She never sees it coming, the shot that drops her. One moment Terri Cruz is gliding across the ring, snapping that jab, firing that right, when all of a sudden there's canvas, and she's like, "Whoa. Damn. This is reality."
Arturo Jr., Terri's older brother, sits in the audience. He's a pro himself, a rugged journeyman who has fought for two world titles and lost. He's been down before, too, clocked so hard that his front teeth throbbed for a week. "Let her get up," he whispers. "Please, God. Just let her get up.''
Arturo Sr., Terri's dad, is also at the 2002 Cinco de Mayo "Brawl 'Til They Fall" in Pueblo. When his daughter falls to one knee, he thinks, "Here it is, the defining moment. Now we'll see what she's made of." He's a former fighter; he knows all about defining moments. In every bout, there's a time when you dig deep, look hard and see what's inside. Such moments, he believes, can change you.
Hazel, Terri's mom, grips another daughter's arm. Her family has been fighting all its life, always uphill, inside the ring and out. "Jesus, what happened?" she asks. Then she prays.
So, yeah, Terri has a few scars. There's the small puffy one on her upper lip from a street fight she doesn't remember: Her front tooth, the one that sticks out a little, sliced her lip in two. There's the wide one on the bridge of her nose from a pool cue or a beer mug, she never knew which; she was too busy pounding some girl into oblivion on the floor of the pool hall. The thin one along the front of her scalp -- she remembers that: It came from a beer bottle. Her friend got into a fight with some big girl and was kicked out of the bar. When Terri started to follow her out, the big girl blocked her path. Terri should have gone to the hospital but repaired the damage herself: fifteen butterfly stitches in front of the bathroom mirror, blood flowing like a massacre or something.
"But you know what?" Terri says, sitting in the gym, threading a white rosary through her fingers. "I've never been knocked out by a bottle or a beer mug or a pool cue. So I figure, what can they do to me in the ring?"
It's true what they say: Boxing may be the only sport in which a man or a woman can walk straight off the street and into the professional circuit, where a hard jaw, a stiff right and a little luck can take you all the way to the top.
But there are other truths, too. Most fighters will never make it. Most will never become million-dollar players, world-class contenders or even regional names. They might get a few trips to Vegas, a spot on cable TV and a shot at one of the multitude of belts, but if they blow it, if they keep on blowing it, they enter the purgatory of the opponents, the challengers, the underdogs. They become the fighters who prime the contenders, who make the champions, who are chosen not for their strengths, but for their weaknesses. They become the fighters who are picked not to win, but to lose. Most of the time, they do.
And yet they keep coming. Despite the odds -- or perhaps because of them -- men and women crowd gyms every day, knowing that boxing is a risky and dubious endeavor in which the only certainty is pain. They come because they're good at it, because fighting is what they know, and because boxing provides discipline, redemption, even love. But mostly, they come because one boxing cliche rings loudest of all: Sometimes the underdog wins.
There's no sign outside the House of Pain, just some tin numbers -- 4705 -- screwed onto the drab brown siding of a two-story brick rectangle on Brighton Boulevard near a liquor store, an ambulance company and the stockyards.
The men and women who come here have to know where they're going and what they're getting into -- and they do. This is a ghetto gym: small, cluttered, dirty, mean. There's a hole in the ceiling tile, a Pampers pack in the corner, bare plywood on one wall, lavender paint on another, heavy bags on cross beams and a battered ring in back fashioned from lumpy mats and duct tape. Snoop Dogg thumps from a stereo. Crusty towels dangle from the ropes. Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Roy Jones Jr. glower from the walls.
It's hot and muggy inside, and getting hotter and muggier as the noonday sun filters through smudged windows, bathing the room in soapy light. There's no air conditioner, either -- not on this 95-degree summer day, not ever. So they keep the door open and let in the dust, exhaust, traffic noise.
Steve Mestas runs the place. He's Terri's trainer, coach, promoter, boyfriend and the father of her third child. Wearing his usual ensemble of a baggy T-shirt, baggy shorts and backward red baseball cap, he leans in the corner, watching Terri whip through the jump-rope warmup of a whirlwind tuneup session. Mestas is a big and gregarious guy with sleepy eyes, a crooked smile and the smooth jive of a salesman who pushes his fighters 24/7. At 33, he's logged fifteen years in the business and earned a street reputation as "the man to call if you need a fight in D-town."
"I love hype," Mestas says.
