Under a setting but still pitiless Las Vegas sun, Barry McGuigan rose unsteadily off his stool to meet Nobody for the 15th round of McGuigan's last WBA featherweight title defense. McGuigan knew this Nobody had him by the throat. In fact, Nobody had just about everybody by the throat, from those who had given from 4-to-1 all the way up to 9-to-1 odds to get a bet down on the popular Irish champ, to promoter Bob Arum, who had helped turn McGuigan into a meal-ticket champion by getting him this $1 million defense. The one breathing easiest last June 23 at Caesars Palace was Nobody himself. He said his name was Cruz. Stevie Cruz.
Cruz quickly advanced to the center of the ring. McGuigan, his tank on empty but his heart still on full, met Cruz there. Cruz had been Arum's substitute for the injured No. 1 challenger, Fernando Sosa, as McGuigan's opponent. Cruz had been ranked all of 20th by the WBA not long before. When McGuigan had asked for the book on Cruz, he was told he wouldn't need one. The 23-year-old Cruz had never gone 15 rounds. By trade he was a plumber's helper in Fort Worth, with no money in his savings account and a floating address. He was just Nobody from nowhere, and he would be going home soon.
By the 15th round everybody had come to realize how dangerous such underestimations can be. McGuigan was obviously exhausted by the heat and the fight's furious pace. But Cruz's chest still rose and fell easily. It was 108° ringside. The highest recorded temperature in the history of McGuigan's native British Isles is 100.5°. It can get to that in the shade on some days in Fort Worth.
Cruz calmly squared off, stalked McGuigan, knocked him down twice in the 15th with exact three-punch combinations—and was awarded a unanimous decision. "People were surprised, but I always knew," says Steve Cruz Sr., 42, Stevie's father. A week before the fight, Cruz Sr. had written STEVIE CRUZ, WORLD CHAMPION in freshly poured sidewalk cement across the street from his house in the Diamond Hill section of Fort Worth. "Stevie is a fighter, natural-born. I was a fighter. My father was. I knew when Stevie was a baby. He always loved the taste of leather. I bought him leather shoes and he'd chew on them. When he goes in a shoe store, his mouth still waters."
Reminded of this, Stevie laughs. His is a calm, pleasant laughter. "It's true," he says. "It's all true."
Cruz has a matinee-idol profile and a toothpaste-ad smile. He is unmarked. In more than 260 amateur and 28 pro fights, he has never been cut. He was hit at least 20 times, flush, with the best straight right hands McGuigan could muster, and the Irishman is the strongest punching featherweight since the heyday of Danny (Little Red) Lopez. Yet after taking those rights, Cruz had little swelling and no open wounds, while McGuigan looked as if he had faced the wrong end of a weed-eater. And now when Stevie goes into a shoe store, he can do more than salivate. He can buy a pair. He got $70,000 for the McGuigan fight. "The best thing about being the champion?" he says. "Having some money in the bank. Right, Terry?"
Terry is his 15-year-old wife, and Stevie asks her for backseat confirmation as he wheels a car expertly through some of the meaner streets of his hometown. It is a sweltering day, and not much is moving in Fort Worth. Cruz can recollect without hurry or interruption. At one time, before he stopped growing, he dreamed of being a football player. Specifically, a Dallas Cowboy. At some point in their lives, most everybody in Fort Worth wants to grow up and be somebody in Dallas. "I was too small, so I decided to box," Cruz says. "It was in my blood anyway."
Cruz goes over the time his grandfather got shot, his parents' divorce, what the rigors of saloon manhood were like, why a pug named Lenny Valdez nearly decapitated him in one round in Las Vegas in the spring of '84, and how he wound up working as a plumber's helper at Ralph Rivera's shop on North Main Street. And, of course, he talks of the title that is now his.
"He could've knocked out McGuigan in the 10th round, after he knocked him down," Joe Barrientes, Cruz's corpulent trainer, had said. "But he was content to chip away."
