Cruz Control

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

In the meantime, Terri had become a certified nursing assistant, a job she'd wanted ever since she'd seen a nursing-home staffer rough up an old lady during Terri's job-training program in reform school. Terri promised herself: "I'm going to protect them."

But it wasn't long before Terri needed someone to watch over her.

In 1994, she and her boyfriend broke up. The anxiety she'd felt off and on her entire life now flared up into full-blown panic attacks. The only thing that calmed her down was booze. During the week, she'd focus on her job and her family, but on the weekends, she'd visit bars, slam tequila, befriend the wrong people, fight.

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.

"I didn't know how or why, but wherever I was, I'd be sitting there, and the next thing I know, I'd be fighting," she recalls. "It was way worse than Raton. In New Mexico, they're tough, but at least they use fists. Here they use weapons."

One night, Terri and Tammy were playing pool when they decided to challenge a nearby table. They plunked down a quarter, but one of the other players suggested the sisters stick to their own game.

"Why?" Terri asked. "What's the problem?"

"You, bitch," the woman replied.

Terri didn't even argue. She threw the woman to the floor and went to town. The woman's boyfriend tried to grab Terri by her hair; when that didn't work, he broke a beer mug on her head. Seeing this, Tammy busted a pool cue on his back.

Chairs and bottles flew.

"Dang," Tammy said afterward to her sister. "You're like a pit bull. Once you get on top of someone, you never let go."

On the streets, Arturo Jr. was fighting his own battles. He'd become an OG with the Southside crew, which was locked in a retaliation war with the Westsiders. It started in the early '90s, when a friend was shot dead on Federal Boulevard. Within two years, half of Arturo Jr.'s friends were dead or imprisoned. He escaped only by the grace of God.

Gangs were only part of his troubles. Arturo Jr. and his wife had another child, Alexis, on September 19, 1995, but the marriage was rocky. And now the youngest Cruz brother, Noah, was excelling in sports the way Arturo Jr. had once dreamed of.

Searching for an exit from the streets, he remembered his dad saying, "Think you're so tough? Okay. Get in the ring."

In 1996, Arturo Jr. finally accepted the challenge. After training about a week, he stood in the ring at Sloan Lake Gym with a sixteen-year-old sparring partner.

"You're putting me in here with this little guy?" asked 27-year-old Arturo Jr., an undefeated street fighter and hardened gangster.

The trainer chuckled: "You ain't going to hurt him."

When the match ended, Arturo Jr. was winded, wounded and embarrassed, which only made him work harder. He dropped from 165 pounds to 139, entered a B-class Golden Gloves tournament, won the title in 1997 and never looked back.

But the streets were always just outside.

About six months after the Golden Gloves, Arturo Jr. was driving around with his Southside friends when an old partner suggested a drive-by.

"I don't do that shit no more," Arturo Jr. said.

The partner lost his temper and accused Arturo Jr. of thinking that he was too good to hang out with them. Arturo Jr. didn't take the bait. Since he was never officially jumped into the gang, he asked, why didn't they just jump him out?

Without a word, the partner smashed a beer bottle in Arturo Jr.'s face.

Arturo Jr. wheeled the van to the side of the road. He and his partner went at it.

They'd been drinking. There was a gun in the van. Things could have gotten out of hand real quick, but they just fought.

Arturo Jr. dropped his partner three times before the cops came. He didn't press charges, but that was the end of it: He was out of the gang life forever.

As he headed to the hospital, his heart ached more than his bloody face did. He'd just left some of his best friends behind. And to top it off, his nose had been broken -- for the first and only time in his life -- by his old partner.

So Terri walked into her mom's north Denver house one afternoon, and there was Arturo Jr., lounging at the dining-room table.

"Hey. There she is," he said.

"What's up, bud?"

"I've got a fight for you."

This was early June 1999, just after Terri's 28th birthday and two years after the birth of her second kid, Moses. She was still partying, fighting, struggling to make ends meet. Her brother, on the other hand, was lean, focused and hungry. Despite warnings from his amateur trainers that he was too old, too inexperienced and headed for brain damage, Arturo Jr. had turned pro anyway in 1998. Under the guidance of Steve Mestas, then with the 20th Street Gym, he jumped right into the circuit, accepting bouts on a moment's notice, hitting the road, fighting a wall of stone-fisted opponents. He didn't know anything more about opponents and didn't want to -- that was his edge. At 4-3, Arturo Jr. was a slippery, aggressive banger nicknamed "Vicious."

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