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Cruz Control

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

He's ready.

This past winter, Terri visited a tattoo artist. To the black rose on her left wrist, the Playboy bunny on her right shoulder, the "East Side" moniker on her left knuckles, the "Lil Loca" on her left ankle, the "Anthony" on her right shoulder, the "Moses" on her wrist, the "Genesis" on her back, the "In Loving Memory, Neriah" (for a newborn niece who died of SIDS) on her shoulder, the tribal braid around her right biceps and the "Mi Vida Loca" across her belly, she added a pair of boxing gloves. She had them placed over her heart.

Terri paces Don Carlos's dim and crowded back room. Her gloves are on, her mouthpiece is in, her eyes are changing color. Arturo Jr. just won his seventeenth fight, and she's moments away from her own bout: a four-round exhibition against Elisha Olivas, her first pro opponent, who now trains beside her at the House of Pain. It's little more than a sparring match, but Terri can't help it. She's getting serious.

"Let's hear it for the Coors Light girls!" the announcer says, voice echoing over the scorching parking lot outside.

Terri rolls her shoulders, grinds her jaw, stares a hole in the carpet.

Boxing has changed her in ways she can't begin to describe. She's proof positive that people can be reborn, that they can learn from their mistakes, that they can channel their destructive impulses productively. Her life revolves around the gym now. For upcoming fights, she trains every day except Sundays, visiting the House of Pain so often that her kids play alongside her there, Dr. Seuss readers and Matchbox cars scattered among the gloves and the headgear.

Terri's fight earnings, which average $1,500 every three months, have stabilized her bank account, too, allowing her to pay overdue bills in one chunk instead of stretching the dollars from her part-time, in-home nursing job and babysitting her sister's children. She's replaced tequila, bars and hangovers with protein, extra laps and the "natural high" of exhaustive exercise.

In women's boxing, which has grown from a cheap novelty to a legitimate sport, Terri has real potential. If she continues to win, observers say, she'll indeed get her ticket to the big dance. Perhaps sooner than she expects.

"That's what I want," Terri says. "A title. If I'm going to box, I want to win. I don't want to fade away. I want to leave something for my kids to look at and say, 'See. She made something of it.'"

The ring announcer rambles through the preliminaries, and Terri moves to the door. She inhales, flashes her black mouthpiece, grimaces like a panther.

"...with a record of 5-2-2...Terri 'Lil Loca' Cruz!"

She's out the door, up the stairs and into the ring. With her family in the audience and Mestas in her corner, with her August bout only a few weeks away, she looks focused, confident, calm. This is her moment. This is her life.

Ding!

Terri leaps forward, touches gloves and lopes around the ring. Olivas beckons with a grin, and Terri accepts the challenge. She lowers her chin, raises her gloves and marches straight ahead -- without hesitation, despite the danger, against the odds -- into the pain.

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