03:05 - Source: CNN
Will he be boxing's first openly gay champion?

Story highlights

Cruz aims to become boxing's first openly gay world champion

Fights Flanagan for WBO lightweight title Saturday

Became boxing's first openly gay, active fighter in 2012

CNN  — 

The bright camera lights highlight his carefully styled beard, rugged features and defined cheekbones. Orlando Cruz looks every inch the archetypal tough, Latin American boxer.

Deeply embedded in two worlds – boxing and Puerto Rico – that are founded in machismo, Cruz has also become a gay icon to thousands.

On Saturday, Cruz has the chance to create history – should he beat Britain’s Terry Flanagan for the WBO lightweight title, the 35-year-old will become the first ever openly gay world champion.

Boxing, like many other sports, is yet to fully open its arms to the idea of a gay athlete, something Cruz has unsurprisingly experienced first-hand.

“I don’t care if they say, ‘Orlando Cruz is gay. Faggot.’ I don’t care,” he defiantly tells CNN. “I look at my family when I walk in the ring. I look at my mum, sister, I look at my brother.

“I don’t care, you know, I’m just focused on my family.”

With so few openly gay, active professional athletes across all sports, Cruz is aware what the result of the fight will mean to those who look up to him.

“The support of the gay community, in Puerto Rico, New York and different nationalities, is very important,” he says.

“I’m happy for all the support, it’s brilliant. I want to win the title for the LGBT community and for my island. I don’t feel any pressure; I’m just concentrated for my big fight.”

Cruz slumps against the ropes after a knockout punch from Salido.

Cruz, however, has been here before. In 2013, his chance to become the first openly gay boxing champion came and went in brutal fashion.

Despite suffering a shuddering seventh-round knockout at the hands of favored Mexican fighter Orlando Salido, Cruz vehemently insists this time will be different.

“Salido was the best teacher,” Cruz says philosophically. “Salido is a great boxer and a great champion. I respect him and I respect his team, but right now Orlando is different to a couple of years ago.

“Orlando Cruz is angrier, more dedicated, more focused on the plan and is going to be victorious.”

Cruz came out to his family and a psychologist long before publicly announcing he was gay in 2012.

Sat in the modest surroundings of an inner-city Cardiff gym – his pre-fight training base – Cruz openly admits to the fear he felt at the thought of opening up to the masses.

“The first person I told was my best friend – that’s my mum,” Cruz recalls. “She showed me love, respect, she told me it was my decision and she supported it.

“She said to me, ‘you’re my son, I don’t care, I love you.’ And that is very important to me.

“It was good (coming out), but sometimes I was scared. Half of Puerto Rico did not like my decision but I only care about my team and my family. I don’t care that other people talk about me, saying, ‘Orlando Cruz is gay, Orlando is bad or bulls***.

“My family loves me and I am happy.”

For many, boxing is sport’s ultimate show of masculinity and Cruz still regularly finds himself fighting the misconception that a man can’t be both gay and masculine.

Rather than letting the ignorant abuse affect him mentally, Cruz sees his sexuality as an opportunity to educate those who remain close-minded.

“Sometimes one, two or three people say, ‘you’re gay, and you’re a boxer… wow.’

“Before, when I heard people talking like that, it made me sad. But right now, I teach them. I say, ‘I am gay, but I am a man like you.’ It’s an education.

“I am gay and I am the first openly gay boxer, but this has been my career for years. This is my life and I separate my orientation.

“People say, ‘Orlando is gay but this is boxing, boxing is macho.’ I have to tell them, ‘Orlando Cruz is gay, but he’s a man… not a girl.’”

Cruz’s idol, late US boxer Emile Griffith, came out as bisexual in 2005 but suffered the ignominy of vicious rumors about his sexuality throughout his career.

In 1962, in the lead up to his title bout against Benny Paret, the Cuban boxer taunted Griffith using the word “maricon,” Spanish slang for faggot.