"His jab is so stiff it's two classes above his weight," Dave Gorman had said. Gorman heads Gorman's Super Pro Gym in Fort Worth, where Cruz is a member. Gorman is Cruz's manager.
Six months before he stepped into the ring against McGuigan, Cruz had scored an impressive TKO over Tommy Cordova, also in Las Vegas. He used his jab almost exclusively in that fight. Had McGuigan asked, Cordova could have told him about Stevie Cruz. Cordova had never been knocked out before. "That's his grandfather's jab," Steve Cruz Sr. says. "My father, Joe, taught me how to throw it. And I taught Stevie."
Stevie's grandfather, Joe, is 76. He was shot outside his home in Fort Worth a year ago. He drove into his driveway one day and saw a couple of burglars coming out of his house. They saw Joe in the car and came over to finish the job. They took his wallet, which was empty. Then Joe heard a pistol shot, looked at his arm, saw blood. Joe drove himself to the hospital, where the doctors dressed his arm and released him.
When Joe got back home, he saw blood on his stomach and realized the mullet must have gone through his arm and into his body. He returned to the hospital, where doctors found the bullet hole in his stomach and dressed the wound. But the bullet presented no real danger, and Joe Cruz was adamant that le did not want to hang around in a hospital any longer, so he was released. "I visited my grandfather that day in the hospital," says Stevie. "He got up and shadowboxed. He was making sure I didn't forget how to sidestep and throw he jab. He still has that bullet in him."
Stevie's grandfather is a second-generation Mexican-American. He was baptized Jose, but when he got his first job, his coworkers called him Joe. It was like that back then. He named one of his two sons Jose, after himself. Like his father, that child was called Joe. His other son he named Steve.
Joe Cruz Sr. was a smoker-class bantamweight once, but by the '50s he was mainly an instructor for his youngsters. It was around then that he and his wife, Juanita, divorced. Joe Sr. and three of his four children moved from the Mexican-American Barrio Loma area to a racially mixed neighborhood for several years, but eventually the children moved back to the barrio with their mother. "Barrio Loma is one of the toughest neighborhoods—not just in Fort Worth, in America," says Barrientes.
"My father and mother were divorced," says Stevie's father. "Me and my brother Joe were good fighters, but we didn't know how to handle the divorce. And then we moved to Barrio Loma. We had lived on the south side, with white, black and Hispanic. On the north side it was all Mexican-Americans. And we spoke English. We never knew Spanish. It took me three years to learn Spanish. I can't count the number of [street] fights I had in those three years."
At the ripe old age of 25, Steve Sr. won the 1969 Fort Worth Golden Gloves title in the 112-pound class. By then he had married and had his own son, Stevie. Following the family tradition, Steve Sr. became Stevie's boxing instructor. But Steve Sr. did not give up the ring, and once they even appeared on the same amateur card. Stevie won a national Golden Gloves title in 1981. From October 1981 until March 1984, fighting at times for $200 and $300 purses, he won his first 19 pro bouts.
Then he met Lenny Valdez in Las Vegas. Stevie was 20, and his father and mother, Frances, had divorced. Cruz didn't want the fight. "The divorce was hard for me to swallow," he says. Seeking solace in the streets, Stevie had quit on his training. He moved around, staying at times with his Uncle Joe and at other times with Gavino and Lupe DeLeon, friends of the Cruz family.
Valdez knocked out Cruz in the first round. Now he was beaten physically and emotionally. "I felt nothing: I wasn't glad, I wasn't sad," Cruz says. "In 250 fights, none of us had ever seen Stevie in that kind of trouble before," says Gorman. "He was out of the gym for some time."
Rivera offered Cruz a job. "We were short of help," says Rivera. "Stevie didn't know what he wanted to do. I wanted to keep him off the streets. But I knew he belonged back in the ring. He was too good not to fight."
After a day spent handing over snakes and pipe sections to the senior plumbers, Cruz would say he was going to the gym but would never show up. "I thought we had lost him for sure," says Gorman. But now Cruz's distraction was of a better sort. Sometimes the DeLeons' niece, Terry, would come by while Cruz was visiting. "Terry is a very mature girl for her age," says Barrientes. "I told her, 'If you help me, then we'll both have a champion.' " She and Cruz were married last March. Three months later Stevie became world champion.
