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Cruz poised to clear a new hurdle

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- When Orlando Cruz returned to boxing in 2011 after a year off, he had two goals in mind.

One of them has been achieved. The other one will get an answer Oct. 12 in Las Vegas.

Orlando Cruz claims he took a huge weight off his shoulders when he came out as an openly gay man in 2012. Now, he seems ready to leave that subject behind and focus on the next big item on his agenda: becoming a world champion.

But the hurdle he faces is a challenging one.

The 32-year-old Cruz, who had an outstanding career in the amateur ranks alongside stellar figures like Miguel Cotto and Ivan Calderon, barely comments about the life-altering revelation that somehow gave new life to a pro career that had fallen into a slump. Instead, the Puerto Rican boxer wants to be known for his value inside the ring, and he is aware that a victory in his bout against Orlando Salido, for a vacant featherweight title, would be a key factor in achieving his second goal.

Cruz and Salido, a veteran former champion from Mexico, will square off at Las Vegas' Thomas & Mack Center in the co-headliner fight of a card featuring welterweight titlist Timothy Bradley and Juan Manuel Marquez in the main event.

Both Cruz and Salido earned a shot to pursue the vacant belt after Mikey Garcia was stripped of the title because he failed to make weight before his June defense against Puerto Rico's Juan Manuel Lopez. Garcia was coming off a victory over Salido in January. Since then, Salido hasn't seen any action inside the ring.

Salido (39-12-2, 27 KOs), a veteran of many tough fights, may not be the same fighter at 32 that he was earlier in his career, but he still represents a dangerous challenge for Cruz (20-2-1, 10 KOs), who is taking this fight very seriously. This includes giving himself a mental boost to increase his confidence.

"You will hear a lot about Orlando Cruz," said the Puerto Rican fighter during a break from his weeklong camp in his native land. "I've got faith, and you know that faith moves mountains. I know that God has big things for me, and I will make history. I will become world champion."

For this fight, Cruz trained in Buffalo, N.Y., alongside trainers Juan and Carlos "Sugar" De Leon. But due to some commitments with the promoters, he moved his camp to Puerto Rico for seven days.

"I've fought so hard over the years to become world champion. After completing my amateur career, I realized I was a fighter who didn't take many punches. I'm devoting completely to this and, with all due respect to Salido, I think he is the perfect fit right now," Cruz said.

Cruz, ranked the No. 1 contender by the WBO, earned that spot by winning four straight fights after losing to Daniel Ponce de Leon in 2010. That defeat, Cruz claims, came during a time when he didn't prepare properly for his fights.

"This is a better version of Orlando -- more prepared, more mature, more confident," Cruz said. "He is a guy who has seen all the mistakes and he has improved. Someone who has seen improvement with each fight. A person who respects Orlando Salido, but also someone who is aware that he is the perfect opponent for me right now because I'm a counterpuncher, [I] work really well sideways, and I'm a real pain. That is a huge problem for a traditional boxer like Salido. Right now, I feel ready and excited about winning that title."

Cruz made his return to the ring at the end of 2011 after being knocked out in the third round nearly 20 months earlier by Ponce de Leon. He has patiently waited for his title shot and even got a preliminary agreement to face Garcia, although Lopez ended up getting the fight.

Salido, known for his punch and endurance, has a more experienced résumé. Among his achievements, the Mexican has two wins over Lopez. Coincidentally, his first win over Lopez in 2011 started the long losing streak that Puerto Rican boxing currently deals with.

"I'm really focused on bringing that title to Puerto Rico," Cruz said. "Both our stars and prospects have faced tough losses recently. But we are working really hard. With Salido, we won't waste any punches and we will avoid mistakes in each round. We know him pretty well."

Cruz is determined to achieve his goal of a world title and be known as more than the boxer who received attention outside the ring.

"I don't have the authority to tell people about the right way to acknowledge me," Cruz said. "I hope it will be for something positive. I wanted my own personal freedom. I already have it, and now I will become the world champion."