A new chapter is soon to begin for a local gym that has been a pillar in the Buffalo martial arts and fitness community for 23 years.
KC’s Fitness will be transforming a vacant former industrial space on the Niagara Street corridor into a new home for their gym. KC’s will join the ranks of businesses contributing to the revitalization of this stretch of Niagara through adaptive re-use of vacant buildings, like their neighbors across the street at Resurgence Brewing Company. The new 4,800 square foot facility is expected to open on June 1.
“I’m excited that we’re going to have this large open space that we can plan out and grow it in a way that we’ve never been able to do before,” said KC’s owner Kevin Cunningham. “Now we have a blank canvas.”
For the past 11 years, KC’s has operated a facility that was split between the basement and upper floor of the First Presbyterian Church on Symphony Circle. According to a representative for the church, Cunningham opted to not renew the lease with the Church in 2014. At the time, he was offered a three-year lease for his third floor and basement space. In 2015 Cunningham was outbid for the space by another party, at which time he decided to bust a move to Niagara Street. The move to Niagara will allow them to centralize all their equipment, classes, and members into one large open space that will foster the spirit of camaraderie that is even more integral to the gym than the heavy bags or the weights.
As one member put it, “KC’s is really just masquerading as a gym.” You won’t find a cardio room with people running like hampsters on treadmills facing a wall of flat-screen TVs. You won’t find a muscular guy with a spray tan in a front office pushing membership contracts. What you will find is a diverse little community of everyday people whose paths happened to intersect in a boxing gym. The workouts are incredible, but the company is second to none. Simply put, this little Buffalo gym has a lot of soul.
If you were a fly on the wall during a boxing class at KC’s, you would see people of all ages, sizes and fitness levels working together in one room. You’d watch as an instructor patiently guides a new member through the basics as they awkwardly throw that first jab, cross, hook, upper-cut. Next to them, you’d see the veteran members firing punches into each other’s focus mitts like shots from a gun – pop, pop, bam. It wouldn’t be long before you saw them welcome the gym’s newest member into their group and continue guiding him where the instructor left off. Egos get checked at the door – everyone works together.
When he founded KC’s Fitness in 1992, Cunningham set out to create a gym that focused not solely on teaching martial arts or weight training to whomever walked in the door, but also on building lasting relationships between staff, members, and the surrounding community.
“I started the business when I was in graduate school at University of Buffalo and I didn’t know anything about business yet,” he said. At the time, more experienced entrepreneurs told Cunningham that he spent too much time focusing on the community. Little did they know that his community-driven strategy would keep his gym thriving for 23 years.
“A business in my opinion has a moral responsibility to take care of the customers who come in and the community that surrounds it,” Cunningham said. “You have to be invested, you have to care. We showed that by teaching martial arts to kids and helping young people traverse the landscape of the West Side and become better people.”
“For five years we taught Aikido to a large population of African refugees,” he said. “There was no money that changed hands, but the kids were expected to do service. I would ask them as a group, ‘What did you do to pay for this class?’ They might say, ‘I broke up a fight today’ or ‘I helped my mother carry groceries.’ The strength of the community aspect was teaching values.”
From KC’s first home on Ashland Avenue, Cunningham established a positive presence on the block by encouraging youth from
his teen boxing classes to pay their dues by participating in weekly neighborhood clean-ups and tree plantings. “I would always tell them, ‘You have a choice: You can put 10 bucks in a can or you can pick up a plastic bag and gloves and pick up garbage in the neighborhood.”
It was around that time that Pietro Muscato began taking Cunningham’s teen boxing classes. “My mother persuaded Kevin to take me in because I wasn’t your average 10 year-old. In the end I was the last kid throughout those seminars who stuck with it, and here I am 18 years later,” Muscato said. Now a veteran Golden Gloves boxer and longtime instructor at KC’s, Muscato carries those early lessons into his work teaching others at the gym.
“Pietro never put money in the can,” Cunningham recalled. “He would just wait, smiling, and we would go walk the neighborhood. I never knew what to talk to him about, because he didn’t talk to me. He would just smile at me and listen and he never left. He became a fantastic martial artist and a wonderful boxer. We took him to state championship in 2010. It’s been amazing just watching him evolve into the person he’s become.”
Many of Cunningham’s instructors came to him fairly young and evolved as athletes within the walls of KC’s. Whether it’s boxing, mixed martial arts, Muay Thai, or personal training, the experience level that the staff brings to the table is impressive. Observing and learning from skilled athletes like Cunningham, Muscato and the other instructors at the gym is an incredible thing, but it’s equally powerful watching them engage with their members and get to know the people who walk into their gym.
“It’s important to know who your people are and to really understand where they’re coming from, whether they’re an ex-athlete or somebody who’s really never trained in any athletic fashion in their life,” Muscato said. “I never viewed myself as a personal trainer. We’re more coaches than anything. I see myself as somebody who doesn’t train a program, but knows how to train people. That means finding a way to magnify everybody’s strengths, understand their limitations, and work with them. Trainers at other gyms don’t necessarily have ability to adapt to people’s limitations. We focus on what you’re capable of and amplify it so that you understand your own power.”
KC’s began its work long before there was a big box gym, a yoga studio or a Crossfit gym on every corner. And it’s their no-contracts, relationships-based model that has kept them going strong and will allow them to continue to grow on Niagara Street. Regardless of the change of address and the fancy new gym floors, KC’s plans to stay true to its roots in the community.
“I think being in that region of Buffalo really gives us a chance to help grow the neighborhood,” Muscato said. “What we’re capable of – not just as a gym, but as a community – is something that can really shine in Buffalo. No matter who you are or what you’re looking for in terms of fitness, you’ll definitely find something valuable at KC’s – something that speaks to you and allows you to explore what helps you to grow. Finding out not who you are as an athlete, but who you are as a person. I always tell folks that KC’s is a wonderful place for you to magnify your strengths. I believe what makes KC’s stand out a lot are the people that are within it.”
“As a gym we’ve always been different,” Cunningham said. “After 23 years, I see this new space as a new beginning. For me change has always been viewed as an invitation to be great. It’s a gift to create something new and make the world a better place.”
Photo and video credit: Nate Peraciny (www.Peracciny.com)