Orlando Cruz on His Biggest Fight Yet

Coming out certainly changed him, but will it change the sport of boxing?



Above: Cruz defeats opponent Jorge Pazos in Kissimmee, Fla.

When Orlando Cruz stepped into the boxing ring to meet Jorge Pazos on a Friday night last October, he had everything to prove. “I had to win that fight,” says the fourth-ranked featherweight in the world, who had announced just two weeks earlier that he is “a proud gay man.”

Clad in purple and green satin trunks, Cruz showed a strong left and delivered a series of solid combinations. At one point he grabbed his opponent from behind and pulled him close. When the referee nudged them apart, Cruz shrugged, playing to the crowd with a sly smile. His fans roared in approval.

This wasn’t the usual posturing between contenders. Boxers make a play at dominance all the time, but with his not-so-subtle maneuver Cruz sent a crystal-clear message. “I wanted to show that I am a man fighting another man in the ring,” he says. “In boxing, there’s a lot of misconception that being gay means that I want to be a woman, and I wanted to show that it’s not the case.”

Cruz prevailed over Pazos by unanimous decision. But the notion that many people in the boxing world think all gay men want to be women suggests just how out of the mainstream the boxing world is.

It also says everything you need to know about how courageous it was for the young man from Puerto Rico to become the first professional boxer in the world to come out of the closet mid-career.

Cruz, now 31, started boxing when he was 7 years old. “I was taunted and bullied because I was little,” recalls Cruz, who topped out at 5 feet, 4 inches. “And because they thought I was gay. They tried to abuse me with words.” He says he was called “maricon” and “pato” — two Spanish-language equivalents of “faggot.”

In an ongoing attempt to defend himself, Cruz wound up in a lot of fights. School administrators called his parents, with the principal saying, “Your son is crazy,” Cruz recalls. “My mom and dad didn’t want me to fight on the street,” he says. So they enrolled him in boxing lessons. Cruz gained discipline as he became strong and fast, a fireplug of a fighter.

The taunting subsided, but every now and then it would creep up again, prompted by rumors that would swirl about Cruz at gyms where he trained. But the rising young boxer, who competed as a member of the Puerto Rican team in the 2000 Sydney Olympics before going pro, says he never felt much turmoil about who he is. He did have turmoil, though, over owning up to it in the boxing world.

At 18, Cruz realized he was gay. At 25, he entered into a serious relationship with a man who lived in New Jersey. He spent the next two years shuttling back and forth between Puerto Rico and Jersey City. Though it offered a convenient geographic shield from his publicly closeted life in Puerto Rico, the distance didn’t stop Cruz from coming out to his family and his team — the manager, trainer, and promoter so essential to a boxer’s life. After two years he got fed up with traveling and moved to Jersey City, then Hoboken, where he settled down with his boyfriend, continued his training, and studied to become a personal trainer. The two broke up last March, when Cruz was already on the path to coming out. Having been through therapy in New York, he also made friends who helped him decide that he should make a public statement.