GREELEY, Colo. — A boxing coach and gym owner is making a name for himself in the community by helping young people get on the right path.
AJ Vasquez, coach and founder of Azteca Boxing Club, said his connection with the teens he coaches comes from his own troubled youth.
“I grew up in just a gang-banging background, a lot of drugs,” said Vasquez. “The kids at the gym, I would say 75% are being affected by drugs and gangs.”
Azteca Boxing Club has grown since Vasquez founded it in 2011.
There are 97 students ages 8 to 17, and 30 students ages 18 to 24 squeezed into the tight space to train most weeknights and weekends. His students told Denver7 what they learn in the ring is life-changing outside of it.
“AJ is, like, the best. He's like a second father to me,” said Guadalupe Guzman Lopez, who has been boxing for four years. “His story explains how he got better and he's not out there no more. And then for these kids, this gym is going to help them. They're not going to be out there doing something bad,”
Guzman Lopez said her confidence improved when she started boxing. So did her grades.
“It allows us to, like, give them guidance to learn how to overcome all the obstacles because you have to have discipline. All those things that come with to be great at something,” Vasquez said.
Vasquez said the gang life was passed down to him by family and was all he knew. He described having one foot in the gang life and one foot out by the time he founded the gym. That all changed when his son passed away in 2015.
“His mom and I just, we were involved with the drug scene real heavy. And there's some choices that we made that landed him in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Vasquez said. “I held him as he passed away. It was the worst and the best thing that ever happened because I had to experience that but at the same time, I've never went back.”
Vazquez found himself through church and poured himself into his work at Azteca Boxing Club. He said once the club started winning national championships, word spread that something special was happening.
Vasquez now works with a diversion program at the Weld County District Attorney's Office and runs his own nonprofit.
A recurring dream about a piece of land got him thinking about expanding his boxing gym to help more youth in all sports. The land just happened to be connected to Mosaic Church in neighboring Evans. He partnered with them to buy it.
“Three acres of land that we're scheduled to close on December 21. And the vision behind it is to have a community rec center,” Vasquez said.
The Mexica Center will have a boxing gym, wrestling, soccer, trade program and a community space. The project will cost roughly $15 million, which Vasquez hopes to raise through grants and small donors.
“Everything's based on the north side. They got three rec centers up there, so this is the first one on this side of town,” Vasquez said.