Orlando Cruz's historic night
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Friday night, I was pulling for Orlando Cruz.
Not because I am a longtime fan of the boxer, or because I share his Puerto Rican heritage, or because I despise Jorge Pazos, the opponent he was facing.
I pulled for Cruz much in the same way some blacks pulled for Jackie Robinson in 1947, the way many women cheered after Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in 1973, or how some whites were glad Bird beat Magic in the 1984 NBA Finals.
I pulled for Orlando Cruz because, like him, I'm gay, and I didn't want to see the boxer who had just come out of the closet get his ass kicked in front of a live audience.
Not in his first fight since coming out.
Not with his mother in the crowd.
Not with so many questions yet to be answered.
We all know the story of the athlete who reveals his sexual orientation when he has retired. Not Cruz. This dude shared his bit of news a couple of weeks before the biggest fight of his career (he is the fourth-ranked WBO featherweight), as if scampering around in an 18-foot ring weren't enough pressure.
And, in doing so, he decided, albeit indirectly, to carry the weight of a movement on his narrow shoulders, if but for a little while. Because make no mistake, had Cruz lost Friday, every homophobe with a Twitter handle would have taken the opportunity to say "see, I told you so" in as many insulting ways as possible. Now, it's Cruz (19-2-1, 9 KOs) who gets to look ignorance in the face and say "I told you so," and the gay community of which he is a part gets to share in that victory.
In that validation.
"I am a man in every sense of the word," he told me. "I am a professional. I want to be treated with respect. Being gay has nothing to do with the kind of boxer I am."
And if you don't believe him, ask Pazos, who looked as if he had walked through a car wash -- face swollen, eyes slightly shut, cuts. Through a translator, the Mexican fighter praised Cruz for his courage and said that he tried his best but that the better boxer won. And at the end of the day, that is all anyone can ask for: to be allowed to be the best at what they do regardless of what they look like, or whom they love.
But just as racism and sexism tainted what we saw on the field and on the court for so many years, homophobia -- particularly in the big team sports -- continues to poison the sports nation well. Coaches -- from AAU to the pros -- using homophobic or misogynistic language to motivate their male players; fans directing anti-gay chants at opposing teams; players equating being gay with being weak. It's been great to see straight athletes such as Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo speak out against this behavior, but it's the Cruzes of the world, pro male athletes courageous enough to come out while playing, who eventually will change people's hearts and minds.
We often wonder how fans will react. Well, this crowd cheered its Puerto Rican son. There were flags waving in the stands, and each time a small contingent of Pazos fans tried to make its presence known by yelling "Mexico," the chants quickly were quieted by either Cruz's fans or one of Cruz's combinations to Pazos' face. If the Cruz fans had any ill feelings about their native son's sexuality, they left them at home.
We wonder how a male athlete will handle being out. Cruz was a showman, moving gracefully around the ring, connecting with jabs, frustrating his opponent with his speed, and playing to the crowd with shoulder wiggles and a constant smile that said "I got this." In a moment of serendipity, as the referee was trying to break up one of the tie-ups, Cruz ended up behind Pazos with his arms around him. The image, given the situation, was too much to ignore, so the crowd started laughing. Cruz, recognizing the joke, flashed a mischievous grin and shrugged his shoulders, letting us all know he knew what we were whooping about.
Can't get more comfortable in your own skin than that.
Which is why, in many ways, Cruz's story is a nonstory.
Gay people are out serving in the military, as well as in police and fire departments all around this country. If we can navigate life-and-death situations, surely we can handle awkward situations such as the one I described, much less crunch time.
The truth is, when we finally reach the day when any pro athlete can be comfortable being out, we'll look back at Cruz's story, what he did in this small town in Florida, as one for the ages.
An openly gay man climbing the ranks of boxing, one of our most vicious and violent sports, and next year he has a shot to be No. 1.
Root for the gay guy?
You damn right I did.
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