LAS VEGAS — Wearing dark shades, a black tie and a gray suit, featherweight contender Orlando Cruz breathed a heavy sigh and said, “Wow,” after stepping up to the podium during a press conference at the Encore Theatre at the Wynn Hotel on Thursday.
One might almost think that the 32-year-old Puerto Rican had been wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And maybe he has.
For since declaring himself to be “a proud gay man” last October, the 32-year-old Puerto Rican who represented his country in the 2000 Olympics has been at the forefront of athletics and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGT) community’s social movement.
Football’s Robbie Rogers and basketball’s Jason Collins have also admitted they are gay, but Cruz (20-2-1, 10 knockouts) is believed to be the first boxer to do so. He announced his sexual orientation prior to his unanimous decision over Jorge Pazos last October.
“Wow. Today? Wow. I’m going to make history,” said Cruz, who will wear a rainbow-colored uniform in support of
the LBGT into Saturday night’s bout with Mexican veteran Orlando Salido for the WBO’s vacant belt at Thomas & Mack Center. The title bout is part of the Tim Bradley-Juan Manuel Marquez card on HBO Pay Per View.
“I am very happy. I’m excited. Six months of training. Hard training, three times a day with my team. I’m very ready. I respect Salido. But this is my time and my moment. So thank you everyone. Saturday, I am going to be the new world champion featherweight.”
Saturday’s card will also feature Ukrainian Vasyl Lomachenko, a winner of his second Olympic gold medal at the 2012 Games in London, in a 10-round professional debut against hard-hitting Mexican Jose Luis Ramirez.
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum marveled at the changes represented by the situation compared to March of 1966, when Muhammad Ali fought George Chuvalo in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The fight happened after Ali had become a Muslim follower of the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay.
“When we did Muhammad Ali and George Chuvalo in Toronto, the Ontario Athletic Commission wouldn’t allow us to put Muhammad Ali on the poster. We had to use Cassius Clay. That’s just to show how the world has evolved. When I first started in boxing in the 1960s and for some time later, Vasyl Lomanchenko couldn’t be here. He couldn’t have gotten an exit visa from the Soviet Union when his country, Ukraine, was then a part of the Soviet Union,” said Arum.
“And then, in the title fight, where we have a young man, who has openly come out and said what his sexual orientation was, if I had put on a fight with him for a world title then, there would be a thousand protesters outside protesting the match and saying that people should boycott it because it involved a boxer with a different sexual orientation. So the world has changed, and it’s changed for the better. And because it’s changed for the better, I think that we can all take pride in what’s happening now, and we can all enjoy the fruits of those changes.”
Arum said that Cruz is scheduled to appear on Thursday night’s edition of ABC’s World News Tonight, as well as on Friday’s Good Morning America and ABC’s Nightline.
According to The Desert Sun Newspaper, which covers Bradley, Cruz has also gained the attention of former tennis star, Billie Jean King, who is gay.
“Boxing is such a macho sport and for Orlando Cruz to come out and still be competing, is a major step forward for the LGBT community and for society in general,” said King, in a story written by The Desert Sun’s Leighton Ginn. “Athletes like Orlando are so visible. Anytime a gay athlete allows us to enter a new arena it gives us a chance to educate one more person and step over one more hurdle.”
But Cruz has apparently angered some Puerto Ricans with the the wardrobe he intends to wear into the ring for Saturday night’s bout with Salido.
Comprised of a sleeveless shirt and matching trunks, the outfit is modeled after the Puerto Rican flag’s red, white and blue stripes, but with the rainbow addition of separating green, yellow and orange patterns on the back meant to represent Cruz’s support of the LBGT.
Supplied by Everlast, a photo of the outfit was posted on the Spanish Face Book website of Top Rank, where it was the targeted by some disparaging comments from fans who believe that Cruz defaced the Puerto Rican flag.
Cruz defended his decision on Wednesday during a telephone interview with Carlos Narvaez of the Puerto Rican newspaper El Vocero in the press room of The Wynn Hotel.
“I respect the Puerto Rican flag. There were no bad intentions in the design of the trunks. I feel bad about the situation and I don’t deny my flag,” said Cruz. “I will always hold my flag high. I apologize to all the fans of Puerto Rico. It was not my intention to cause an uproar. I will be with Puerto Rico and my flag all the way to my death.”
Cruz still plans to wear the uniform in part to honor of the late Emile Griffith, a former welterweight and middleweight champion who died in July and whose own sexuality had come to represent a major part of his legacy.
“It’s my style. I like it. I love Puerto Rico, and I respect the flag. But that’s my style, the rainbow colors representing the LBGT. That’s representing my Puerto Rican support, my community support, and I’m very happy,” said Cruz, who will also wear pink gloves in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“Emile Griffith is very important to my history, so I’m dedicating the fight to that former world champion. I believe that I have most people’s support, especially many of the people in Puerto Rico, my Latin people. It’s good. It’s great. This is my big opportunity to win the title. This is my moment to make history. I’m expecting a victory on Saturday.”
“I don’t see anything wrong with it. I support Orlandito and all of what he’s doing with it. I think that it’s great,” said Penagaricano. “I think that his supporting both the Puerto Rican flag and the flag of his community is great. He’s a great person and a great guy, and I’m here, among other things, to support him.”
Penagaricano said that he expects similar reaction to his own from Cotto, who is scheduled to arrive in Las Vegas on Thursday to meet with Top Rank officials to discuss his future in the wake of last weekend’s third-round knockout of junior middleweight rival Delvin Rodriguez.
“I think that Miguel will feel the same, because they’re friends,” said Penagaricano. “They trained together on the Olympic team that went to the 2000 Olympic games in Australia. They’re very good friends.”
Based in Puerto Rico, WBO President Paco Valcarcel echoed Penagaricano’s sentiment.
“Let me tell you, I’m a lawyer. That’s freedom of speech. I can be against that, and I can be against that, or I can support that. I can have my own opinion, but I have to respect that. I have to respect his freedom of speech. My opinion is ‘who cares?’ But I’m not the issue, now. Orlando told me something. He said, ‘Paco, I’m going to fight with my fists,'” said Valcarcel.
“He said, ‘I won’t fight with my sexual orientation.’ Orlando is a tough cookie. I’ve known him since he was an amateur. He was, with Cotto, one of the best of that group, and he didn’t have the opportunity and made some mistakes, but he can fight. He can fight and he’s smart in the ring. He’s ready to fight 20 rounds. If he can deal with the pressure, he’s got a chance.”
HBO boxing commentator Jim Lampley called Cruz “a hero of mine” during an interview with RingTV.com while speaking about Griffiith. Lampley’s support for Cruz surfaced in the wake of the boxer’s having announced his engagement to his partner, Jose Manuel.
Lampley revealed that his older half-brother, Fred Trickey, “came out of the closet at the age of 14 in 1959.” Trickey, whom Lampley called “one of the bravest people I’ve ever met” died four years ago from an HIV-related illness at age 65.
“Cruz’s social life is a separate thing. I don’t really think about his sexuality. This will just be two human beings fighting for a world title. I don’t think about the rest,” said Salido, who embraced Cruz follwing their stare down following the press conference.
“That [hug] was just a form of respect. I had shaken his hand, like, 10 times before that already…Of course, people are going to be focused on [Cruz’s sexuality] but I don’t really think about it. I just focus on myself. I’m a warrior, and a fighter, and I’m going to go out there and do my thing.”
Photos by Naoki Fukuda
Photo by Chris Farina, Top Rank
Lem Satterfield can be reached at email@example.com