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.
Above: Cruz defeats opponent Jorge Pazos in Kissimmee, Fla.
One of those advisers is Pedro Julio Serrano, communications manager for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, who helped him put a plan in place. Though Cruz's English is serviceable, he's insecure about it, so Serrano acted as translator during a phone conversation with The Advocate.
Only once during the interview does Cruz speak in English. "No comment," he says, laughing, when asked about his current dating life. Clearly, the boxer values his privacy, but he's also reveling in this moment. Since coming out, he has been "overwhelmed by the support." Ricky Martin and Miguel Cotto, one of Cruz's Olympics teammates, publicly congratulated him. The crowd at the Pazos bout in Kissimmee, Fla., was, according to reports, filled with Cruz fans waving Puerto Rican flags. The Spanish-language media has showered him with attention, including an on-air interview with Telemundo.
Cruz disputes the popularly held assumption that Puerto Rican culture is homophobic. "It's a myth," he says. "I've had overwhelming support from the Puerto Rican people. We're very proud people, and they have been so accepting of me." Although same-sex marriage has not yet been approved in Puerto Rico, he says attitudes are changing rapidly. He hopes to be a catalyst for continuing change.
So far, the overwhelming support has been limited primarily to boxing sites and Spanish-language media. The New York Times, for instance, mentioned Cruz's sexuality only in passing. A headline of a news brief about his winning the match against Pazos, "Gay Fighter Wins Unanimous Decision," is the only mention so far.
"Sports media [are] driven by stardom," explains Cyd Zeigler, cofounder of OutSports.com. "Orlando Cruz is a very, very small name in a fringe weight class in what has become a fringe sport." Zeigler says Cruz's story has actually gotten more attention than he expected.
Dan Klores, a filmmaker and media expert, attributes this to the media's "conscious decision" to ignore the story. "It's because he's not in a mainstream sport, because he's Latino, not an Anglo, and he comes from a lower socioeconomic group."
Boxing has a long history as a sport of the underclass and the immigrant. It's also one of the most brutal sports there is. One man is paid to practically murder another. With no helmet, no uniform, and no teammates to come to his aid, the boxer stands alone in the ring.
"He is a naked man," says Klores, not quite metaphorically. "He's in the ring by himself, dressed in mere shorts." Klores directed the 2005 documentary Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, about a pro boxer who beat his opponent so badly in the ring that the man, Benny Paret, died of those injuries. The backstory: Paret had taunted Griffith during the weigh-in, calling him a "maricon." In the documentary Griffith vaguely acknowledges that he is gay (later, he publicly noted he had relationships with both men and women).
Even today it would be easy to dismiss the boxing world as homophobic. But, as Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com and a longtime media adviser to celebrities who have come out of the closet, explains, "Many of them are not in the cultural discussion. They're training, they're watching ESPN. How to act sensitively around people who are gay is the last thing on their minds."
Instead, boxing is about easy, black-and-white archetypes of good and bad, friend and foe. Coming out complicates things, bringing elements of gray into the mix. If boxing is about proving your manhood, coming out confuses all the motivations. And it can give your opponent more motivation to pummel you, which makes Cruz's resolution to be the first openly gay boxer that much more admirable.
This would be a whole different story if Cruz were in the NFL. His coming-out would make front-page headlines.
Homophobia has long plagued the sports world, though there are many signs that change is afoot. Every year, more athletes come out of the closet and wear their identities proudly -- gymnasts, wrestlers, WNBA players. But no active player in the NFL, NHL, NBA, or Major League Baseball has yet come out. Most of them take the relatively easier way out, making an announcement after they've retired from the sport, as former NFL defensive back Wade Davis did last year.
"It's two steps forward, one step back," Zeigler says of the arc of athletes coming out. "Orlando comes out, and then Cleveland Browns linebacker Tank Carder calls a Twitter follower a faggot."
Back in the one-step-forward category: Last year straight athletes including Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo voiced their support for marriage equality.
Even Manny Pacquiao, arguably the most successful and best-known fighter in the world (he has won 10 world championships) had to apologize earlier this year for comments he made that were said to be antigay, but he reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Boxing seems like the last sport in which someone would be coming out. It's also never taken off with a gay audience. But with Cruz in the ring there's the potential for a surge in gay viewership. If Cruz's bout with Pazos had aired on pay-per-view -- and if it had been promoted heavily in the LGBT media -- it might have attracted a significant audience rooting for the gay guy to pummel the straight guy. But that's a lot of "ifs."
"If I was a promoter I'd make him a hero," declares Klores. "And all of a sudden you'd have thousands of gay men coming to prize fights.
Cruz says he hasn't received any offers from other promoters. "But my whole team supports me, and I'm going to continue boxing for all audiences," he says. That said, he'd be thrilled if the gay fans started following him: "I will do my best to not disappoint the gay audience."
Cruz figures he only has two or three more solid years in the ring. "I've been fighting for a long time," he says.
When he retires he intends to "give back": teach kids boxing, manage other athletes. With Serrano's help, he plans to visit schools and teach students about bullying, be a role model for young people -- not just those considering boxing.
"I want to help them achieve what they want to achieve, be who they are," he says.
But these next two years are crucial for his career, which has been on the rise. Right now, he's in his prime, ranked the number 4 featherweight by the World Boxing Organization. In fact, 2013 is his chance to become a world champion. "That is my dream," he says. The momentum he has from the Pazos fight makes his ascension seem likely.
When Cruz climbed into the ring that night, he was empowered by his coming-out. He was primed. He knew that if he didn't win, there would be hell to pay. "I would have been taunted and harassed," he says. "I knew I had to win. I felt the pressure."
And he met it head on. Cruz danced around Pazos with a smile on his face. He was fighting for so much more than himself. He was fighting for his dignity, and for that of all the boys and men afraid of owning who they are.
In sports, there may be no substitute for winning, but whether the LGBT world realizes it yet or not, Cruz is already a champion.