By Thomas Gerbasi
A few years back, Orlando Cruz had enough of boxing. A member of the same 2000 Puerto Rican Olympic boxing team that produced world champions Miguel Cotto and Ivan Calderon, Cruz was expected to become the third member to pick up a title, but it just wasn’t panning out that way, with back-to-back losses to Cornelius Lock and Daniel Ponce De Leon leaving him in limbo a decade into his pro career.
“I had no more interest for fighting,” said Cruz. “Thankfully for my manager, Juan De Leon, and his brother, (former world cruiserweight champion) Carlos De Leon, helped me. We sat down and talked and he said you need to focus more and be disciplined, and right now, I’m different. I’m hungry for the glory and the victory, and to get the belt and be champion.”
Winner of four consecutive bouts since a nearly 20-month layoff following the loss to Ponce De Leon, the 32-year-old’s life today bears scant resemblance to what it looked like in 2010, and not just because he will be challenging Orlando Salido for the vacant WBO featherweight title on the Tim Bradley-Juan Manuel Marquez Pay-Per-View undercard this Saturday in Las Vegas.
Last October, Cruz revealed he was gay, in the process becoming boxing’s first openly gay fighter. Since then, the Yabucoa native went from relative obscurity to the front pages, rightfully hailed for his courage in making his announcement and becoming a role model for those finding themselves in similar situations.
“Everyone, in Puerto Rico, and the Latin people around the world in different countries, they’ve given me so much support for my decision,” he said. “They wish me good luck and congratulate me, so it’s good, and I’m happy. My family is happy, my team is happy, my team supports me and respects me, and everything is good.”
The news drew praise from the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Ricky Martin, Jason Collins, and Robbie Rogers, and a year later, the retelling of Cruz’ story has not died down in the least. But for all the talk about his groundbreaking choice, the fighter’s real focus this week is where it should be, on the veteran Salido and the possibility of putting a world title belt around his waist.
“I feel good,” he said. “I had hard training for four months, three times a day, and it’s all for this big opportunity. But I’m not nervous, I’m excited. HBO, Pay-Per-View, undercard of Marquez-Bradley. It’s a big show and I’m ready to get into the ring and do it.”
A skilled counterpuncher, Cruz has showed flashes of brilliance over the course of his career, but detractors will always point back to the knockout losses to Lock and De Leon, the latter defeat coming courtesy of a body shot. That’s not the mark you want to have on your record when you’re going in against someone like Salido, a rugged warrior willing to take three to give one, as long as that one either knocks you out or plays a part in wearing you out.
Undergoing a late career resurgence that few expected to see, Salido’s two defining wins came against one of Cruz’ fellow Puerto Ricans, Juan Manuel Lopez. Cruz knows what happened in those two fights, stoppage losses by JuanMa, but he makes it clear that he is his own fighter, not Lopez, and not recent Salido conqueror Mikey Garcia.
“JuanMa is not the same as me,” said Cruz. “Mikey Garcia is not the same as me. Orlando Cruz is different. I respect JuanMa Lopez, but he’s slow, and he’s a straightforward fighter. The same with Orlando Salido, he’s straightforward.”
In other words, Cruz expects to use his speed to play matador to Salido’s bull. But before it’s over, he also expects to give fans a fight to remember.
“This is a typical Mexico vs. Puerto Rico fight. It will be a war, but I will use my intelligence and my mind to win.”
If he pulls it off, Cruz will make history again as the first openly gay fighter to win a world championship. From there, it will be more interviews, more photo and video shoots, and more opportunities to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people he doesn’t even know. There will even be a fall wedding to his longtime boyfriend. But for now, all that matters is Saturday night.
“I respect Orlando Salido and his team, but right now, I’m very focused and hungry for the world championship,” he said. “It’s my moment.”