Christina Cruz heads to final Olympic trials with a mission to enjoy the journey
NEW YORK — Much has changed about women’s boxing in the decade-plus since Christina Cruz first put on a pair of gloves. Women’s boxing made its debut at the Summer Olympics in 2012, ushering in a new wave of interest and acceptance. Long shut out of the sport’s broadcast platforms, select popular fighters now get airtime on Showtime and DAZN.
“[There’s] less criticism,” Cruz, 37, says of the attitude towards women’s boxing now. “I remember being in the gym, and people were telling me ‘you shouldn’t box.’ Even family members, saying ‘you shouldn’t be in there, it’s a man’s sport, you’re gonna break your face, you’re cute, you’re pretty, you’re gonna break your nose.’
“I’ve broken my nose twice, I think I look alright.”
One of those broken noses, suffered in the 2016 World Championships in Kazakhstan, occurred when Bulgarian foe Stoyka Petrova head butted her in the bantamweight semifinals. “My coach saw my face, he’s like what’s wrong? I said, ‘My nose, you didn’t hear it?’” Another time, she was kneed by an opponent who reverted back to her kickboxing background out of frustration. Probably the most bizarre in-ring situation that she’d been through was in Venezuela, against an Argentinian, she was kissed twice by her opponent.
“Whenever we’d get in the clinch she’d start kissing me, the ref gave her two warnings. It was weird,” said Cruz.
There have been plenty of highlights as well. Cruz is a ten-time New York Golden Gloves champion, by far the most by a single boxer in the tournament’s history. She was also in the first women’s boxing match ever at the Pan American Games in 2011, and earned bronze medals at the 2012 and 2016 World Championships. She’s fought all over South America, and in Kazakhstan, China and in South Korea, saying that Jeju Island was her favorite place to box.
One of the few achievements she’s yet to reach has been competing at the Olympics. It’s been a dream of hers since she was a kid, sitting in front of the television for hours with her younger brother, watching gymnastics, swimming and volleyball, and marveling at Michael Jordan, her favorite on the Dream Team. She’s been close, earning bronzes at the Olympic trials in 2012 and 2016, but not advancing to the qualifiers. The age limit to compete in Olympic boxing is 40, meaning that Tokyo 2020 is a now or never scenario for her.
Cruz will compete against seven other women for a chance to make the U.S. team at the upcoming trials, which take place Dec. 9-16 in Lake Charles, La. Two boxers from each class will advance to the next stage of qualification, and then one will be chosen. Cruz is rated no. 4 by USA Boxing, and has boxed twice against Virginia Fuchs, the no. 1 rated boxer and 2016 Olympic trials champion, beating her both times.
“[Flyweight] is is very competitive, all of us girls are very familiar with each other. We’ve all at one point fought each other, so I think it’s gonna be fun to watch,” said Cruz, who estimates that she’s had nearly 200 amateur fights.
While many of the boxers who have become stars from their Olympic coverage have gone on to turn pro, like Claressa Shields and Marlen Esparza, Cruz has not. She heard those suggestions from those around her, that she had the ability to be the change maker the pro ranks needed, but it was never a burning desire.
“I have thought of it once or twice, I have entertained it, but from the beginning since I started it’s never been a dream to turn pro. It’s always been a dream to go to the Olympics,” said Cruz, but she keeps an open mind about the possibility.
“I’ll probably take a [pro] fight to say I did it, just to test the waters and see how it feels, but who knows?”
On most days, Cruz travels an hour each way from her home in Hell’s Kitchen on the west side of Midtown Manhattan to the SouthBoX Gym in The Bronx, working with Marcos Suarez, who has trained her since 2008. This day, she had a relatively short commute, traveling to nearby Mendez Gym. She sparred seven rounds with Jennifer Lopez, a Jersey City-based 132-pounder who is also competing in the Olympic trials. Finding sparring at her weight can be tough so Cruz will often work with Lopez despite the 20-pound weight difference. When she needs southpaw work, Andy Dominguez, a male amateur boxer, will provide rounds.
