It is the wee hours of the morning of October 21, and the featherweight Orlando Cruz (19-2-1) has just defeated Jorge Pazos (20-4) by unanimous decision. For those in the press box at Florida’s Kissimmee Civic Center, however, Cruz might as well be 1-0. Most of the reporters there—from places like Der Spiegel, Deutschlandradio, and half a dozen Latin American outlets—did not care about Cruz and his 18 wins before this fight.
On October 3, Cruz, a 31-year-old southpaw from Puerto Rico, became the first male boxer to come out as gay while still actively fighting. Cruz spent the next 18 days besieged by media. The gay man in the world's most macho sport, Cruz sat for over 50 interviews and declined many more—a publicity tour that left his trainers worried.
"I kept thinking, this is not a good time, maybe some other time. Maybe when we had two months," says Cruz’s manager. "But he said he wanted to do it. So forget Orlando Cruz the boxer. You are a human being. If that's what we have to do right now, that's what we have to do."
His manager may have had a point. When the fight begins, Cruz’s normal nimble-footedness sometimes lags into a wobbly sluggishness—exhaustion, perhaps, from the media frenzy. Cruz normally exhibits a Puerto Rican boxer's agile, evasive footwork. When he’s under pressure, he eludes his opponent with a bent-legged glide. It looks like a Groucho Marx walk, as though Cruz is so gifted at dodging a steady onslaught like Pazos' that he almost doesn't need to take it seriously.
Yet, in the first round, Cruz almost completely loses his balance on a sidestep, recovering just in time. Twice more in early rounds, he wobbles without having taken a direct punch. Each time, his legs, for just a moment, betray him.
The day before the fight, as he struggled to make weight, Cruz answered questions in monosyllables, with a thousand-yard stare. After the fight, sitting behind a conference table, sunglasses on and beaming, he admits that the interviews and the weight loss affected his balance and mobility.
"With everything that's going through my life, I have no excuse. It did affect me doing lots of interviews, going here and going there," he says. "It takes a lot of time for me, so I can't focus on my fight."
FOR YEARS, THE media has eagerly anticipated a gay male athlete, from a major sport, coming out of the closet while still actively competing. But for all that potent excitement, it doesn't seem as if anyone has prepared for it. The press following Cruz divides neatly into two camps: the sports writers talking about a boxer who is now openly gay, and the profile writers for whom boxing offers only an impediment to the big social ramifications. Both speak past each other. Before the post-fight press conference starts, profile writers for the foreign press seem stunned that we have to wait as doctors give medical checkups to the winners and losers after the match—as if the losers don’t deserve to keep us waiting, though they likely merit far more attention.
No one on either side seems particularly prepared to address the material advantages and disadvantages Cruz’s athletic career presents to a gay man.
A gay man on a basketball, baseball or football team must not only worry about the homophobia of fans and opponents but also his own teammates. His compatriots don’t stop to consider their inherent homophobia in presuming that no one in the locker room could or should be gay, because no one has been before. Before he can even think about changing society's minds, the gay team athlete has to overcome accusations of implicit betrayal and persuade those who are ostensibly his brothers.
Orlando Cruz has no such problems. The virtue of being a fighter is the opportunity to stand in a ring and be faster, smarter and stronger than your opponent, on your own terms, independent of the performance of others. Whatever he is, it is something he proves against someone else, even if by means no more elegant than beating the holy hell out of him.
At the same time, the style that individuates Cruz, that makes him a potential headliner and icon, is something now ineluctably passed through the lens of sexuality.
One month ago, no one would have described Cruz's plays to the crowd as anything other than flamboyant, psychological showmanship. In the first round, after rapid head fakes get him out from Pazos' powerful jabs, he walks toward one side of the audience and shimmies his shoulders back and forth, like a member of The Sharks about to snap his fingers and move up the alley in unison with his boys. In round two, Cruz celebrates another evasion by wagging his head as if to say, "Naughty, naughty." In round three, he shrugs his shoulder at Pazos so deeply that he looks as if he is trying to dip an invisible dancer. Then, in the fifth round, after Pazos pins him in the corner, Cruz snakes outside his reach and, instead of making for open territory mid-ring, slips an arm around Pazos' side and presses up against his back. Cruz's Puerto Rican fans in the audience go berserk and taunt Pazos' Mexican fans.
For Cruz, in-ring theatrics now come with a new series of questions. Good fighters always look for a psychological edge, so those gestures and moves naturally seem like part of getting into an opponent's head. But now, too, all of them can seem, well, gay. And while Cruz himself has every right to mine his identity to get an edge on a fighter, the question of what the audience rapturously cheers is a different matter. Is it awesome that Orlando Cruz tries to throw an opponent off his game by proudly being Orlando Cruz? Or is part of the electricity of his performance generated by a charge of disgust running through a crowd that still sees him as something dangerous?
After the fight, Cruz sounds thrilled about his reception by the audience.
"I was very happy. They gave me a lot from them, and they respect me," he says. "That's what I want, for them to see me as an athlete and a boxer and as a man in every sense of the word. I just want people to respect me, to keep getting wins and be a world champion for Puerto Rico."
But his verdict feels a tad optimistic. Professional boxing is intensely nationalistic, with fans who, like all good intense fans, overlook the shortcomings of their own countrymen and highlight the shameless perfidy of their enemies. In Kissimmee, the arena is split roughly 60/40 between Puerto Ricans rooting for Cruz and Mexicans rooting for Pazos. During the fight, a group of four heavyset Mexican fans jeer him for several rounds in high-pitched sissy voices, prompting bursts of laughter all along the Mexican side and cross-talk with angry Puerto Rican fans. Cruz wins the fight to his own fans' delight, but afterward no one has the courage to ask him if it may be that Puerto Rican fans' nationalism trumped whatever homophobia they might otherwise have felt.
In an interview in the Guardian days before, Cruz acknowledged the still violent attitude toward homosexuals he encounters at home. "I am proud to be Puerto Rican, just like I am proud to be a gay man," he said. "But I was sad and angry a long time because there are two doors to death over this one issue. There is suicidal death—when a gay man cannot stand being unaccepted and takes his own life. And there is homophobic murder."
In the lead-up to the fight, boxing message boards filled up for days with the kind of offhandedly vile homophobia that has made the word "faggot" a default internet pronoun. There were also supportive tweets from dozens of countries—including unlikely places like Afghanistan—and congratulations from Cruz’s Olympic teammates, including superstar boxer Miguel Cotto. In the post-fight press conference, Pazos waves away any concern that he fought and lost to a gay man. "I fought an Olympian," he says. "I fought Orlando Cruz."
Three hours before, though, it doesn't matter how fraternal Pazos will feel in that incongruous joint space after a fight, where two men with marked and swollen faces pretend that haven't spent a significant portion of their last two hours raining violence on one another. Three hours before, all that matters is that Cruz doesn't have to say a word. He enters that pre-fight mental space where questions and reason and doubt gradually wash out under the hum of animal intensity.
Strictly speaking, the World Boxing Organization (WBO) does not allow much pre-fight interaction between boxers and the media, but a Telemundo producer sneaks me back into Cruz's locker room to look and to under no circumstances speak.
ESPN—which evidently goes anywhere, the WBO be damned—is setting up an interview chair on the far left side, behind a bank of Nautilus exercise machines. Cruz sits in the far-right corner, his back to everything. His focus and discipline are such that he does not seem to notice that two more people have entered the room. A trainer tapes up Cruz's left hand. An immensely tall white man in a blue suit, with a bad tie and a rumpled Oxford with a color that looks like "off-the-rack sweat stain" stands behind the trainer, peering over the taping-up with a vulture-like watchfulness.
The tape on Cruz's hand swells up above the knuckles by what looks like the width of a bratwurst, as one of Cruz's team, a thin man in a Yankee's cap turned sideways, sits staring slackjawed at the taping process, engrossed in its minutiae. Or maybe he's just tired, too.
Meanwhile, Cruz nods his head almost imperceptibly to Spanish-language club music emanating from a crummy little boombox perched on a rack of barbells. When the fight is over, and Cruz has won, the media circus will resume, and he will answer questions about whether making weight made him have trouble feeling his legs; whether the crowd was with him; why he kept resetting his feet after combos and never quite put away Pazos, despite ample opportunities; and, of course, whether he fought harder for gay men everywhere.
But for the moment, in the locker room, there is nothing else. In this moment, Orlando Cruz is lucky, because Orlando Cruz is alone. For the next few minutes, and for 12 rounds after them, he has only one raw thing to focus on, and every question he can ask about himself is something his body will answer.
Jeb Lund is a writer living in Florida. Email him at JebLund@gmail.com