Terri blasts hot air through her nostrils and bounces quickly on her toes, tack, tack, tack. Her cheeks and shoulders turn slick and rosy, and her thick, dark ponytail thumps on her back. At 31 and 124 pounds, Terri is compact and powerful, with a wide face, broad nose, perfectly arched eyebrows, Jacuzzi-green eyes and carefully sculpted bangs.
Later this month (tentative date: August 23), Terri and her brother, Arturo Jr., will share a fight card at the Regency Hotel. Terri, with a 5-2-2 record and four knockouts, is scheduled to fight Arizona's Jessica Mohs, 5-4-0. Terri is riding a four-bout winning streak and is either ranked 11th or 23rd nationally, depending on who's doing the ranking; she's established herself as a hard-hitting up-and-comer who stepped from a bar brawl into a pro ring three years ago, turning heads along the way. Mestas thinks she's only two wins from a WIBF title shot.
"She has great footwork," he says, watching Terri slip through feinting drills. "Almost nicknamed her 'Sugar' Cruz, because she moves so sweet."
Arturo Jr. is seeking the World Athletic Association title in a twelve-round headliner against Rogelio Castaneda Jr., 14-7-2, of California. It's Arturo Jr.'s second chance at the belt, and he's lost to Castaneda before, so he's training right, he's training hard. At 33 and with a 17-11-2 record, he's gutting his way back up the light-welterweight ratings, which, despite his talent and tenacity, place him 68th nationally and 247th internationally.
Sister and brother, although old by traditional boxing standards, are the real deal, observers say. Terri has everything to prove. Arturo Jr. has nothing to lose.
The upcoming fight is important, Mestas says. "Way important."
Terri grinds through crunches with a fifteen-pound medicine ball.
"Feels like someone punched me in the stomach," she growls.
"Like those?" he says, smiling.
"What's that in your eye?" Mestas asks. "A teardrop? Come on, bud. We're just getting started."
Heart. Corazón. Big as a fist, heavy as a porterhouse steak. Beating 100,000 times a day, squeezing 2,000 gallons of blood every 24 hours. Not the place of logic or contemplation, not the place of should or maybe, but of instinct, action, driving on through fear and doubt. Relentless. Pumping, pumping, pumping...
In Spanish, ratón means "mouse." Raton, New Mexico, is a coal- and steel-mining town of about 8,000 people just over the formidable lump of mountains flanking southern Colorado. It sprouted with the railroad in 1879 and took its name from the rodents flourishing on piñon nuts in the tree-speckled hills.
On the surface, Raton is picturesque, with an assortment of pastel wooden homes, stately brick storefronts, Route 66-era motels, a functional drive-in theater and a crumbcake of a hill topped with the Raton version of the "Hollywood" sign.
But people with roots there remember the grittier side of the Interstate 25 postcard. They recall a rough and violent town divided by the proverbial railroad tracks. For them, Raton was New Mexico's version of The Outsiders, where people were often categorized as Anglo or Hispanic, jock or east-sider, rich or poor.
Hazel Arguello was poor. She was also blond, blue-eyed, light-skinned and pretty. Growing up in the late '50s and early '60s in her grandparents' east-side home, in a quadrant called "Little Chihuahua," she might as well have worn a big target on her back. She's Hispanic but doesn't look it, and almost every day, it was fight, fight, fight, all the way to class, all the way home. The nuns at St. Joseph's kept her at grade school until 4 p.m. so that bullies wouldn't pick on her, but they picked on her anyway.
When she was eight, a bully followed her as several classmates egged Hazel on. "Come on. Don't be scared. Go beat her up." Hazel and the bully squared off at a park. The bully charged, scratching and slapping as she came, but Hazel snatched a handful of hair and slammed the girl's head onto her knee, knocking her out. After that, Hazel was popular.
"In Raton, it was good to be bad," she remembers.
Years later, a woman told Hazel she skipped school because of her.
"I was scared to death of you," the woman said. "I thought you hated me. I thought you were going to kill me."
Deep down, Hazel is softhearted. As a girl, she attended church, chopped wood for her grandparents, got A's in English. But in Raton, most people never saw that. They only saw the person who knocked out the bully. They only saw the mean girl with the tough friends. They only saw the brawler, the troublemaker, the person they made her.
Arturo Cruz Sr. wasn't the best athlete in the world. He was always kind of lanky, to be honest about it, but he did pack a wallop. In Raton, he'd get jumped by two or three guys, fire the right, and down they'd go.
"I could run fast, too," he recalls. "In case there were too many."
