Orlando Cruz Fights to Become Boxing’s First Openly Gay Champion
When the boxer Orlando Cruz issued a press release on October 3, 2012, announcing to the world that he is gay, a strange thing happened: nothing. In a sport that still brims with machismo, nobody in Cruz’s circle—not his manager, not his trainer, not his sparring partners—treated him any differently, he said recently, over the phone from Florida, where he’s training for his next fight. Cruz, nicknamed El Fenómeno, is the World Boxing Organization’s No. 2-ranked junior lightweight. He is also boxing’s first openly gay professional fighter, and he is eager to become its first openly gay world champion. He’ll get his second shot on Saturday, when he moves up in weight to fight Terry Flanagan for the W.B.O. world lightweight title. (He fought Orlando Salido for the organization’s vacant world featherweight title in October, 2013, but was knocked out in the seventh round.)
Earlier this year, at the L.G.B.T. Ricans Conference at Hunter College, Cruz broke down in tears when discussing how his father had turned his back on him. He had come out to his parents when he was nineteen, he told us on the phone, and his mother was immediately supportive. “She cried, but she said, ‘You’re my son, I accept it, I love you more now.’ But my father, he was disgusted. He acted like a typical father. He wasn’t talking to me for a year. No conversation, nothing.” Things are different these days. “My father said he regretted it and said he loved me. It was unbelievable.” He now describes his father as his best friend. Both of his parents attended their son’s wedding to his longtime partner, José Manuel Colón, an intimate gathering that took place in 2013, in Central Park.
Pedro Julio Serrano, a well-known gay activist who, like Cruz, is from Puerto Rico, helped facilitate Cruz’s announcement in 2012. In addition to the press release, they put out a message on social media: “I want to try to be the best role model I can be for kids who might look into boxing as a sport and a professional career. I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican. I have always been and always will be a proud gay man.” Cruz also sat for an interview on the Spanish-language news program “Al Rojo Vivo.”
Serrano, speaking from his office in San Juan, said that he saw Cruz’s coming out as helping to dispel two myths: that Latinos are homophobic, and that the ultra-macho sport of boxing has no place for a gay fighter. Coming out has also made Cruz stronger, Serrano told us—an assessment echoed by Cruz’s trainer, Juan DeLeon, who says that Cruz is now a calmer, more controlled fighter. “I see a different Orlando now,” he told reporters. “He’s so happy.” Cruz has come a long way emotionally since he was a kid, when he routinely faced bullies in school and in the street. “Those bullies don’t have any power over him anymore,” Serrano said. “I think he’s more sure of himself, more secure in who he is. Now he’s ready for the world title.”
In the four years since the press conference, Cruz has won seven of nine fights. In July, he dedicated his bout with Alejandro Valdez to those murdered at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. Almost half of the victims were Puerto Rican, and Cruz himself lost four friends that night. At the weigh-in, Cruz stood proudly in a pair of rainbow-striped briefs as the bell tolled forty-nine times, once for each victim killed in the massacre. He knocked out Valdez in seven rounds.
Cruz said that he was aware, before he came out, of the history that he would be fighting. He knew the story of Emile Griffith, the world welterweight and middleweight champion who kept his sexuality from the press, only to unburden himself at the age of sixty-seven, when he revealed that he was bisexual. Griffith is probably best known for his 1962 fight against the Cuban welterweight Benny Paret: after enduring anti-gay slurs from Paret at the weigh-in before the fight, he unleashed his fury in the ring, knocking Paret unconscious. Paret died ten days later. The tragedy haunted Griffith for the rest of his life. “I kill a man, and most people forgive me,” he told his friend Ron Ross. “However, I love a man, and many say this makes me an evil person.”
At thirty-five years old, Cruz knows that the Flanagan fight could be his last shot at becoming a world champion. When he steps into the ring at Motorpoint Arena, in Cardiff, Wales, he expects to see symbols of gay pride, which fans have begun waving at his fights, to cheer him on. “I see the rainbow flag,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion, “and it’s very exciting and beautiful.”