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.