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LADIES OF THE RINGS
LOCAL WOMEN JUGGLE THEIR BUSY FAMILY LIVES WITH A LOVE OF BOXING

Deb Kreps and Blanca Cruz are both busy moms with "Million Dollar Baby" dreams.

Kreps, a mother of two, is a 33-year-old nurse in Niagara Falls.

Cruz, 31, a recently separated mother of six, lives in Buffalo and works 10-hour production shifts at Niagara Ceramic.

Both manage to squeeze boxing into their busy lives.

"I've always known I've been tough and can handle myself," says Kreps, who works the night shift at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center and is known in the ring as the "Knockout Nurse."

Cruz says the sport gives her an adrenaline rush.

"When a person first plays basketball and loves it, they walk down the street bouncing a basketball. If I could walk around with a set of gloves around my neck all the time, I would. I could, but I don't think it would be a hot fashion statement."

The two tough women are linked by more than motherhood and their passion for boxing. They've squared off against each other in the ring -- Cruz won by decision New Year's Day during a match in Niagara Falls -- and both have successfully integrated boxing into a family structure where training for future in-ring glory is as much a part of the daily routine as taking out the trash.

It's not a struggle for them to make time for boxing. They have families who understand their passion for the sport and take pride in their success.

Take Kreps, a 5-foot-4-inch, 132-pounder who has won a New York State Golden Gloves Championship as well as two Empire State Games gold medals while amassing a 10-2 record. She has trained throughout her nearly four-year career at Casal's Boxing Club in Niagara Falls and can be found at the gym on most days about 5 p.m. with her son, Michael "Mikey" Jr., 12, and daughter, Mikiah, 8.

The children love boxing almost as much as they love their mother, which makes it easy for Kreps to handle her business at the gym. Mikey and Mikiah follow the same training regimen as Mom. It includes hitting the different punching bags, hitting the hand pads in the ring with trainer and club co-owner Ray Casal, calisthenics, shadow boxing and sparring.

"Once in a while, she'll work a double shift or the day shift, so it's an opportunity for me to spend more time with her," said Mikey, a fundamentally sound fighter who may join his mother in the competitive ranks in the near future.

"I'm glad the kids are active in it and involved, because it's such a big part of my life," said Kreps. "They see the rewards, the benefits to the workout. They're not just coming to the gym sweating. They can compete. It's important to try your best and be a part of something. As long as you try your hardest, that's all that matters."

Cruz trains with her 14-year-old son, David, but her other children take pleasure in watching their mom hold her own while sparring with the men in the Buffalo Police Athletic League Gym.

Besides taking pride in their mother's achievements, attending the 2- to 2 1/2 -hour workouts also gives the children a chance to spend time with her, since she works weekends when they have time off from school.

"We try to do other things," said the 5-foot-1-inch, 125-pound Cruz, who won the state Golden Gloves title last spring in the 130-pound division -- even though she only weighed 119 pounds.

When they're not spending time at the gym, they'll watch movies or play video games at home, dine out or visit a local bowling alley for some additional fun.

"It's been difficult because of the way Buffalo is with the (employment situation)," Cruz said. "Sometimes I have to switch jobs. Sometimes I work night shifts or day shift. Like I say, 'If there's a will, there's a way.' That's what I like to teach my children. What you want you have to go out and get it."

Looking to turn pro

Both women want to add another Golden Gloves title to their mantels before turning professional later this year.

Female professionals have a chance to earn a little more money than their male counterparts when breaking into prizefighting, because it's harder to match women than men.

Women can earn close to $1,000 by fighting in a four-round match, while males, unless they've had decorated amateur careers, usually earn about $700. Boxers also must pay for licensing and corner expenses out of their purses. If a boxer is scheduled to fight but has the match canceled through no fault of his or her own, it's the promoter's decision whether or not to pay for services that have not been rendered.

Of course, male or female, boxers take on the risk of injury whenever they step into the ring. Last Sunday, a Colorado teacher died from a head injury she sustained in a Golden Gloves competition. She is believed to be the first female amateur boxer to die in a sanctioned match, a USA Boxing spokeswoman told the Associated Press.

While the success of the movie "Million Dollar Baby" may prompt more women to give boxing a try, Cruz is the only female at her club in Buffalo.

