Orlando Cruz: The LGBT Champion of the World

After his Oct. 24 bout with Ruben Tamayo was called off, the latest setback to Orlando Cruz’s career must mean that thoughts of retirement are creeping into his mind.

After 14 years as a pro featherweight he’s no closer to a world title. He failed to take the WBO belt from Orlando Salido last October and was also defeated in his April fight against Gamalier Rodriguez.

Worse yet, he has watched Vasyl Lomachenko blitz his way to the WBO title he so desired in only his third pro fight. Featherweight isn’t getting any easier, as Nonito Donaire recently found out.

At 33, Cruz has to feel like his shot at the big time is slipping away.

A world title for Cruz would be extra special as he would become the first openly gay world title-holder in the sport’s history. He is keen to point out, though, that he wants to be defined by his skills and not his sexuality. “I’m a boxer first, I want to be a world champion and remembered that way and not as a gay boxer,” he said.

Nonetheless, Cruz along with bisexual Olympic champion Nicola Adams and transsexual promoter Kellie Maloney are encouraging positive discussion of LGBT issues in the boxing world.

Homosexuality has long been a popular topic of conversation between fighters and fans. Think of Adrien Broner’s humping antics in his fight with Maidana or Mike Tyson’s spectacularly confused threat “I’ll fuck you ’til you love me faggot.”

Or take a look at Tyson Fury taunting then rival David Price on Twitter with comments like “dont like gays shoul all b shot dead” and “David Price, I’m going to put you in intensive care, that’s for sure mate. And you know your gay lover Tony Bellew? He’s got to fight me in between the rounds as well.”

Against countless examples like this, Cruz stands as one of the only positive voices for gay men in boxing.

He has spoken about the pain of hiding his sexuality for his first 12 years as a pro as being a like “thorn inside him.” Which begs the question – how many boxers out there still feel that they must hide the fact they are gay?

With some admittedly sketchy statistics, we can try to estimate the amount of gay guys in pro boxing. As this may prove wildly inaccurate, I’m going to try and be very conservative with the numbers.

Adding up all the rankings on Boxrec gives us the figure of 18,240 active professional boxers across 17 weight divisions. Let’s take this down to 15,000.

Estimations of the proportion of gay people are notoriously unreliable and range from 20 percent down to around 3.5 percent to just 1 percent of the population. Polls were also found to underestimate the size of the gay populations, as people don’t always reveal they are gay when polled.

Some conservative estimates then: 5 percent of 15,000 boxers is 750, 3.5 percent is 525 and 1 percent is 150. It is not out of the question to think that there may be a few hundred or even just 100 gay boxers currently fighting. Why then is Cruz the only boxer that is out and is proud to say so?

I think the taunts and insults listed above – the casual use of the word “faggot” by certain fighters and fans — may be a factor. Cruz said it doesn’t get to him: “They can call me maricón, or faggot. Let them say it because they can’t hurt me now.”

Yet, he is familiar with the effect that homophobic taunts had on his idol, Emile Griffith, who admitted he was bisexual after he retired. At the weigh in of his third fight with Benny Paret, his opponent whispered “Maricón, maricón” in Griffith’s ear. Griffith would later punch Paret into a coma. He died 10 days later. Griffith said that he had nightmares about Paret for the next 40 years.

This was in 1962. By now, homophobic taunts and comments from fans should not be casually accepted as simply part of the macho boasting and one-upmanship of hyping a fight.

Still, in an age when gay professional athletes in the most “macho” sports like rugby and American football are only beginning to come out, some are optimistic than boxing can lead the way.

“Boxing is better than most sports at welcoming minority groups and outsiders,” said Kellie Maloney in a recent article by Ben Dirs. Dirs himself believes that just as boxing paved the way for racial integration, it can also be at the forefront of accepting openly gay fighters.

Whether he manages to win a title or not, Cruz’s legacy will be that he was brave enough to take a difficult step and act as a role model to future gay fighters.

“When two guys are in the ring you can hear people calling one a ‘faggot’ because he’s getting beat. It’s common and that will change; I can be a part of that change.”

Wish him luck.

About Cathal McGuigan

Cathal McGuigan is a writer and journalist from Derry, N. Ireland. His obsessions include boxing, hedgehogs and cheese.