Openly gay boxer Orlando Cruz fights for world title, respect

Openly gay boxer Orlando Cruz fights for world title, respect
October 10, 2013, 12:15 pm
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Orlando Cruz will face Orlando Salido for the vacant WBO featherweight belt this Saturday in Las Vegas. (Mary Ann Owen/Top Rank)

Orlando Cruz will walk into the ring wearing Everlast trunks featuring the rainbow flag on Saturday. (EVERLAST)

I don’t care who I fight inside the ring because this is what I love to do—box.
Orlando Cruz


To survive in a merciless sport like professional boxing, a fighter must often rely on the condition of his fists, feet, mind, and heart.  Featherweight contender Orlando Cruz is no exception, but up until last year, his body was a prison.

With a crafty counterpunching style predicated on deliberately giving foes a target to hit, only to artfully dodge their assaults and strike them off-balance, Cruz has demonstrated his ability to pretend in the ring.

Outside the squared circle, the 126-pound southpaw displayed a similar skill set as he battled within himself.  Realizing he was gay after competing in the 2000 Olympics for his native Puerto Rico, Cruz eventually came out to his parents but refused to divulge his sexual orientation to everyone else.  The secret almost engulfed him internally.

“I was not happy with my life,” Cruz said. “I would feel a lot of pressure, and inside, I felt weighed down.  I cried at night hoping the pain would go away.”

The restless days are over.  Since announcing to the world in October of 2012 that he was “a proud gay man” amid much fanfare, a relieved Cruz has won his last two fights in his ascent to the top of the rankings.

On Saturday in Las Vegas, he hopes his historic run will culminate in his coronation as the first openly gay man to win a world title when he meets Orlando Salido for the vacant WBO featherweight belt on the Timothy Bradley-Juan Manuel Marquez undercard (HBO Pay-Per-View, 6 p.m. PT).

Before making his fateful decision—a step that no professional athlete in any of the major sports has dared to take—Cruz faced a litany of obstacles.

Back home, he feared that homophobia would stand as an impediment to his acceptance.  He remembered how a transvestite friend was brutally stabbed to death in the street after participating in a gay pride parade.  Even Cruz’s parents had mixed reactions to his coming out; while his mother was sympathetic, his father had a difficult time digesting the news and became distant.

In addition to the turmoil clouding his personal life, Cruz was concerned about his career as he left the amateur ranks for the pros.  Suspicions about his sexuality began to surface, and in a sport Cruz has described as “dominated by machos,” he was cognizant that some might not embrace the idea of a homosexual pugilist.

Speaking to Germany’s Spiegel Online, Cruz recalled taking verbal abuse from an unfriendly crowd in 2008, and was shaken one year later in a pivotal moment with his former promoter, Oscar De La Hoya.

“[Oscar] once asked me quite openly before a fight, ‘Orlando, tell me, are you going to tell people that you are gay?’ ” Cruz said.  “There were other people standing around us, too.  Boxers.  Managers.  I was shocked and said, ‘No, I'm a man.’ ”

Albert Einstein once said that a man should look for what is, and not for what he thinks should be.  After moving to New York and regularly meeting with a psychologist, Cruz concluded that in order for him to grow, he needed to stop hiding.  On Oct. 4, 2012, with the help of current promoter Tuto Zabala, Cruz went on Telemundo and told the world that he was, in fact, a man—a gay and proud one.

“I feel liberated.  I feel free,” said Cruz, who is scheduled to marry longtime boyfriend José Manuel in New York two months from now.  “Everything feels different, even when I fight.  I [came out] so I can also be a better boxer.  Now I have respect in the streets and the ring.”

The announcement not only revealed Cruz’s courage, but also yielded a worldwide outpour of support from the LGBT community and its allies.  Earlier this summer, he was inducted into the inaugural class of the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame, which included NBA center and Stanford alum Jason Collins, tennis legend Billie Jean King, and former A’s outfielder Glenn Burke.

[VIDEO: Out: The Glenn Burke Story]

Of course, as any trailblazer in pro sports knows full well, performance is what will win over the mainstream crowd.  San Leandro’s Nonito Donaire, who has recently joined the featherweight division, has publicly stated his desire to both face the Cruz-Salido winner and bring a fight back to the Bay Area.  With such a possible high-profile tilt hanging in the balance, the Puerto Rican must deliver.

Cruz (20-2-1, 10 KOs) is riding a four-bout winning streak, with three of those victories coming by stoppage.  However, he will need to depend on his brains more than brawn against the rugged Salido (39-12-2, 27 KOs).  The former champion from Mexico is coming off a lopsided loss to rising star Mikey Garcia, but Salido has not been knocked out in 13 years and will likely attempt to lure Cruz into a brawl.

“The pressure he will bring,” Cruz said when asked about the toughest challenge the iron-chinned Salido presents.  “I am not going to run.  When I need to fight, I am going to fight.  When I need to box, I am going to box.  I am going to be the smartest guy in the ring.”

Despite entering the bout as an underdog, Cruz has drawn inspiration from a variety of sources during training camp.  For one, he will walk into the ring wearing Everlast trunks featuring the rainbow flag, which was created in San Francisco in 1978 and is a nod to the LGBT movement.

Moreover, Cruz has dedicated the fight to former two-division world champion Emile Griffith, who passed away in July at age 75 and waited decades after his career was over to acknowledge he was bisexual.  Griffith was continuously haunted by his 1962 knockout of Benny Paret, who reportedly taunted him with a gay slur before the bout.  Griffith finished the grudge match with an unanswered blaze of power punches in the 12th round that resulted in Paret’s untimely death.

While Salido plays the role of foil on Saturday, it would be more apt to paint the relationship with Cruz as competitors rather than personal adversaries.  When pressed to comment on his rival’s choice to come out, the Mexican slugger had nothing but praise for his opponent.

“I admire him for what he’s done,” Salido told reporters. “Everybody chooses what they want to do, and I never had a problem with it.  At the end of the day, we’re just two human beings fighting for a world title.”

Considering the gauntlet that Cruz has endured over the past 13 years, the pioneering Puerto Rican couldn’t agree more.

“If they said, ‘Fight King Kong,’ I would fight the person no matter if it was going to be at 126 pounds or above,” Cruz said.  “I don’t care who I fight inside the ring because this is what I love to do—box.”