Casal's Boxing Club, in the Falls, has a stable of fighting females who regularly spar with men, so they get accustomed to fighters with different styles and learn how to outbox opponents who may be physically stronger but have flaws that can be exposed in the ring.

Not all of the women at Casal's fight competitively. Some just attend training classes for fitness purposes. Others train so they can do something productive with their children outside the home.

Carla Termini doesn't have any children, but the 33-year-old Buffalo public school teacher used to be among the ladies at Casal's who didn't fight competitively. But after six years of training, the muscular 5-foot-7-inch, 135-pound blond changed things up in January by engaging in live sparring with a goal of competing in one match.

She did that last month, winning her debut in stoppage fashion on the Casal's club show, the St. Patty's Day Punch Out, in the Smokin' Joe's Family Fun Center in Niagara Falls. At the amateur level, a stoppage is a kinder, gentler way of referring to a knockout victory.

Political correctness aside, Termini dominated her opponent in a novice-level match, and her fan contingent of 40 family members and friends, including her parents, Toni and Dominic, and her boyfriend, Steve Seifert, hooted and hollered after the match was stopped.

"I wanted to set some goals for myself, . . . but I think I'm going to continue doing it," said Termini, who played softball in college at Geneseo State College and grew up in Williamsville playing that sport along with basketball and soccer. "I enjoyed it that much. I enjoy the sport, enjoy the camaraderie, I enjoy the friendships I've made doing it. And I love the training and the dedication you have to put into it. That's kind of how I live my life, so instead of just exercising just to exercise, I like to exercise for a goal."

Termini isn't the only woman boxer who lives an overall healthy lifestyle.

In the Kreps household, "American Idol" and "Fear Factor" may be must-see television shows, but the clan's idea of spending quality time together usually means getting out of their spacious Victorian-style family home in Niagara Falls. The family enjoys bicycling and hiking, and has been known to take early evening runs during the warm summer months.

Boxing is so embedded in the family's health-conscious world that even the family dog can't escape its clutches. The family's pet of two years is named Champ.

A chance for exercise

Deb Kreps has been boxing for almost four years. She picked up the sport when she graduated from Niagara County Community College's nursing school in July 2001. She originally did it just for the exercise but decided that wasn't enough. She spent a lot of time during her teen years in some pretty tough neighborhoods around downtown, and she got into a couple scrapes here and there.

"I never encourage her to fight," said her husband, Michael, who once competed in Tough Man competitions. "She just wanted to do it, so I'm going to back her up. I'm going to encourage her to do what she loves to do. I'm going to be there for her, because that's my wife and I love her."

While Deb and Michael obviously have aggressive sides, they've done their best to teach their children not to expose theirs in a negative way. They won't allow them to use their fighting skills outside the ring, nor let them engage in any youthful trash talking that could lead to any family feuds.

"We're not doing this to start trouble," Deb Kreps said. "Anybody wants to take us on, I tell him to tell them to come to the gym."

Cruz's interest in boxing started when she was 19, but she couldn't indulge in the pastime for many years because of motherhood. All of that changed five years ago when she started training with Hector Alejandro and Ricky Diazm, weighing in at 180 pounds after having children.

"We told her that with dedication and self-control, she'd be able to come down gradually," said Alejandro. "It took her approximately five to six months to come down to about 125 pounds (featherweight division)."

Said Cruz, "It took a lot of working out, a lot of running, rebuilding my metabolism. Once you start getting to the age of 30, your metabolism starts slowing down. Once I (adjusted), the weight started dropping."

Cruz may be separated after a long relationship with Renard Cruz, but the two have remained friends for the good of the children and so Blanca can pursue her boxing dreams, work and return to school next fall.

Cruz earned an associate's degree from Erie Community College when she was younger because she received home-front support from Renard. Blanca wants to return to ECC to earn a degree in Mechanical Engineering Technology.

The only thing Renard, 56, didn't like about Blanca's boxing career were the stares he'd receive from other men whenever they'd go out in public, the other men believing he gave Blanca the black eyes and facial bruises that are the battle scars of boxers.

"He's always been cool with it," she said. "He didn't like the black-eye issues, because people would always look at him and think he did that because he's older than me. We had a time when a security guard (at a department store) just looked at us. He turned around and said, 'She's a boxer.'

"I don't come in here worried," she said of the Buffalo Police Athletic League. "It's part of the sport. I'm in a man's sport, a man's gym."