It's in his blood, Arturo Sr. thinks. His dad was a pro boxer for a time in Denver, although Arturo never knew his dad and was raised by an aunt and uncle. But he sure heard about him. When his dad was 75, he visited a guy who owed him money. The guy wouldn't pay, so his dad knocked him out cold, then waited until the man woke up and calmly collected his cash. His mom was tough, too. At eighty, she was arrested for beating up a man. Arturo Sr.'s granddad was an Apache, and they fought everyone, even the Navajos, so maybe that's where the family gets it.
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 Illustrated as 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 veterano with 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.
"Where's your sister now?" Arturo Jr. asked, pinning Terri. "Think you're tough? What about this?"
He smacked her square in the face, busting her nose, blackening her eyes.
The girls never jumped him again.
And Terri, no matter how bad it hurt, never told her parents what really happened.
By the time they entered middle school, the Cruzes had a reputation. Everyone in town knew their dad was a former boxer, so it didn't take long before east-siders and jocks lined up for a shot at his kids.
"We were labeled as fighters even before we fought," Terri recalls. "Everyone was always challenging, always rivaling, always checking you over."
Arturo Jr. got it the worst. He'd inherited his mom's sandy hair and blue eyes. He was short, too, and so thin he could suck in his stomach and grab his ribs. His nickname: Bones.
"I was getting into a fight every single day," he remembers.
When her battered son straggled home, Hazel offered the advice she'd received: "If you're hit, hit back. You might not win, but at least they know you'll fight back."
Arturo Jr. hit back, but he kept getting jumped anyway.
One day, a lumbering bully appeared in a field near the Cruz home and latched onto Arturo Jr. The girls sounded the alarm, and Arturo Sr. arrived with two pairs of gloves.
"Wanna fight?" he asked. "Do it right. Box."
The bully grumbled but complied. A few minutes later, the quicker and more tenacious Arturo Jr. whipped him in front of everyone. But afterward, every punk in Raton, including the bully's cousins, sought out the skinny, asthmatic David who'd vanquished Goliath. One by one, Arturo Jr. took them down.
"In the streets, I was undefeated," he says.
Yet in his eyes, he never quite matched his dad's legacy. As a boy, Arturo Sr. had excelled in football and basketball, as well as boxing. Arturo Jr., who was too short for basketball and couldn't crack the hundred-pound football limit, was relegated to the "sissy" sports of track and cross-country. Whenever he stumbled home from a victorious rumble, his dad, hoping to mold his boy into a man, would say, "Think you're so tough? Then get in the ring."
Arturo Jr. kept his fighting to the streets. And when he was seventeen, he got caught for the third time. The judge wanted to send him to a boys' school, but Arturo Sr., who'd become a mover and a shaker and knew a few people, offered an alternative: If he could steer his long-haired, leather-jacketed, GTO-driving son toward something productive, something disciplined and spit-shined, would the judge reconsider? The judge agreed, and Arturo Sr. delivered the news to Arturo Jr.: the National Guard or boys' school.
Boot camp it was.
But down in El Paso, Arturo Jr. had to prove himself all over again. When he arrived at the National Guard training complex, he barely tipped the scales at 115 pounds. Fully clothed. As a result, he was pushed hard by drill sergeants, harder than guys twice as big and strong as he was. Harder than any track meet or fistfight he'd had to endure.
"I'd write letters home saying, 'Come get me,'" Arturo Jr. recalls. "But if you didn't meet the challenge, it would be worse for you. They'd take you out in a field and smoke you. You were too scared, so you kept going. You kept driving. No matter what, you didn't quit."
And he didn't.
Terri was a good kid, more or less.
She earned pretty good grades, attended church, ran hurdles and even wore the occasional dress, but the summer after she turned fourteen, "everything just blew up." It was boys, boys, boys, party, party, party, feathered hair, dark lipstick, baggy clothes, older friends and her first tattoo: "East Side," on the knuckles of her left hand.
"It was boring," she says. "That's why people were always partying and fighting. You either went to the lake, went to house parties, went to the park or went cruising. It was sad."
But her dad was strict, very strict. With a temper.
"He'd smell alcohol on your breath and say, 'That's it. We're going to the police station and have you arrested,'" Terri recalls. "He tried to raise us right, but we got out of control on our own."
One time, some east-siders bought a few kegs. Terri eluded her parents, and when she got to the party, there was the badass 23-year-old chola who thought Terri was after her boyfriend, Carlos, who was actually the one making the moves.
