and shadow boxing were all carefully observed by Debellis and his team, but one thing is clear, the central theme is not fighting, but wellness and confidence.
Seay is a strong advocate of the approach Debellis takes.
“Roc strictly emphasizes that this is defense only, you don’t throw the first punch, you defend yourself,” said Seay.
That theme is omnipresent in the words and actions of Debellis from start to finish.
“My slogan is you don’t have to enjoy the benefits of boxing by getting hit in the face, this is more of a dance, a chess match,” Debellis said.
He described the cruelty of the cage aspect of MMA fighting, and often went back to the subtle nuances that separate boxing as a more thoughtful discipline.
“A ring is different, to me it’s more of dance,” said Debellis.
After more than 45 minutes of intense working out set to loud music, Debellis called his students to the back of the gym.
“Put the equipment away and meet me on the dance floor,” said Debellis.
There, boys and girls concluded the class, putting on gloves, sparring with their teacher, throwing combinations with great focus.
Many of these kids have come from day one, and their growth is in plain view.
They are part of the first wave for this experiment and Debellis is awestruck by the ease with which some have taken to the sport.
“I have a couple of kids that come in and it’s just automatic,” said Debellis.
For some, technique has been enhanced, but for all self-esteem is on the rise, and the group huddles together in the end as one.
Cynthia Heath is here with her grandson, D.J. Jordan, and is part of the contingent of onlookers. Heath has witnessed an undeniable uptake in her grandson’s well-being.
“His confidence has really grown,” said Heath.
Heath spoke of events that excite the kids and adults alike. On one such occasion, Debellis packed the house for a fundraising event show and brought together another one of his pursuits. Debellis is a chef by trade, and set up his food truck outside, which really left an impression on the many who showed.
“I do a couple of things really well and I focus on them,” said Debellis.
There was talk of another such event coming soon, and Debellis’ classes are not exclusive to children. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings he leads classes for women, and holds open gym sessions on Friday evenings. However, as evidenced by the width of his smile and the candor of his words, the kids’ classes really seem to leave an enduring impression on him.
“This the joy right now, all my kids are grown up,” Debellis said.
Debellis made a point to mention the support of his wife, Lenore, for his endeavors. One caveat he mentioned was a minor crutch to help her through the fierceness of the competition when her husband steps on that boxing ring dance floor.
“My wife is very supportive, she just closes her eyes when I fight,” said Debellis.