Cruz Control

Educated in the school of hard knocks, Terri and Arturo Jr. still come out fighting.

She never sees it coming, the shot that drops her. One moment Terri Cruz is gliding across the ring, snapping that jab, firing that right, when all of a sudden there's canvas, and she's like, "Whoa. Damn. This is reality."

Arturo Jr., Terri's older brother, sits in the audience. He's a pro himself, a rugged journeyman who has fought for two world titles and lost. He's been down before, too, clocked so hard that his front teeth throbbed for a week. "Let her get up," he whispers. "Please, God. Just let her get up.''

Arturo Sr., Terri's dad, is also at the 2002 Cinco de Mayo "Brawl 'Til They Fall" in Pueblo. When his daughter falls to one knee, he thinks, "Here it is, the defining moment. Now we'll see what she's made of." He's a former fighter; he knows all about defining moments. In every bout, there's a time when you dig deep, look hard and see what's inside. Such moments, he believes, can change you.

Hazel, Terri's mom, grips another daughter's arm. Her family has been fighting all its life, always uphill, inside the ring and out. "Jesus, what happened?" she asks. Then she prays.

So, yeah, Terri has a few scars. There's the small puffy one on her upper lip from a street fight she doesn't remember: Her front tooth, the one that sticks out a little, sliced her lip in two. There's the wide one on the bridge of her nose from a pool cue or a beer mug, she never knew which; she was too busy pounding some girl into oblivion on the floor of the pool hall. The thin one along the front of her scalp -- she remembers that: It came from a beer bottle. Her friend got into a fight with some big girl and was kicked out of the bar. When Terri started to follow her out, the big girl blocked her path. Terri should have gone to the hospital but repaired the damage herself: fifteen butterfly stitches in front of the bathroom mirror, blood flowing like a massacre or something.

"But you know what?" Terri says, sitting in the gym, threading a white rosary through her fingers. "I've never been knocked out by a bottle or a beer mug or a pool cue. So I figure, what can they do to me in the ring?"

It's true what they say: Boxing may be the only sport in which a man or a woman can walk straight off the street and into the professional circuit, where a hard jaw, a stiff right and a little luck can take you all the way to the top.

But there are other truths, too. Most fighters will never make it. Most will never become million-dollar players, world-class contenders or even regional names. They might get a few trips to Vegas, a spot on cable TV and a shot at one of the multitude of belts, but if they blow it, if they keep on blowing it, they enter the purgatory of the opponents, the challengers, the underdogs. They become the fighters who prime the contenders, who make the champions, who are chosen not for their strengths, but for their weaknesses. They become the fighters who are picked not to win, but to lose. Most of the time, they do.

And yet they keep coming. Despite the odds -- or perhaps because of them -- men and women crowd gyms every day, knowing that boxing is a risky and dubious endeavor in which the only certainty is pain. They come because they're good at it, because fighting is what they know, and because boxing provides discipline, redemption, even love. But mostly, they come because one boxing cliche rings loudest of all: Sometimes the underdog wins.

There's no sign outside the House of Pain, just some tin numbers -- 4705 -- screwed onto the drab brown siding of a two-story brick rectangle on Brighton Boulevard near a liquor store, an ambulance company and the stockyards.

The men and women who come here have to know where they're going and what they're getting into -- and they do. This is a ghetto gym: small, cluttered, dirty, mean. There's a hole in the ceiling tile, a Pampers pack in the corner, bare plywood on one wall, lavender paint on another, heavy bags on cross beams and a battered ring in back fashioned from lumpy mats and duct tape. Snoop Dogg thumps from a stereo. Crusty towels dangle from the ropes. Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Roy Jones Jr. glower from the walls.

It's hot and muggy inside, and getting hotter and muggier as the noonday sun filters through smudged windows, bathing the room in soapy light. There's no air conditioner, either -- not on this 95-degree summer day, not ever. So they keep the door open and let in the dust, exhaust, traffic noise.

Steve Mestas runs the place. He's Terri's trainer, coach, promoter, boyfriend and the father of her third child. Wearing his usual ensemble of a baggy T-shirt, baggy shorts and backward red baseball cap, he leans in the corner, watching Terri whip through the jump-rope warmup of a whirlwind tuneup session. Mestas is a big and gregarious guy with sleepy eyes, a crooked smile and the smooth jive of a salesman who pushes his fighters 24/7. At 33, he's logged fifteen years in the business and earned a street reputation as "the man to call if you need a fight in D-town."

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