Terri's friends suggested a quick exit, but she couldn't back down in front of everyone and decided to stay put. After a few beers, she headed to the restroom.
"I see her," she recalls. "I turn around to go into another room, but then she jumps me. She grabs me by the hair, throws me down on the floor and starts banging my head on the windowsill."
Terri, caught off guard, fought back. Her friends, who were also the chola's friends, just watched.
At home, Hazel examined the moonscape of lumps and craters on Terri's skull and wanted to call the police, but Terri begged her not to. Instead, they left town for Colorado Springs, where Hazel had won hotel reservations in a raffle.
On the trip, they talked. Hazel is very close to her children, who confide in her like they would an older sibling. She'd clean their rooms so they wouldn't get in trouble with their dad. When they were tossed in jail, she'd bail them out. Hazel drew from personal experience when she explained the consequences of running with the wrong crowd, but Terri wasn't listening. She was making herself a promise: "This is never happening again. I'll never let myself get beaten like this, ever."
And she didn't.
Something else took her down.
One morning not long after the beating, Terri and Tammy were sitting around the house, bored out of their skulls, so they asked their mom if they could borrow her car and get it washed. Instead, the girls picked up a friend and went cruising. Pissed, Hazel reported the car stolen.
After a while, the girls got bored of joyriding, so they hit a Conoco and a souvenir shop, hauling out boxes of candy and knickknacks. They decided to leave Raton forever. On their way out of town, a cop spotted the missing car, pulled the girls over, discovered the loot and arrested them both. Terri took off on foot but was chased down by a cop, who pried her from a street pole and hauled her in.
The judge decided to make examples of the sisters: two years in reform school.
Fifteen-year-old Terri arrived in Albuquerque in 1987. Separated from her sister, she was placed in a cottage with wild-eyed girls from the big-city barrio. Alone in her bunk, away from family and friends for the first time, she cried.
For the first few months, Terri tried to keep her head down, but she got drawn into fistfights anyway. At 5'4" and ninety pounds, she held her ground, earning the nickname "Lil Loca," which she tattooed above her left ankle.
During her first Thanksgiving behind bars, one of the meanest inmates started teasing Terri. Her temper flared.
"Let's go!" she said, flipping over the dinner table. "Right now!"
The staff broke up the fight and sent Terri to solitary. But the other girls regarded her with respect: "Damn, girl. You're crazy." Eventually, Terri became the leader of her cottage. She even organized a successful hunger strike for better cafeteria food. When she left Albuquerque in 1989, she was a different person.
"I didn't feel weak anymore," she says. "I broke out of my shell."
A few weeks after returning home, Terri was looking to break something else: the chola's face.
"You know," Terri said to a friend at a party, "I'm going to go look for her."
Terri tried to explain: At reform school, she'd replayed the beating over and over again. It tortured her, haunted her. She dreamed about one thing: revenge.
Her friend wasn't up for a search-and-destroy mission, so Terri walked into town alone. On the main drag, she found her nemesis and confronted her.
"That was a long time ago," the chola said. "It's all good now."
"It ain't all good," Terri said. "Come on. Let's go."
The woman brushed her off, which only made Terri madder. But before they could exchange blows, Terri's friend drove up and coaxed Terri inside her car. On the way home, though, Terri noticed the chola's car at a park and jumped out. She dragged the woman from her car by her hair, wrestled her to the pavement and began slamming her head on the bumper.
"Sorry," the woman sobbed. "Is this 'cause of Carlos?"
"It ain't cause of him," Terri said, pounding away. "It's for what you did to me when I was fourteen. Well, I ain't fourteen no more. What's up now, huh?"
Terri administered twice the beating she'd once received.
"I don't go looking for trouble," she says now. "But that was one fight I wanted. I got my dignity back. I got my mind back. I got my heart back. Finally. I defeated the person who made me feel the lowest."
Then everything blew up again.
Arturo Sr. and Hazel Cruz split up in the late '80s. Arturo Jr., who'd survived boot camp and remained with the National Guard, entered vocational training, then escaped to Los Angeles. Tammy moved to Nevada. Hazel, seeking better medical care for Mark, who'd developed severe kidney problems, moved with him, Brandi and Noah to Denver, where they lived in one housing project, then another. Arturo Sr. stayed in Raton.
Terri, who was pregnant, moved to Denver with her boyfriend. On September 19, 1989, she gave birth to a boy they named Anthony. Terri became "straight, straight, straight."
