NEW YORK -- Perhaps the most striking thing, for me, about boxer Orlando Cruz's immensely courageous decision last October to tell the world that he is gay was the relatively mellow response to the news.
Sure, we in the media covered it, analyzed it, and some sensationalized it. But by and large, the Cruz message to the masses was met with acceptance.
"I've been fighting for more than 24 years and as I continue my ascendant career, I want to be true to myself," he said on Oct. 4, 2012. "I have always been and always will be a proud gay man."
I was left feeling a sense of satisfaction in our populace, or the majority of it, anyway, as the Cruz disclosure played out without hysteria or recrimination. Sure, you had the lone knucklehead taking to Twitter talking about what an abomination it is for one man to kiss another, or what have you, but I took solace in the notion that those types of judgmental broadsides came from people older than the 32-year-old Cruz. The kids today, it feels like, are more likely to see a person for who they are without factoring in his or her sexual orientation. Bravo, America.
But the fact that Cruz, a Puerto Rico resident, is the first openly gay boxer is still newsworthy. It is newsworthy if for no other reason that the 20-2-1 fighter, who meets leather-tough vet Orlando Salido on Oct. 12 in Las Vegas, is a role model to other gay males who still fear emerging from the closet. I chatted with Cruz before a Top Rank-sponsored workout at the Mendez Gym in midtown Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, and asked him about how he's handling his status as an out presence in the supposedly conservative, old-school sport of pugilism.
I first asked Cruz how he will defeat Salido, the former featherweight champ with a 39-12-2 mark, because after all, it won't matter to the Mexican Salido that Cruz is gay as they vie for the WBO featherweight title. "I will win because of my experience, I am very, very hungry," he said. "My main edge is I am very intelligent in the ring."
He told the world that he is a "proud gay man" almost a year ago, and said that today he is comfortable. He was worried how Puerto Rico would treat him, how the boxing world would treat him. But, he said, today he is content that the burden of his secret is lifted. "I am yes, a role model, and I want to be for the kids, and other athletes," he said.
Cruz lost a TKO5 and a KO3 back to back in 2009 and 2010, to Cornelius Lock and Daniel Ponce De Leon; he explained that was because he felt so much anxiety about his sexuality. "The people of Puerto Rico, the Latin people, support me one hundred percent [now]," he said.
Cruz, who lived in New Jersey and moved back to P.R. a year ago, said he will address a wedding date with his fiancee -- to whom he proposed on Facebook five weeks ago -- after the Salido bout. He also told me that he will likely make New York his home base in 2014.
I firmly believe that our society will continue to make strides in acceptance, and if Cruz keeps winning, and maybe snags this world crown and defends it a few times, within a year or two, the story I write on Cruz won't even mention that he is gay.
That, my friends, will be further progress.