When the fight arrived, Griffith unloaded on Paret with a vengeance, landing 27 unanswered punches in succession. Paret died from his injuries in hospital 10 days later.

Read: Boxer Mike Towell dies after bout

“Emile Griffith never spoke publicly or told an interview he was gay,” Cruz says. “It was only speculative.

“I’m very sad because I wanted to meet him before he died, but my fight is dedicated to Emile.”

At five feet four inches and weighing little over 60kgs (132lbs), Cruz doesn’t cut an intimidating figure.

However, once his hands have been wrapped and his gloves pulled on, the blurring speed of his shadow punches is frightening to witness.

Cruz beat Pazos to retain his WBO Latino Featherweight title.

Cruz can still vividly remember the feeling of stepping into the ring for the first time as an openly gay man, retaining his WBO Latino Featherweight title against Mexican Jorge Pazos.

“Yes (I remember). Always. Always in the ring, always,” he repeats, emphasizing the emotion of the moment. “My mentality was focused on my family; I didn’t care about other people talking badly about me.

“I care that my family and team support me, not when people talk about my sexual orientation. Right now, I feel free and I’m very happy.”

Such is Cruz’s influence in the gay community and wider sporting world, Jason Collins – the first openly gay active basketball player – contacted him to say he’s an inspiration for “coming out of the closet.”

Cruz’s husband, Jose Manuel – the boxer clasps his hands together, visibly proud, at the mention of his name – will be in his corner Saturday.

With gay marriage illegal in Puerto Rico – the Caribbean island where the couple resides, albeit at opposite sides of the country – and many US states, they had some thinking to do.

The pair tied the knot three years ago – their anniversary was a week before this interview, Cruz says – eventually settling on New York’s Central Park as their wedding location.

Heading into this weekend, Cruz has won four fights in a row and dedicated his knockout victory over Alejandro Valdez earlier this year to the victims of the Orlando Pulse massacre – Cruz’s best friend was one of the 49 victims.

Flanagan, his opponent on Saturday, is open in his admiration of Cruz’s courage to come out to the public.

Read: Boxer retires after brutal bout put him in a coma

The Englishman’s sister, a professional footballer in the Women’s Super League, is also openly gay.

“To come out in such a sport like boxing which is a macho combat sport, you have to admire it,” Flanagan told ESPN. “It takes bravery and courage. It doesn’t affect me at all as my sister Chelsea is openly gay.

“I remember well when she came out and what it was like. She’s had it hard, she came out in her teens and she’s a better person for it now.

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“There are more and more people coming out so people don’t look at it as a bad thing and it’s good for boxing what Orlando has done.”

While Flanagan’s views are refreshing – Cruz also says he has received nothing but respect from opponents – there are still high-profile figures in boxing who are openly homophobic.

Former heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury has regularly shown disdain towards homosexuals, while Manny Pacquiao earlier this year called couples in same-sex relationships “worse than animals.”

Cruz published a video online condemning Pacquiao’s comments, urging him to apologize and also offering the Filipino the opportunity of a sparring session.

“When Pacquiao spoke I was very angry,” Cruz says, his jovial demeanor changing immediately. “He didn’t respect the LGBT community.

“The Philippines have gay people, so why was he talking badly about the LGBT community? I posted a video on YouTube, asking him why.

“Two and a half weeks later, Manny responded. He said he was sorry and that he respects me and the gay community a lot. So it’s okay.”

Read: Tyson Fury stripped of heavyweight title less than two weeks after winning it

It seems Cruz, by now, is accustomed to turning the other cheek. Everything he has been through has led to this moment.

His struggle to make it to the top of his sport; the fight to be accepted as a gay man in the world of boxing and his home nation; the punishing world title defeat to Salido.

“I am focused on my dream of winning the title,” Cruz says with a stern conviction, despite the sense that at the age of 35 this might be his last chance. “My country needs a champion.

“So Orlando Cruz, November 26, is the new champion of the world.”