Arturo Jr. arrived in Denver a year later, to be near his ailing brother. He fell in love with a girl from the projects, and on February 7, 1991, she had a baby girl, Mercedes. A year later, they got married. Tammy moved to Denver, too; she eventually donated a kidney to Mark.
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.
"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."
"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."
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."
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.
"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.
"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.
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."
On April 14, 2001, her conviction was tested. While she waited for a fight, Terri watched as paramedics wheeled nineteen-year-old Crecencio Mercado from the ring in Pueblo after he collapsed with a brain clot. (He died a week later.) She cleared her head, and as the ambulance left, won a unanimous four-round decision against Nicole Gallegos.
Mercado's death bought home the dangers of boxing, especially for Moses. Terri smoothed her son's hair and promised him that if she got hurt, she'd quit.
Then she returned to the ring.
May 5: The "Brawl 'Til They Fall" in Pueblo. As her family cringes in the audience, Terri drops to one knee in the first seconds of the first round, stung by the phantom right of Brandy Leon.
"Whoa. Damn. This is reality."
Chris Cozzone writes this for FightNews.com, posted on the New Mexico Boxing Web site: "Cruz came out strong, rocking Leon back with shots...but then Leon threw a right hand and it caught Cruz unaware and dropped her on the seat of her trunks. She got up rubber-legged, and Leon made the mistake of letting her recover. Recover she did and just past the one-minute mark, both fighters threw a right hand that connected. While Cruz staggered a bit, Leon got the worst of it: She found herself staring up at the chandelier lights and was counted out at 1:22."
Recalls Mestas: "Have you seen The Wizard of Oz? It was like that. When Terri hit that girl, it was like, 'There's no place like home. There's no place like home.'"
Arturo Jr.: "When she got right back up and dropped that other woman, I've never been so proud of her in my life. I jumped into the ring and picked her up on my shoulders."
Arturo Sr.: "That's mi'ja."
Hazel: "Thank you, Jesus. But then I thought, 'That other girl looks like she went to sleep.'"
Terri: "I jumped up right away. I didn't feel shaky at all. In fact, I felt more focused. Stronger. When I hit her, it felt good. And she didn't even touch me when I dropped her, either, not like they said. And they said she was looking at the chandelier lights, too. She didn't see no lights. She was out."
A storm boils outside, flooding the gym with lavender light and the cleansing aroma of rain. A lean woman pumps combinations in front of the mirror, a surly guy grunts through sit-ups, and a pretty brunette with an eyebrow ring slouches on a stool, looking thoroughly bored.
Arturo Jr. peels the tape from his hands with his teeth. His eyes glow against his ruddy skin like turquoise, and his dark hair is spiked sharp by sweat. Normally, he's not the reflective type, but on this blustery evening, he feels like talking. His two daughters sleep in the Cruz'N Hardwood Floors van at the curb, and he has a little time. He takes a long pull from a water bottle.
Never in a million years did he think he'd be here, he says. When he was gang-banging, he didn't know whether he'd last through the week. But now he's fought two world-title bouts and he's staring down his third. He's appeared on HBO, Showtime, Fox and Univision fighting world-ranked contenders. He's made new friends, become closer to his family and amassed an impressive collection of memorabilia that includes fight posters scribbled with his daughters' "I love you, Dad" and "Good Luck."
"I never thought I could be an amateur, never mind a pro," he says. "Before, fighting in the streets, you were always running from the cops, getting caught, going to jail, getting bonded out. You were always getting put down by your parents, by society, by everyone. But in the ring, you're getting complimented by your parents, your peers and even your old enemies. If some dude walks up to me on the street now and calls me a pussy, I just say, 'How much money you got in your pocket? I get paid to fight.' And once you start winning, there's no feeling like it."
But it's hard, he says. Real hard. He's a single parent. He runs his own business. He travels a lot. And he's tired. Always tired. Still, he can live with all that. The hardest thing, the absolute hardest thing, is being the opponent.
Being the opponent means knowing no one expects you to win, he says. Being the opponent means keeping your day job, training in your spare time, traveling where they send you. And traveling means someone else's hometown, someone else's hometown crowd and, all too often, someone else's hometown decision. Arturo Jr. isn't pointing fingers, but of his eleven losses, ten were on the road. Of those, he lost maybe four.
"I've dropped some of these dudes three times, been the aggressor, chased them around and around the ring, but when the final bell rings, they raise the other guy's hand," he says. "And I'm like, 'What?'"
