Photo by Cristian Gutierrez

Back in the Valley — Sylmar resident and GBO junior middleweight champion Ron Cruz will be the headliner on a boxing card in Studio City on May 12.

When Ron “El Diablo” Cruz decided to forgo martial arts and pursue mainstream boxing as a professional sport, he accepted the fact he would have to slowly — and perhaps painfully — build his name and his brand fight-by-fight.

The 26-year-old Sylmar resident, who turned professional on Sept. 6, 2014, without any previous amateur experience other than his time spent as a Muay Thai-styled fighter, has spent almost four years toiling in low level bouts in North Dakota and Tijuana, Mexico for minuscule purses against unknown and not always well-trained opponents.

On May 12, Cruz gets a chance to show Valley fans what he’s learned and how far he’s come.

Cruz will headline a local card at the Sportsman’s Lodge Hotel in Studio City put on by K.O. High and New Turf Promotions. Cruz will face Engelberto Valenzuela of Mexico (11-13, 3 KOs).

He’s also coming home with a belt. He is the junior middleweight champion (154

-pounds) of the fledging Global Boxing Organization, a professional boxing governing body that, on the mission statement posted on its website, seeks to “give talented professional boxers their first opportunity to fight for a championship title” and “focus on increasing the fighter’s popularity to gain global recognition for their talent.”

It’s not Las Vegas, New York, or even the Staples Center; not yet. But those types of venues against world class opponents — those kind of future opportunities — are now in sight.

“It’s been a long journey and I’m really excited. That’s the only word I can find to use,” said a relaxed-looking Cruz, chatting easily before a scheduled pre-fight workout in San Fernando.

“I’m ecstatic to fight out here in California again. I built up a fan base in North Dakota. But it’ll never compare to your hometown. You come [into the ring] and everybody’s there, everybody’s with it…I can’t wait to put on a show for everybody, show them how much I’ve evolved and grown as a fighter — and as a man. I feel I’ve matured a lot now, I know what’s important. I’ve put aside all the things that could hold me back, you could say. And now I’m putting everything into this dream.”

Cruz’s record stands at 13-1 with 11 knockouts. His lone defeat came in his third fight against Ryan Soft in Bismarck, ND on Feb. 28, 2016. Since then, Cruz has won 11 consecutive bouts.

His latest victory in Fargo, ND, on Feb. 10 might be his best so far because it came against arguably his strongest opponent to date. Uzbekistan boxer Ravshan Hudaynazarov (now fighting out of Las Vegas) was 17-0 with 13 knockouts before the fight, and is considered a devastating body puncher. But Cruz scored a technical knockout in the sixth round for the GBO belt.

“My last fight was one of the toughest fights, and one I feel people really thought I was gonna lose,” Cruz said. “People were telling me, ‘even if you lose to this guy, it’s okay.’ And I was like ‘no-no-no, it doesn’t go like that.’ Not in my head. So [after the victory] I feel I proved to myself that I’m at that level where I can take on those [kinds of] challenges.”

Cruz and his trainer Edgar Ponce — who runs the 818 Boxing Club in San Fernando and has a growing stable of young amateur and professional boxers — are getting noticed. Local businesses in the City of San Fernando — Papa Juan’s restaurant, CrossFit 90, Restore Athletics, and, most recently, San Fernando Realty — have become sponsors, along with the Brown Monster Music Group in Van Nuys and the Valencia FCC day care center in Los Angeles.

Cruz does continue to work as a licensed vocational nurse but, thanks to the sponsorship, is getting more time to concentrate on boxing.

Ponce said Cruz is “on schedule” to become an elite fighter.

“The last two fights he’s grown a lot,” Ponce said. “The last two fights were tough. But he impressed me. The fight before the last one (against Derek Hinkey) he fought a real big opponent, bigger than him, and he outboxed him. They were saying that Ron was one-dimensional and he could beat him easily. He proved them wrong.

“Now he can box. He can go toe-to-toe, but he’s more of a boxer now, more complete. He’s still learning — every day you are learning — but I’m impressed. The last year he has stepped up another level.”

Cruz said the connection between him and Ponce is a special one.

“We’ve been together 6-7 years…we went from just being ‘coach’ and ‘fighter’ to becoming best friends. I trust Edgar with everything. I could leave my girlfriend and mom with him and I’d have 100 percent confidence that he would take care of them,” Cruz said.

“As far as being a fighter, he’s the person who believed in me so much; I never had a father so he’s the person that I go, ‘I gotta show him.’ He believes in me. If I get to the top, he’s gotta be there. He’s my man. We gotta be there together.”

Promoter Marvin Columbus is working with Cruz for the first time and said he has a good feeling about him and his talent.

“I’m a new promoter, but I see great potential and I believe he is focused and hungry,” Columbus said of Cruz. “We both have good energy and I hope we make a great team.”

What Cruz needs now is that final, big break into the big time. He’s approaching his prime years as an athlete. He remains relatively fresh and unmarked. He has goals and dreams outside of the ring as well as inside.

“My whole purpose for this isn’t really for myself,” he said. “I’m doing this more for [Edgar] and my family. And I would love to be in a position where I could give back. I want to have financial stability for my family and be able to help people who need help. To me, that’s all it is.”

A good showing on May 12 — and a win — gets him another step closer.

Another reason to believe in his journey.

“Everything is in your mind — the sport, life — everything,” Cruz said. “You’ve just gotta believe it. It sounds crazy, insane but that’s the one thing I’ve learned. The more conviction, the more faith, the more belief you have, the more things unfold exactly how you want them to.”

The Sportsmen’s Lodge is located 12833 Ventura Blvd., in Studio City. Remaining tickets for purchase will be available at the door on May 12. Event doors open at 5 p.m.