Cruz was ranked 20th, then all of a sudden was moved up to 9th by the WBA right before he got the McGuigan fight. Barrientes insisted there be no conjugal visits during training. The newlyweds made excuses and met, but Cruz didn't break the code. He worked like a horse, and he studied films of McGuigan's 10-round decision over Juan LaPorte.
McGuigan's punching power earned him the early rounds in Las Vegas, but Cruz had pulled even by the start of the 15th. Cruz had even knocked McGuigan down in the 10th, but he had seemed reluctant to follow. "Stevie is a conservative fighter and a conservative puncher," says his father.
"I like to make sure," says Cruz. "I don't fight mad."
Afterward McGuigan said the heat had beaten him as much as Stevie Cruz had. "Yes, but it was my corner that was facing the sun," says Cruz. "I'm sorry Barry feels he needs excuses. I guess I'm just nobody." Cruz shrugs.
As much as anything, it was McGuigan's corner that failed him. Even McGuigan's mother saw that. "Complete mismanagement," Katie McGuigan told Michael Lavery of the Dublin Evening Herald. Between rounds McGuigan was given swigs from a bottle by his handlers, but precious little else he could use. Eventually, amid the babble and chaos in his corner, McGuigan asked for just one thing. "Please, God, pray that I do it right," he said. "Pray for me, please." Gorman says, "Poorest cornerwork I've ever seen."
Cruz returned from Las Vegas to a hero's welcome. He and Terry rode in an open car in a parade down North Main as 10,000 people cheered. "It was funny, seeing all these guys, guys who hung out at the beer joints beating up people, standing on the street, cheering me by name," says Cruz.
The parade route went close by Ralph Rivera's Plumbing Co., where Rivera's daughter, Christine, had spray-painted THROUGH THIS DOOR ENTERS WORLD CHAMP STEVE CRUZ on the side entrance. After the parade Cruz signed autographs in the shop as 2,000 people milled about outside. Rivera had to close the shop for the day. "He's got a raise coming," Rivera says. "Maybe I can make enough money to buy that shop," says Cruz. "But right now I can't afford to give up the job." After the excitement died down, Cruz went back to snaking out commodes. The raise was included in his first paycheck. From $6.50 to $7.50 an hour.
It has been more than half a year since Cruz won the championship, and in that time he has had only one meaningless fight. Barney Eastwood, McGuigan's manager, claims he has promotional rights to Cruz, but Gorman says, "I'm laughing." What the contract between Cruz and McGuigan did have was a proviso for a rematch. The question now is when it will ever take place. McGuigan and Eastwood have had a falling out, and McGuigan, who has been doing stints as a talk-show host on Irish TV, does not seem eager to return to the ring to fight Cruz or anyone else. Because of the contract entanglements, promoters and network television matchmakers have shied away from putting Cruz on their cards. The only fight he could get was a hometown, nontitle, 10-rounder with Roger Aravelo in November, which he easily won by decision. Finally, last month the WBA demanded that Cruz defend his title, and he is now scheduled to fight No. 1 challenger Antonio Esparragoza in Fort Worth on Feb. 27.
Cruz is still living with his inlaws and working for Rivera. No matter what happens, he plans to get his journeyman plumber's license. He and Terry test-drove a couple of Cadillacs after he won the title, but they decided they might be better off buying Rivera's old Honda Civic. For the Esparragoza fight, Stevie will earn $100,000. Maybe then he and Terry will treat themselves to a new car.
"I'm proud that he held up," says Steve Sr. "I'm proud that he's world champion, but I'm more proud that he held up."
So, who is Stevie Cruz? A Nobody who's getting to be Somebody.
Cruz's career was stalled for six months, but now he is preparing for the first defense of his WBA title.
McGuigan was a victim of the heat and his own corner as well as the unheralded Cruz.
Terry and Stevie haven't let the world title change their lives.