LAS VEGAS (AP) — Orlando Cruz won the fight of his life when he came out last year as the first openly gay fighter in boxing.
Now he’s in a fight of another kind, a championship battle Saturday night that is the biggest bout of his professional career.
“It’s my dream and it’s my time,” Cruz said. “I’ve been waiting a long time to fight for the championship and I plan to make history.”
Cruz takes on fellow veteran Orlando Salido in a fight for a piece of the featherweight title on the undercard of Timothy Bradley’s fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. He’ll do it wearing rainbow colors on his boxing trunks, his way of showing support for others in the gay and lesbian community.
“This is for all of them,” Cruz said. “But this is for me, too. It’s a beautiful opportunity for me, and it’s my moment.”
The trunks have caused some controversy in his native Puerto Rico because the design is a Puerto Rican flag with the rainbow colors in place of the usual colors. But Cruz said his intention was always to honor his country while also making a statement for gay rights.
“Some people are mad at me, but I don’t care,” he said. “I respect the Puerto Rican flag. There were no bad intentions in the design of the trunks.”
The fight is the first title bout for the 32-year-old Cruz, who fought on the Puerto Rican Olympic team in 2000 but has struggled at times as a pro. He lost two straight fights in 2009-10 as he struggled to keep his sexuality private, but says he’s been a better and more focused fighter since coming out publicly a year ago.
That showed in his last two outings, both wins, that got him a spot against Salido for the vacant WBO version of the 126-pound crown. It’s a fight that would draw little attention normally, but is more high profile because Cruz is the first active fighter to declare he is gay.
Cruz said the response to his announcement was mostly positive, with former Olympic teammate Miguel Cotto among those who declared his support for him. He said his mother, who will be ringside for the fight, has been his strongest supporter.
“My mom is my best friend, and the first person I talked to about my relationship,” he said. “She cried, but said that I’m her son and she doesn’t care about anything else.”
Cruz is a left-hander who likes to use his movement in the ring to frustrate opponents but has never shown great power. He’s 20-2-1 with 10 knockouts but will be up against a Mexican with far more experience and two reigns as a champion.
Salido said he has no problem with Cruz being gay and has respect for his decision to go public.
“I admire him for coming out. It’s courageous,” Salido said. “But I am not treating him any differently than any other opponent. When I see him I see a man standing between me and a third world title.”
Cruz said earlier he was dedicating the fight to the memory of Emile Griffith, the former welterweight and middleweight champion who died in July. Griffith in his later years described himself at various times as straight, gay and bisexual, but never fought as an openly gay man.
While the chance at a first title is huge for Cruz, he’s got another big occasion coming up, too. Cruz is engaged to boyfriend Jose Manuel, and said last month the two are planning a November wedding.
“I’m not talking about that now because I’m focused on the fight,” he said. “Later there will be time to talk about my personal life more.”