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Ground Zero Boxing: 'A small gym with a huge heart'

By Kyla Woodard
Posted 6/20/24

KEYSTONE HEIGHTS — For Giovanni Cruz, being in the ring has always been his calling. “Boxing is pretty much my language,” Cruz said. “It’s something that I use as a tool because everything …

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Ground Zero Boxing: 'A small gym with a huge heart'


KEYSTONE HEIGHTS — For Giovanni Cruz, being in the ring has always been his calling.

“Boxing is pretty much my language,” Cruz said. “It’s something that I use as a tool because everything in that ring defines a lot about life.”

As a boxer, Cruz understands what it takes to survive a match. But, as a coach, Cruz teaches others what it means to survive in life.

Ground Zero Boxing is a community gym completely run from Cruz’s backyard. It’s where he coaches, trains, and mentors local at-risk youth. Cruz said nobody gets turned away at the gym and everyone can become better than they were in the past.

The idea of a safe haven came following a hard time in Cruz’s life. Cruz said his niece was an at-risk youth who often found solace in running to his home. After her passing, Cruz said he had to do something.

“I couldn’t stand around doing nothing,” Cruz said. “It was just hard on us.”

Cruz and his wife, Karina Cruz, then devised a solution — to remove other youth from problematic situations and provide a place for them to call home, as they did his niece.

“If we can try to put out any positivity in the world and try to help as many people as we can then that’s all that matters,” Karina said.

Beginning the gym in his backyard in 2015, Cruz said he began charging students $30 a month to re-invest back in the gym because he didn't have all the equipment necessary at the time.

About six months later, a student introduced him to the local owner of Keystone Mixed Martial Arts Academy. Cruz said the two agreed to partner up.

But, following the Covid-19 pandemic, Cruz said they were forced to close down. But, by that time, he had gathered all the needed equipment.

With his home already possessing a steel building to place the boxing ring in, Cruz said everything lined up perfectly. He moved the equipment back into his yard and ran the gym for free.

“With it being free, you can freely just come in, and people tend to open up more,” Cruz said.

With a family-oriented atmosphere, Cruz said intricate time is taken to teach the boxers everything they need to know.

Cruz said the youth are offered whatever they come in for. Whether that be to compete or just work out.

“If you’re coming in to compete, your typical training is super intense. Your training ranges from six miles a day to doing hill climbs, to doing an average workout, to then sparring,” Cruz said.

Additionally, Cruz said people who are just starting, begin with a basic average workout.

But, with the free gym still comes rules.

“One of the things I do give you is you can't fight outside the gym, [and] the drugs and alcohol they have to stop,” Cruz said.

Cruz said that students are also reminded that their actions do cause consequences.

“I may not find out this week, I may not find out a month from now, but one way or another, it’s going to get around,” Cruz said. “And I will find out.”

Since the gym’s beginning, Cruz said he has seen many accomplishments and changes in the youth he has helped. From quitting drugs and alcohol to going into the military, Cruz said he has watched many turn their lives around.

“It’s been amazing for these individuals,” Cruz said.

Cruz said he still keeps in contact with many of the youth, and some still call him every week.

Cruz added that one of his youth even credited him as a father figure, feeling like they owed him everything.

“I tell them they don’t owe me nothing for my actions. That no one in life owes you nothing or you don’t owe no one in life at anything,” Cruz said. “Just do right by yourself.”

Colton Crane began boxing with the gym to find something to do. An avid sports player, Crane said he never tried martial arts or boxing until he heard of a family member attending the gym.

Crane began going to the gym daily. Seven to eight months in, Cruz told him he was ready to start competing.

“We started competing, and I've had four fights now. Over two years, and I’m 4-0,” Crane said.

Crane eventually became the Florida State Junior Olympic champion in April. Crane said Cruz taught him to believe in himself and his abilities.

“I couldn’t ask for a better coach. Not only is he a good coach, but he’s an even better person,” Crane said. “That makes it even better.”

Crane said he thinks the mission surrounding the gym is great, keeping kids out of trouble and busy.

“Boxing’s great for just being disciplined and beating adversity in life,” Crane said.

Cruz said that his overall mission was to protect the youth, and he hopes to continue this mission with the help of the community. Cruz said that help from the public is necessary to keep the program going.

Cruz hopes to raise money to make the necessary changes to the gym by using a GoFundMe and Amazon Wishlist.

Cruz said the building doesn't have electricity, with Cruz having to use an extension cord. Additionally, Cruz hopes to make a few upgrades and use some of the funds to buy boxing tape for when the boxers do compete.

“We have had some donations that are so amazing because the community has stepped up in so many ways. A lot of the things came out of my pocket,” Cruz said. “I believe in the program and the community’s been amazing about it.”

For the future, Cruz said he hopes to eventually expand his gym to new heights.

But for now, he said he will continue his "small gym with a big heart" to coach his boxers on the right path and show them what it means to overcome.

“You could have the right people in your corner or the wrong people in your corner. And, life is as tough as the strongest opponent you fight in that ring,” Cruz said. “And, when it puts you down, you must keep getting up.”