It's the early hours of a Wednesday morning at Chicago's premier Latin dance club. The salsa music swells, an announcer calls out commands, and a crowd of nearly 1,000 men and women scream and pound the floor with fists and feet.
Their eyes are on one man: Nicaragua-born Henry Francisco "Frankie" Cruz Jr., a bleached blond dressed in red, white and blue silks.
He's a skilled dancer.
But he's not twirling a partner to the intricate rhythm. He's avoiding a left hook to the body.
Every week at the Tropicana d'Cache, located on the near Northwest Side, Cruz, the 26-year-old "Tazmanian Devil," steps off the dance floor and into a boxing ring to defend his title as club champion.
Chicago was once a boxing mecca, but those days are only a memory. As promoters struggle to keep the sport alive, this localized, ethnic revival might be just what they're looking for.
"I equate it to the neighborhood matchups -- you know, North Side versus South Side. We need to have those types of matchups to bring boxing back to Chicago," said Bobby Hitz, promoter and former professional fighter.
Even Hitz, whose professional cards at local hotels can draw fans paying $25 to $50 a head, could not have dreamed that cultural loyalty would entice an equally large crowd to this neon-lit bar at 3 a.m. in the middle of the week.
Through seven months and almost 70 bouts of indeterminate length--sometimes three or four a night--the colorful Cruz has more than piqued the interest of the neighborhood, a predominantly Latino area on the East end of Logan Square and Humboldt Park.
George Hernandez, longtime trainer for the Chicago park District, said word of Cruz's Tropicana conquest is spreading throughout the city.
"I have fighters who will come in here and train for six, eight weeks just to get one shot at Frankie," Hernandez said.
Cruz, a six-time Florida Golden Gloves champion who was raised in Miami, came to Chicago to continue the club-fighting experiment he began at home. After Tropicana owner Ruben Pazmino, on vacation in Miami, saw Cruz mesmerize nightclub patrons, he decided to try the idea here. And he imported the talent.
"When I came from Miami to Chicago, they treated me like a star. They picked me up in a limousine," Cruz said. "I got lucky when I became the champion of the Tropicana d'Cache."
Although he's taking an unorthodox route, Cruz hopes the experience and fan base he has acquired at the club will propel him toward a career in professional boxing. But choosing that path poses a difficult question: Why leave a regular, $500-a-week gig for long, unpaid months of training and the uncertainty of pro fights?
Anwar Oshana, 24, an up-and-coming Chicago-based super-middleweight, said if he could do it over again, he would try the nightclub scene.
"Look at all the fame," he said. "We train our [butts] off in the gym and we don't get nearly the recognition--or the crowd--that this guy gets."
Cruz's former trainers say he possesses the fabled "heart" required to endure 12 rounds of professional boxing, but they also say he lacks the drive that gets a fighter out of bed to train every day before dawn.
Jimmy Navarro, trainer at Miami's Tropical Park Boxing Center, said Cruz is a cunning defensive fighter who needs more power behind his punches. At 170 pounds, he's slightly heavier than a middleweight, a "very tough class," Navarro said. "He can hit hard, but he tries to throw punches very fast. He doesn't have much behind them."
Citing his invincibility as a club fighter, Cruz said he just needs find the right trainer.
His younger brother, Juan "the Iguana" Cruz, who left Miami to headline the Tropicana as a kickboxer, has been in Frankie's corner since they were teenagers. Three years ago they were slated to fight each other in a Florida Golden Gloves final, but Juan backed out to give Frankie a shot at the title he said his elder brother deserved.
His loyalty has since run out. Disenchanted with what he calls the "dirty business" of boxing and with Chicago's cold shoulder, Juan has returned to Miami.
Juan Cruz said Frankie's only obstacle to becoming a professional is his past.
Married at 18, Cruz fathered two sets of twins. He has since divorced, and three of the children are alive today. Natalie, 4, and Bridget, 3, live with their mother in Miami, and Bridget's twin, Henry Jr., lives with Cruz's grandmother in Nicaragua.
Cruz lives above the nightclub rent-free to save money. He sends more than half his earnings to his 22-year-old ex-wife, who he said is unable to care for their little boy.
Navarro said his loyalty to his family could be what keeps Cruz from making it big.
"That's always been his problem--it's a lot easier to box because you love it than to box just for the money," Navarro said.
As a fighter, Cruz has been compared with Latino icon Roberto Duran, a former Panamanian street urchin who ruled the lightweight class, beat Sugar Ray Leonard for the welterweight crown and added titles in two other divisions. But Cruz's disposition is nothing like the legendary "Hands of Stone."
While training, Cruz shies away from the pounding music played in the club and listens instead to a romantic pop compilation he made when he lived with his family. Over the sound of cascading synthesizers, hands outstretched, he sings.
The lyrics speak of "falling apart" and "missing you," and they make him remember a little boy he wants to bring home from Nicaragua.
These simple melodies--not the swarm of young women, not the promise of big purses--help him face the challenge of turning professional while still supporting his family.
Sometimes the responsibility makes him so nervous he bangs his head against the door to relieve tension before a fight.
"I know I'm not the only one fighting in there," Cruz said. "I've got my three kids inside me, fighting with me."