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Arturo didn't lace up the gloves until he was fifteen. At first he hated it. He was pounded through a row of chairs at a Boy Scout camp by a kid who outweighed him by a hundred pounds. But not long afterward, he climbed back into the ring, and the more he boxed, the more confidence he gained. Then the wins started coming, a string of state and regional championships. He got so good, no one in northern New Mexico wanted to fight him. So, weighing only 147 pounds, he took on heavyweights, including one 250-pound brute whom he systematically chopped down like an old cottonwood tree.
In the mid-1960s, Arturo moved to Los Angeles and promptly won a Southern California amateur title. He turned pro and rose fast in the rankings, zipping around L.A. like Mr. Popular. He even landed in Sports Illustratedas a promising young fighter. Arturo could box and he could slug, but his secret weapon was conditioning. He always kept himself in tip-top shape.
After eleven fights, he was tested to the limit against a Mexican veteranowith fifty pro matches under his belt and every cheap shot in the book. Arturo expected to dispatch the thug quickly but got dropped hard in the fourth. Just before he blacked out, the bell rang.
"You're in deep trouble," his trainer instructed. "Call up whatever you have inside, because you're going to need everything to win."
Arturo Sr. can't remember what happened next, but when the fight ended, his face resembled a pizza and the referee lifted his glove in victory. The audience tossed $300 into the ring. His trainer said, "That's some of the best boxing I've seen." Arturo learned a lesson: "Keep going. You might not have anything left to give, but you keep going, anyway."
Then he met up with Hazel, whom he'd known back in Raton. At seventeen, Hazel was visiting her aunt in Pasadena; she had thoughts of modeling and rekindling a romance with Arturo, now 24. They drove to Hollywood and Vine so she'd be discovered. They went to Griffith Park to watch the hippies. They talked of rumbling cross-country on a Harley. On Valentine's Day 1969, they gave birth to a boy and named him Arturo Cruz Jr.
The baby developed what they later discovered was asthma and spent practically two days of every week in the hospital. The night before the biggest fight of his career, a bout with the top contender, Arturo Sr. didn't sleep a wink. He cradled his sick son instead. The next day in Vegas, with his boy in the hospital, Arturo Sr. lost by unanimous decision.
In 1970, after a few more fights, Arturo Sr., who'd compiled a record of 16-3-1, took his family back to Raton, where they settled on the east side. Arturo Sr. eventually found work in the coal mine, the highest-paying job in town, and remained there for the next thirty years. He never boxed professionally again. His family came first, he says now. But he yearned for it. Yeah, he yearned.
Arturo and Hazel Cruz have six kids: Arturo Jr., Tammy, Terri, Brandi, Mark and Noah. It would have been like the Brady Bunch -- if the Brady kids jumped off the roof with umbrellas, hid kittens in the fridge or buried toys in the back yard.
"They were active," Hazel recalls. "Too active. The first three were terrible."
Friends stopped to visit and marveled at Hazel's serenity.
"How can you be so calm?"
"I'm in shock," she replied.
The truth is, Hazel loves kids. While Arturo Sr. logged long hours at work, she opened her doors to a stampede of neighborhood children, babysat for friends, took in nieces and nephews for the summer. The mailman asked, "Are you part rabbit or what?"
But in the Cruz home, another presence lingered alongside the talcum powder and tortillas: boxing. Arturo Sr. might have retired, but his legacy was everywhere: boxing trophies, boxing snapshots, boxing stories, boxing TV shows, boxing gear. He taught his boys -- and girls -- how to stand, how to square their shoulders and how to punch straight. When a squabble erupted, he'd say, "You wanna fight? Okay. Put on the gloves." Then he'd clear space in the living room and let them go at it.
"I just wanted to run," Terri recalls. "Arturo and Tammy were bigger and stronger, but I had to fight. I was always getting bloody noses, but I wouldn't quit. They'd knock me down and I'd go flying, but I'd come right back."
The brawls, sanctioned and unsanctioned, are epic.
"We fought every day, every day, every day," Terri continues, voice rising and falling in a sing-song northern New Mexico accent. "Especially me and my sister, Tammy. Me and her are both hardheaded. Some of my roughest fights have been with her. She's the toughest of all of us."
During the rare truce, the sisters would tag-team Arturo Jr., who, following years of abuse, finally issued a challenge after they swiped his dirt bike again: "Okay. See what happens when you get back." When they returned, the girls jumped him as usual, but this time, Arturo Jr., who'd pumped iron that summer, bashed Tammy so hard that she tumbled into the flowers and fled.