He would like to say that the money makes everything worthwhile, and the money is nice, but it's not what you might expect. The most he ever made was $8,000, during the WBO title fight against David Sample. He bought a new bike, but he couldn't help but wonder what Sample made. And now Hector Camacho Jr. is calling. He's a top contender. A great opportunity, right? But you know what they're offering? Only $7,000.
"Guys like me, we can't come up," Arturo Jr. says. "We don't have big money behind us, like some of these fighters with the wicked records of 30-1. But look at who they fought. They build up their records just so they can get a name and on TV. Me, I fight anyone."
Which might be part of his problem, according to observers of the game. Maybe Arturo Jr. fought too many tough fighters too early. Maybe he hit the road too many times. Maybe if he'd been more cautious and discriminating, his record would be different. But that's not who he is, Arturo Jr. says. He's an aggressive, unorthodox, instinctive fighter who started late. He needed the experience. He might have lost, but he learned. He learned a lot. He's fought the big fight now. He knows how to handle pressure. He's battle-tested.
"They have to throw in the towel before I'll lay down," Arturo Jr. says. "If I get dropped, I get up. I don't even think about it. That's the way I am. I know the eleven losses are putting a drag on my record. I know some people will say, 'He's not all that.' But I've never been knocked out. At least I did it. And I'm still doing it."
Besides, he says, his next fight could change everything. Although the WAA is a minor acronym in the alphabet soup of 21 sanctioned boxing associations -- most fighters have never even heard of it -- Arturo Jr. thinks that if he can beat Castaneda Jr., he might earn enough recognition to score a big bout overseas and make enough money to leave his trailer behind and buy a house where his daughters can be proud to bring their friends. If he wins a world title, maybe he can retire without regret, become a coach, teach his girls to box.
"A lot of fighters look at the WAA and won't have nothing to do with it," he says. "But me, I'd be proud. To a kid from a barrio, that would mean that I had attained something. I would defend it with my life."
Every year, he says he is going to quit. But every year, he returns. Whenever his back is against the wall, he comes out swinging. "All I can do is keep going," he says.
With that, Arturo Jr. mops his face, walks into the wind and wakes his kids.
Arturo Sr. keeps a special set of photos at his home in Raton: Terri and Arturo Jr. in their trunks, gloves and fighting scowls. Along with snapshots of his other kids -- Brandi, who fought one pro match before retiring to the rigors of her day job; Noah, who won the Golden Gloves, too; and Tammy and Mark, who'd step into the ring if the doctors would let them -- they represent la familia. The Cruz legacy.
He couldn't be more proud.
Terri and Arturo Jr. have shown that they can take whatever life throws at them and survive. They've shown they can set goals and achieve them. They've shown a little Apache, too, he says. But most of all, they've shown corazón.
"To me," Arturo Sr. says, "that's the highest compliment you can give."
At her home in north Denver, surrounded by bubbling fish tanks and angel figurines, Hazel has her own picture frames. That and a gigantic big-screen TV, to watch Terri and Arturo Jr.'s bouts. She's at every one -- if not in person, then in spirit.
Before every fight, Hazel, who's become known as "Mama Cruz" on the fight circuit, lights a candle, gathers friends and family and recites a prayer: "Give them the strength to keep their hands up. Make sure no one gets hurt." Deeply religious, Hazel always thanks God that her children have been blessed with talent. A talent they've been able to use.
"I wish they could sing," she says. "But, oh, well. That's what I get for marrying a boxer."
On the sweltering afternoon of July 13, Arturo Jr. bulls his way through his WAA tuneup fight. The sweat slides off him like rain on a windshield. He starts the bout slowly, then pushes the action in the second and third rounds, battering his 0-2 opponent, Alfonso Vigil, with body shots, combos, left hooks. A bright stripe of blood smears across Vigil's face like war paint.
"Kill him, Art!" someone yells.
"Come on, Cruz. Finish him."
"Left hook! Left hook!"
Late in the third, the crowd in the parking lot outside Don Carlos Mexican Grill becomes absolutely still. The only sound is the heavy breath of the fighters, the dull slap of their gloves and the occasional crumpling of a beer cup. The sun beats down.
Arturo Jr. lands a right uppercut and sends Vigil leaning across the ring. A body shot. Another body shot. Another body shot. Vigil sags into the ropes. A right cross. Vigil looks at the referee.
It's over at 2:50 of the third round: TKO.
Arturo Jr. throws his hands in the air, strides across the ring and smiles at the audience, at his mom.
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.
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.
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.