Before skill, before stamina, before training, boxing is about courage. Nothing can happen in the ring until two men are willing to step in with each other, each knowing that the other wants to pummel him into submission and has trained to do just that. To do that takes enormous guts. Surely, the bravest man in boxing, today, is Orlando Cruz. The 32-year old featherweight with a 20-3-1 record has faced the music and done what no other active fighter in the history of the sport has done: A year ago, he publicly admitted that he is gay.
As though the machismo-driven world of the ring weren’t intimidating enough for a young gay athlete, Cruz is from the very Catholic land of Puerto Rico, which he represented in the 2000 Sydney Olympics alongside Ivan Calderon and Miguel Cotto. His 4-year amateur record at international tournaments garnered seven gold medals, one silver, and two bronze, before he went pro in December, 2000. Nine years would pass before he lost his first professional bout.
Through all his staggering success as a boxer (he first entered the ring at age seven!), Cruz felt held back by his secret. Though he has stated he wants to inspire gay kids who have been bullied and help them to realize that there is nothing they can’t achieve, he also admits that part of his reason for coming out was that it will make him a better boxer. The energy he once spent desperately trying to keep his secret is energy that he can now put into his training.
Happily, the old traditions of professional sports seem to be catching up to the modern age. Cruz’s announcement was greeted with an overwhelming wave of support and respect from the vast majority of the boxing world and his home community of San Juan. What little bigotry he encountered was of the sort that tended to die down once the initial shock wore off. Cruz quickly shook off the personal spotlight and got back to boxing, facing Orlando Salido for the world championship. In the ring, his personal life is utterly incidental. Pointing out that he is currently single and not wanting to focus on romance, Cruz said, “The title belt is my new boyfriend.” Though he lost that title bout to Salido by TKO, he was hailed as a hero. He has since been included among the inaugural inductees in the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame.