“IT’S HAPPENING right now,” Orlando Cruz warns. The retired 41-year-old sits in a darkened living room in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, dressed in a plain blue t-shirt accompanied by a black baseball cap protruding over his eyes. His simplicity in style acts as a precursor to how serious the conversation would be.
“Young male boxers are killing themselves as they are scared,” he tells Boxing News. “They have nowhere to turn and depression hits them. Our sport is doing nothing to help them.”
Each syllable of Cruz’s words act as another sickening punch to the gut. In 2012, the Puerto Rican became the first openly gay male boxer in the sport, but 11 years on, still stands on his own in a sport wrestling with machismo. According to a study in the National Library of Medicine, gay and bisexual men are four times more likely to attempt suicide in their lifetime than heterosexual men.
“It’s completely crazy,” he explains passionately. “As boxers, we are expected to all be the same – tough, strong and intimidating, but this should have no bearing on sexuality. Thankfully we are beginning to see athletes from other sports come out as gay and act as inspiration for others to follow, but I fear that boxing will be left behind and young men, specifically, will suffer.”
In 2021, The LGBT+ Global Survey estimated that seven per cent of the global population said that they are mostly or only attracted to the same sex, four per cent equally to both sexes, 83 per cent only to the opposite sex and six per cent don’t know or prefer not to say.
Cruz believes these figures are probably even higher when referring to same sex attraction, and he warns of the consequences we are beginning to face if gay boxers aren’t given appropriate support when trying to deal with their sexuality.
“I was lucky as I was given such support from my mother from an early age,” Cruz explained. “She has always been my best friend and she would accept me for whatever I would be in life. ‘Don’t cry, don’t be scared,’ she would tell me, but this comfort can’t always be found so close to home.
“I am currently talking to six male boxers from around the world who are gay, yet don’t have that support network to give them the confidence to come out publicly. These guys are from all over – Spain, Colombia, USA, United Kingdom and Panama. They are able to confide in me and receive the support from me that I was lucky enough to get from my family.
“It’s a great honour for me to be able to share some wisdom with them, but it shouldn’t be up to me. I am scared that our sport will never move on far enough for them to be comfortable to be who they really are as a professional.
“I am surprised that more athletes haven’t followed in my footsteps after I came out eleven years ago. If I am being honest, my decision was received really well. My team, manager, sparring partners, friends, everyone supported me, and I think it was a choice for me to block out the five per cent that wanted to try and disrespect me.”
Cruz’s story may be unique in its progression but not so much in its genesis. As a child he had an abundance of energy that would get him in trouble at school and on the streets. But aged eight he was given the opportunity to channel that energy positively.
“I was always fighting,” he explained. “Fighting at school or on the streets, so after getting calls from my teacher, my mother decided I should go to the local boxing gym in Puerto Rico. I loved it so much. I was able to channel my aggression and my coach taught me patience, respect and how to control myself. I was told that I couldn’t return to the ring if I continued fighting outside, so that soon stopped me.”
Cruz would go on to represent Puerto Rico in the 2000 Olympic Games in Australia – losing a close first round decision to Hichem Blida of Algeria (11-10) – and turned professional later that same year. He had amassed a record of 18-2-1 before a routine contest against Mexico’s Jorge Pazos made history inside the Civic Center, Kissimmee, Florida. Cruz had come out publicly two weeks prior, becoming the first known active gay boxer.
“I knew I was gay from 18 years old, but wasn’t comfortable coming out that young,” he continued. “It was fear more than anything. There were always rumours in the gym which I ignored, but in the end, aged 31, I felt like it was time to be true to myself.
“I wanted to become world champion and felt that doing so would take all my focus and my energy. Coming out relaxed me. I knew that I could just focus on training and nothing else.”
Cruz would go on to fight for major belts twice, losing to Orlando Salido for the WBO’s featherweight strap [l rsf 7] and Terry Flanagan [l rsf 8] up at lightweight. But his trip to Cardiff, Wales, to challenge for Flanagan would somewhat underline the array of opinions regarding gay fighters in boxing.
“I just couldn’t say no to the opportunity [fighting Flanagan] even though it was a couple of weight classes above what I would usually fight. Flanagan was too big, tall and rangy for me – this was always going to be tough. But I don’t regret the decision to take the fight at all.
Cruz failed to trouble Flanagan as the Mancunian had his opponent against the ropes on numerous occasions before pummelling him with his best combinations. The challenger was floored for the second time in the eighth round and referee Steve Gray waved off the contest as it became clear that “The Phenomenon” was unwilling, and unable, to trade back.
“I was received so well by the majority of people in Wales, but especially by Flanagan’s sister, Chelsea, who I met before the fight. She is also gay and wanted to speak to me and say how proud she was of me for what I had done. We hugged and chatted and there was that mutual respect there.”
But it wasn’t all positive for Cruz. A couple of high-profile Tweets tarnished the sport that week while all eyes were on Cardiff and Cruz’s attempts to break the stigma of homosexuality in boxing.
“I have nothing against gay people, I have gay friends. But if I lost to a gay lad I would get bantered for life by pals so Flanagan has to win,” former British welterweight champion Frankie Gavin said on Twitter, with Peter Fury, uncle of Tyson Fury, writing “That’s the difference between real men and half of something else,” following the contest.
But Cruz assures me this didn’t affect him or dissuade him from continuing in the sport. He would fight twice more to finish his career with a record of 25-6-2 (12) with his health and relative wealth intact.
Now, Cruz works at Fort Lauderdale airport in the cargo and baggage sector servicing a number of high-profile airlines. He is content in this change of pace in career choice, but still holds aspirations of re-opening a boxing gym in the area that was forced to close because of the pandemic.
“I miss boxing, but not enough to ever return,” he confirms. “I often get calls from promoters asking if I want to fight again and them claiming that they have found me the ‘perfect opponent’ but this doesn’t interest me. No amount of money would tempt me back into the ring. I feel like I have had my time and I can be just as influential outside of the ring by speaking with those fighters that need help and support.
“I am more than happy on my sofa watching the new generation come through. Devin Haney, Shakur Stevenson, “Tank” Davis and Vasiliy Lomachenko are my favourites, I like the lightweight division a lot. Plus, my husband says I am too pretty to get hit again…”
We are interrupted briefly by his husband, Kell, who met Cruz after his boxing career had ended. Kell has a serious yet warm demeanour and it’s clear from speaking for only a few minutes that his life hadn’t been intruded on by the confusing world of boxing. But how would he have fared if he was forced to watch his husband fight? “I am not sure I would have enjoyed watching Orlando box at all,” he admits without a pause for thought. “It would have been very stressful.”
Throughout our conversation Cruz is acutely aware of the fine line he needs to tread when advocating more fighters in boxing to come out. Of course, it is not as simple as that. He admits that he would have done so earlier if it wasn’t for his involvement in the sport, but is keen to double down on giving those suffering a support network so that they feel safe.
A 2021 study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law finds most suicide attempts (61 per cent) among LGBT+ people occurred within five years of realising one’s sexual minority identity, which is more than likely going to be very early on in a boxer’s career.
“Boxing is a tough, tough sport,” Cruz continued. “But this need for machismo is bullshit. It’s now 2023 and I find it so sad that human beings are still struggling with having the confidence to be who they really are. Love is love no matter who it is between – we can’t afford to lose lives due to ignorant opinions of the minority.”
I ask Cruz if he considers himself to be a hero and he can’t help but smile in riposte. “I think to some people I am. I know I am to my family and the people of Puerto Rico and Florida, and I would like to think I am to others as well that want to walk in my footsteps. I have tried to make a path for others to walk down but it might take a little longer than I first hoped.
“But above all it’s now down to me to educate those who are born or raised to be ignorant. Life is so short and tomorrow is never promised, so any day that is spent hiding from the world is a day wasted. Sure, it’s scary, but together we can build a world, and a sport, where people are free to be who they really are.”