Once the bell rings, Cruz focuses on her jab to keep her distance from her shorter, aggressive sparring partner. Lopez, who has about 30 fights, does her best work with Cruz pinned to the ropes, landing punches to the body. Cruz is no stranger to body punching herself, and targets a few to the rib cage as well.
“We’re sparring three times a week, and we’re pushing it to the limit, training twice a day, six days out of the week,” said Cruz. “Going into the competition, it is tough, more mentally tough than physically, but it is easier than what we’re doing in the gym.”
“I believe it, because she’s on fire,” said Suarez, when asked if he expects Cruz to make it to the Olympic team. “I’ve never seen her like that, the way she fights, she’s on point.”
Growing up, Cruz was always into sports. She describes herself as a “tomboy” growing up with two brothers in a tough neighborhood that was gripped by the crack epidemic. She played basketball and baseball on all-boys teams, and expected to play basketball for a career, but didn’t play past high school because her height topped out around 5’5”. Instead she began working as a secretary as she figured out her life. That clarity finally came to her at age 22 when a friend named Lucky Trophe convinced her to accompany him and his son to the gym.
“The second I walked into the gym I fell in love with it,” remembers Cruz. “Honestly, if I didn’t box, I think I would be great at something, I just don’t know what it would be.”
It would be boxing though, and she became one of the top amateurs in the sport, winning seven USA Boxing national titles, including six in a row from 2012 to 2017. In 2013, the newly-inducted Hall of Famer Christy Martin told this writer that Cruz was one of the current female boxers that she admired.
Cruz has had her best success at 119 pounds – bantamweight – but that division wasn’t one of the three included in 2012, when the Olympics included women’s boxing for the first time, nor is it part of the five that the sport will expand to for the 2020 Games. Cruz says she doesn’t have much trouble making 112 pounds, and doesn’t blame the weight for falling short at the trials in the past. She’s improved her diet, thanks to her boyfriend, Brandon Wynn, a retired Team USA gymnast and a licensed nutritionist. She eats several small meals a day and doesn’t get “hangry,” reducing her caloric intake from her usual 1,800 per day to 1,400.
Cruz leaves to Louisiana on Saturday morning, and will have her trainer Suarez in her corner. If she makes the national team, she’ll have to work with national team coaches for the qualifiers and beyond.
She’s already looking to life beyond boxing. She works online as a wellness coach, teaching professionals how to incorporate fitness into their lifestyles, and works in real estate as well. She’s also looking forward to family life; she and her boyfriend have frozen embryos so they can plan for a family on their own time.
“Being a female athlete, it’s definitely harder. We come to a certain age where we have to make a decision, do we retire, or do we have a family? I didn’t want to come to that decision, so we resorted to that,” said Cruz.
Say everything goes to plan this time, and Cruz makes it through the trials, qualifiers, then the Olympics. Then what?
“I drop the mic and you never see me again,” she says, almost as a question. “I don’t know yet, I’ve been asked that a lot, and I can’t give you the answer. Everything’s all about this moment right now for me.”
One thing she does know is that, whatever happens, she’ll be at peace.
“This is what I’ve been going through the last two years dealing with those kind of emotions, but I just recently let it go. The past few years I was not in the right mindset because I was, I don’t know if I want to say anxious, but I’m like, ‘Alright, this is my last go, I have to make the best of it.’ I started taking myself way too serious, like everything had to be perfect, and it was kind of messing me up,” said Cruz.
“It took my boyfriend to help me realize, that, in a few years, none of this is gonna matter. You’re gonna be doing something else, you’re gonna have these new goals and just have fun with it now.
“I want to win gold. But I want to enjoy the journey of getting there.”
Additional reporting by Skanda Kadirgamar
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and part of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism Class of 2020. He can be reached at [email protected]