"Hey, that's Nikki!"
Driving through Stateline, it's hard to miss MontBleu's marquee.
Over the past few weeks the resort casino and spa has featured South Lake Tahoe's Nikki Cruz, among a couple of other local fighters.
Cruz, 17, is front center on the image promoting WFC 100 this Saturday, a combat event featuring mixed martial arts, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jujitsu matches.
"I've seen it and I'm tremendously grateful for it," Cruz told the Tribune Wednesday. "I'm not sure if it has hit me, but I really am grateful for my opportunities."
When Cruz walks to the ring into the MontBleu Showroom on Saturday she will be ready and doesn't feel like she's climbed the training mountain alone.
It will be her second appearance at the venue and fourth career fight.
"It's more of a 'we,'" she says citing kids, coaches, family, community and sponsors.
"I feel like we've all accomplished getting here to this point," Cruz said.
Cruz is one busy girl.
She was raised on the South Shore in Meyers shortly after birth and attended South Tahoe High School for three years before home-schooling this year, her senior year.
She wasted no time and graduated in January while at the same time taking general education classes at Lake Tahoe Community College.
Cruz turned to home schooling to make time for training multiple times a day whenever possible.
Finishing high school while starting college, training twice per day at Escobar's Training Grounds and also at Barton Performance by Altis, took its toll.
Cruz has gone through all sorts of issues trying to balance what works best, including difficulty sleeping.
"The schedule was really difficult and Barton thought I may have been overworking myself," Cruz said. "It took a lot of mental power to get through. Since I graduated it feels like a lot of pressure is off my chest. Everything is a challenge with athletes, but I think I've gotten a lot of the juggling under control and training the best I can."
Cruz said her parents had trouble at first dealing with their daughter fighting.
But now, when she gets in the ring, at a lean 120 pounds Saturday, cutting a good 10 pounds from her everyday weight of 130-135 pounds, they are the biggest supporters.
"In the beginning, it was hard to grasp for them watching their little girl get hit," Cruz said. "But they realize I'm getting the training I need and they've accepted it. Now, they love coming to my fights. I have a big support system. And it's all thanks to everyone supporting me, Escobar's, Altis and coming home to family and getting that boost of support is really nice."
Cruz was expecting a title fight Saturday, but that was scrapped because she's not old enough according to regulations in Nevada.
She'll be eligible for a title belt when she turns 18 in July.
She was pretty bummed but, "You've gotta roll with the punches right?" Cruz said. "But it doesn't really who my opponent is, I've gotta train and work just as hard," She will fight Harpreet Kaur who trains out of Sacramento.
Cruz never expected to be headlining fight events. She walked into the gym one day just to see what it was all about.
Now, she loves going to the gym and seeing all the people related that have become a second family.
Cruz hopes, like every competitive up-and-coming athlete, that she fights her way to the top.
But first she wants to finish college, somewhere coastal, away from snow, after her two years at LTCC.
In her corner will be Cory Escobar, owner of Escobar Training Grounds, and his top athlete Cameron Church, who just turned professional after romping through the amateur ranks.
"Nikki is an amazing student and athlete," Escobar said. "She is constantly trying her hardest and completely dedicated to training. She is a huge part of the Escobar family, we would do anything for her. She's young, talented and dedicated, everything you need to become a champion which one day she will be."
Cruz's journey through the ranks continues this weekend where she expects to put on a good show.
"It's a show of skill and talent," Cruz said, "and I hope to kill it out there."