Cruz Control

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

"Guys like me, we can't come up," Arturo Jr. says. "We don't have big money behind us, like some of these fighters with the wicked records of 30-1. But look at who they fought. They build up their records just so they can get a name and on TV. Me, I fight anyone."

Which might be part of his problem, according to observers of the game. Maybe Arturo Jr. fought too many tough fighters too early. Maybe he hit the road too many times. Maybe if he'd been more cautious and discriminating, his record would be different. But that's not who he is, Arturo Jr. says. He's an aggressive, unorthodox, instinctive fighter who started late. He needed the experience. He might have lost, but he learned. He learned a lot. He's fought the big fight now. He knows how to handle pressure. He's battle-tested.

"They have to throw in the towel before I'll lay down," Arturo Jr. says. "If I get dropped, I get up. I don't even think about it. That's the way I am. I know the eleven losses are putting a drag on my record. I know some people will say, 'He's not all that.' But I've never been knocked out. At least I did it. And I'm still doing it."

Kid vicious: At 17-11-2, Arturo Cruz Jr. stares down his third shot at a world title.
John Johnston
Kid vicious: At 17-11-2, Arturo Cruz Jr. stares down his third shot at a world title.
Arturo Jr., Hazel and Terri Cruz.
John Johnston
Arturo Jr., Hazel and Terri Cruz.

Besides, he says, his next fight could change everything. Although the WAA is a minor acronym in the alphabet soup of 21 sanctioned boxing associations -- most fighters have never even heard of it -- Arturo Jr. thinks that if he can beat Castaneda Jr., he might earn enough recognition to score a big bout overseas and make enough money to leave his trailer behind and buy a house where his daughters can be proud to bring their friends. If he wins a world title, maybe he can retire without regret, become a coach, teach his girls to box.

"A lot of fighters look at the WAA and won't have nothing to do with it," he says. "But me, I'd be proud. To a kid from a barrio, that would mean that I had attained something. I would defend it with my life."

Every year, he says he is going to quit. But every year, he returns. Whenever his back is against the wall, he comes out swinging. "All I can do is keep going," he says.

With that, Arturo Jr. mops his face, walks into the wind and wakes his kids.

Arturo Sr. keeps a special set of photos at his home in Raton: Terri and Arturo Jr. in their trunks, gloves and fighting scowls. Along with snapshots of his other kids -- Brandi, who fought one pro match before retiring to the rigors of her day job; Noah, who won the Golden Gloves, too; and Tammy and Mark, who'd step into the ring if the doctors would let them -- they represent la familia. The Cruz legacy.

He couldn't be more proud.

Terri and Arturo Jr. have shown that they can take whatever life throws at them and survive. They've shown they can set goals and achieve them. They've shown a little Apache, too, he says. But most of all, they've shown corazón.

"To me," Arturo Sr. says, "that's the highest compliment you can give."

At her home in north Denver, surrounded by bubbling fish tanks and angel figurines, Hazel has her own picture frames. That and a gigantic big-screen TV, to watch Terri and Arturo Jr.'s bouts. She's at every one -- if not in person, then in spirit.

Before every fight, Hazel, who's become known as "Mama Cruz" on the fight circuit, lights a candle, gathers friends and family and recites a prayer: "Give them the strength to keep their hands up. Make sure no one gets hurt." Deeply religious, Hazel always thanks God that her children have been blessed with talent. A talent they've been able to use.

"I wish they could sing," she says. "But, oh, well. That's what I get for marrying a boxer."

On the sweltering afternoon of July 13, Arturo Jr. bulls his way through his WAA tuneup fight. The sweat slides off him like rain on a windshield. He starts the bout slowly, then pushes the action in the second and third rounds, battering his 0-2 opponent, Alfonso Vigil, with body shots, combos, left hooks. A bright stripe of blood smears across Vigil's face like war paint.

"Kill him, Art!" someone yells.

"Come on, Cruz. Finish him."

"Left hook! Left hook!"

Late in the third, the crowd in the parking lot outside Don Carlos Mexican Grill becomes absolutely still. The only sound is the heavy breath of the fighters, the dull slap of their gloves and the occasional crumpling of a beer cup. The sun beats down.

Arturo Jr. lands a right uppercut and sends Vigil leaning across the ring. A body shot. Another body shot. Another body shot. Vigil sags into the ropes. A right cross. Vigil looks at the referee.

It's over at 2:50 of the third round: TKO.

Arturo Jr. throws his hands in the air, strides across the ring and smiles at the audience, at his mom.

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