By MIKE SMITH
In the first round of his Dec. 4, fight against Joshua Arocho, Byrant “Pee Wee” Cruz found himself in an unfamiliar situation. Caught by a sneaky left hook, the Port Chester lightweight was on the canvas for the first time in his professional career. His ankle, which buckled underneath him on his way to the mat, was injured, and his trainer Ryan O’Leary was concerned.
Those trepidations were soon put to rest as Cruz picked himself off the canvas, shook off the cobwebs, and won every single round of the fight—despite being unable to put any weight on his front foot—to pick up his eighth professional victory.
On Feb. 12, Cruz will be back in the ring against Joshua Reyes (5-1, 2 KOs), fighting on the last boxing card ever at New York City’s historic Roseland Ballroom armed with the knowledge that it’s going to take more than a flash knockdown and an injured ankle to stop Westchester’s most promising young pugilist.
“That fight was definitely a learning experience for me,” Cruz said. “I learned how to adapt to a different game plan because, once I twisted my ankle, we couldn’t go with the original one.”
O’Leary, who operates the New Rochelle-based Champs Boxing Club out of which Cruz fights, said Cruz’s last win was a statement, not only about his skill, but also about his charge’s desire to be a winner.
“I think it came at the perfect time; he was in there with a tough kid who had 14 pro fights against some top opponents,” O’Leary said. “I think it was monumental for him, building his courage and knowing that he could perform in the ring having never been in a position like that.”
Though O’Leary didn’t know how Cruz would react to the knockdown, the 24-year-old Port Chester native has shown a previous penchant for bucking the odds. Even as a relatively green amateur fighter, Cruz routinely demonstrated ability to exceed expectations.
Pee Wee, who got a relatively late start in the fight game—he didn’t lace up the gloves until the age of 19—spent much of his amateur career fighting against top-notch fighters, some of whom had picked up the sport early in their childhoods.
“He beat some of the top-ranked kids, guys who had been fighting a lot longer than he had, in fights that weren’t even supposed to be competitive” O’Leary said. “He didn’t have the best amateur record, but he always seemed to fight better against the top fighters.”
Since turning pro, Cruz has been—aside from that first-round knockdown—flawless, posting an 8-0 record with 5 knockouts. He has started to make a name for himself as a prospect in the lightweight division, with several big-time names in the sport, including Lou DiBella—who is promoting the Feb. 12 fight—taking notice of the rising star. His last two fights have gotten significant airplay on SNY and his newfound notoriety has even caught the eye of celebrities, including rapper/promoter 50-Cent, who was on hand to congratulate the pugilist after his Dec. 4 battle.
“It’s been a good experience getting noticed,” Cruz said. “Other boxers, they’re getting to know who I am because of what I can do, but I’m not getting over myself. I’m still staying humble and calm.”
As Cruz has moved up the ranks of the division, O’Leary said Pee Wee’s devotion to his training is unparalleled and starting to rub-off on some of the other fighters under his stewardship.
“He’s the kind of kid who never misses a day; he’s mad when we get those big snowstorms and he can’t go out and run,” O’Leary said. “All the young amateurs, they want to do what he’s doing.”
After taking some time off to heal his injured ankle, Cruz got into camp two weeks ago to prepare for his upcoming fight against Reyes, who trains at the same gym as Cruz’s previous opponent. Although O’Leary expects Reyes to follow a similar blueprint as Pee Wee’s last conquest—with a heavy emphasis on loading up on left-handed power shots—there is little doubt that the promising Westchester pugilist will be well prepared for the task ahead.
“Oh, I’m ready to go,” Cruz said. “I’m near weight and I’ve got 11 or 12 days to go. I’ve been preparing myself for a month and putting the time in.”
If Cruz can come away with the win, his trainer believes that the sky is the limit for his protégé and that Cruz has the talent—and the desire—to become a force in the division for years to come.
“He’s still got a hell of a lot to learn in the ring,” O’Leary said. “But, as far as his heart and his ability to soak things in goes, not a lot of kids have that.”