Cruz Control

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

Arturo Jr. was raising a family, too, practically alone. But he'd also managed to land a good job laying hardwood floors, earn extra money through boxing and provide a good example for Noah, who'd also taken up the sport. Most of the time, Terri looked at Arturo Jr. and saw strength. At the moment, though, she saw a jerk.

"Yeah, whatever," she said.

"No. For real," Arturo Jr. persisted. "I have a fight for you."

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.

He made his pitch: One of Mestas's fighters, Elisha Olivas, a former top-ten amateur, was preparing to turn pro. When her original opponent backed out, Mestas had asked Arturo Jr. if he could think of anyone else. Arturo Jr. thought of Terri.

"Wanna turn pro?" he asked.

"Sshhh. I don't even train or nothing, bud."

"Come on," Arturo Jr. replied. "You fight in the streets all the time. If you think you're so tough, get in the ring. Take this fight and show everyone how tough you really are."

Arturo Jr. pushed the right button: He challenged Terri's pride, and pride runs almost as deep in the Cruz family as stubbornness.

Their mom jumped in: "Think about it. He gets paid. Why not get paid, too?"

"All right," she said. "I'll do it. I could use the money."

Two weeks later, on June 26, 1999, Terri stood in the Heritage Square parking lot wearing a pair of Arturo Jr.'s trunks, a pair of Noah's wrestling shoes and a baggy tank top.

She was as ready as she was going to be.

Arturo Jr. had dragged her to the 20th Street Gym to hit the bag and get a feel for things, but when she saw Olivas training nearby, Terri said, "I don't want her to see what I've got." Exasperated, Arturo Jr. said that Terri should at least run, so Terri slogged around her mom's house while Hazel watched the kids. As for turning pro, Terri simply filled out a form, had a photo snapped and received her license. Nothing to it. Not that she paid attention to the details, anyway: She just wanted her $400 paycheck.

Now, on fight night, Terri's corner man -- Noah's boxing coach, who was drafted at the last minute -- carefully wrapped her hands.

"Are you nervous?" he asked.

"No," she replied. In fact, she felt pretty damn relaxed.

"Well," he said. "I'm nervous. I'm nervous for you."

"What did you say that for?" Terri shrieked. "You're gonna make me nervous. Why should I be nervous? Is she going to kill me or what? What did you say that for?"

The bell sounded, and Terri shuffled into the ring. Olivas bobbed and weaved and jabbed, so Terri bobbed and weaved and jabbed, too. She threw straight punches, like her dad once instructed, and unleashed a one-two like her brother, Arturo Jr.

Olivas, meanwhile, who'd heard about Terri's training habits, delivered body shots to sap Terri's energy. But every time Olivas dipped low, Terri stuck her with a stiff right.

After the first round, Mestas turned to Arturo Jr., who was to fight later that night. "And she just came off the streets?" he asked.

"You don't know my sisters," Arturo Jr. replied.

Round after round, Terri held her own.

When the fight ended, the judges issued their decision: draw.

Terri's family went wild: "Oh, my God! You were spectacular! You're a natural!"

Terri didn't know about that. All she knew was that she felt good. Confident. Calm. Calmer than she had in years.

"Dang," Terri thought. "This is easy."

She was bouncing around a ring in Austin, landing shot after shot against contender Lori Lord.

Right. Body shot. Combination.

"I'm winning this one for my kids," Terri said to herself.

It was November 12, 1999, six months after Terri first stepped into the ring. Her second bout hadn't ended as well as the first; she fought a Canadian southpaw, Tracey Stevens, who won unanimously. Terri, confused and outboxed, didn't argue. Later, she decided she needed a trainer. On the flight home from South Dakota, Steve Mestas invited her to join the House of Pain.

Now, against Lord, the work paid off. Even Mestas's surprise introduction of her as "Lil Loca" didn't faze her: Terri won the first two rounds.

But in the third, Terri and Lord locked in a clinch, and Lord shoved Terri to the canvas.

The crowd, Lord's hometown crowd, went nuts.

"That's it," Terri thought, losing her temper, mind going black. "I'm taking her out."

Terri fired bomb after bomb, barely missing her target. Lord, sensing Terri's rage, danced, evaded and eventually pinned Terri on the ropes, unleashing a barrage of her own.

The crowd went nuts again.

Terri fought back, but the ref stepped in anyway and called it quits: Lord by TKO.

Terri was furious. Humiliated. She felt fourteen again, beaten down by the chola. On the way to the hotel, Mestas tried to explain the realities of the hometown decision, but Terri, whose record had just dropped to 0-2-1, didn't listen.

"So. You gonna quit?" Mestas asked.

"Hell, no," Terri scoffed. "I'm training harder."

Arturo Jr. was pissed. He'd just lost a heartbreaking eight-rounder in Albuquerque to Chris Linson on points. Not long after he left the ring, Mestas took a call from Denver fighter Steve Valdez, who wanted to know the outcome. Mestas told him. Valdez laughed out loud.

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