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Cruz Control

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

"I want him," Arturo Jr. said. "Book the fight.

Valdez was among Colorado's hardest-hitting, most resilient and most ring-savvy boxers. His 15-24-2 record belied the danger he carried into the ring. He and Arturo Jr. were bitter rivals, and the bad blood had just reached a boiling point. The fight was set for February 5, 2000, three weeks after Valdez's phone call.

The match was pivotal for the 8-5 Arturo Jr., one that would determine whether he became a serious contender or just another club fighter. To top it off, there was the grand prize: the Colorado State Champion lightweight belt.

Arturo Jr. trained like Mestas had never seen before. He marched into the gym, hardly mumbled a word, marched out.

The fight exceeded expectations.

Just when one boxer took control, the other launched an offensive: nip and tuck, nip and tuck, for ten rib-crunching rounds.

Arturo Jr.'s right thumb broke in the second. His kidneys were bruised. An eye swelled shut. He fought anyway.

While the judges tallied the score, Arturo Jr. knelt in his corner and prayed. When he won by split decision, he leapt in the air. With his family in the audience, with his dad in the audience, it was one of the proudest moments of his life.

A few months later, Arturo Jr. cracked the top 25. Then he got a shot at the World Boxing Organization Latin Junior welterweight belt against David Sample. Arturo Jr. was only a few weeks from having the cast removed from his thumb, and he hadn't been able to train as hard as he would have liked. It was his first twelve-rounder, too. He knew he had eight strong rounds in him, so he made himself a promise: "Go after this guy. Hard."

Before the bout, Denver's Channel 7 visited the House of Pain.

Reporter: "The numbers just don't add up for Arturo Cruz. He's 31 years old, and he's only been boxing for about four years. Throw in his professional record of 9 and 5, and you wonder how he's getting his shot at a world title."

Arturo Jr.: "Well, it's like, 'Who's this kid? How come he's getting a chance?' But you know what? I've proved myself on the road. I've fought some tough opponents. I'm ready."

Mestas: "I've never doubted Arthur Cruz. I'd put him up against anybody in the world. We've traveled all over on one or two days' notice. He's a road warrior. He's earned his title shot."

Reporter: "He knows this could be his last shot at the bigtime, but it definitely won't be his last shot."

Arturo Jr.: "I'll be around no matter what. I fell in love with the sport. I'm going to hang around until I'm 36 or 37, or whatever. I'm going to be people's nightmare."

On May 6, 2000, in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Arturo Jr. made it twelve rounds but lost on points.

It's their eyes, friends and family members say. When Terri or Arturo Jr. are mad, when they're challenged, their irises change from aqua blue to radioactive green. Their dad has them, too: "Devil eyes." Look for yourself, they say. You can see it.

Fire.

Sitting in the ring in Las Vegas before a crowd of thousands, Terri stared straight ahead. She was about to challenge Pamela Barker, who trained with the renowned boxing family of Floyd Mayweather Jr. Barker was 5-0 with four knockouts, while Terri stood at 1-2-1. They were on the undercard for what was to become the fight of the year: the February 19, 2000 war between Marco Antonio Barrera and Erik Morales.

"Are you ready!" Mestas barked at her.

Terri stared straight ahead.

"I said, 'Are you ready!'"

It had been three months since Terri lost to Lori Lord. She'd kept her promise, trained harder, and had knocked out Elma Valdez in the first round on February 5. Flying high with her first "W," Terri accepted the Barker match with only two weeks to prepare. She flew to Vegas -- Barker's hometown -- without knowing the level of her competition, the size of the crowd, or that she'd be fighting on HBO.

It was better that way, Mestas thought.

He was right.

"Are you ready!" Mestas shouted again.

Terri ignored him. She didn't want to see all of the people in the audience. She wanted to know one thing and one thing only: Could Mestas see her mom, who'd flown to Vegas at the last moment? Could he see her mom in the stands?

Mestas lied: "Yes."

With Arturo Jr. helping out in her corner, Terri proceeded to give Barker more than she expected, landing right after right, soliciting cheers, prompting announcers to predict an upset. But when the final bell sounded, the judges proclaimed a draw.

The crowd booed.

Disappointed but undaunted, Terri called the fight her "professional debut."

She took ten months off to have a baby, a girl that she and Mestas named Genesis. Seven weeks later, on December 15, 2000, Terri hopped into the ring again and TKO'd Jolena Price in the second round.

"I was all light-headed," Terri recalls. "I was like, 'Whoa. What did I just do?' But I couldn't wait to get back into it. I had been away too long already."

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