Boxer Orlando Cruz a 'proud gay man'

Puerto Rican featherweight Orlando Cruz announced to the world that he is gay on Wednesday, becoming the first practicing prizefighter to declare he is homosexual.

"I've been fighting for more than 24 years and as I continue my ascendant career, I want to be true to myself," Cruz said in a statement after taping a spot on a Telemundo show, which will air Monday. "I want to try to be the best role model I can be for kids who might look into boxing as a sport and a professional career. I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican. I have always been and always will be a proud gay man."

Cruz, 31, is scheduled to fight Oct. 19 against Jorge Pazos in Kissimmee, Fla. Cruz, who represented Puerto Rico in the 2000 Olympics, will defend his WBO Latino featherweight crown.

The promoter of that event, Tuto Zabala Jr., told ESPNNewYork.com that he has promoted Cruz (18-2-1) for a year. He said he heard rumors that Cruz was gay, and assumed he was gay, but never broached the subject with the fighter "because I respect him, and it would have been insensitive to ask him."

Zabala, 44, grew up in the business. His dad promoted in Puerto Rico, and also the Miami area, so he is well aware that boxing is a sport in which machismo is exuded on a constant, and sometimes crude, basis.

"His announcement is courageous," Zabala said of Cruz. "We hung out yesterday, at a press conference for another boxer. He acted normal. I didn't feel like he had to talk about it."

The fighter will talk about his life and his sexual orientation on the Telemundo show "Al Rojo Vivo" on Monday (5 p.m. ET).

Zabala said he will be there to support Cruz during this period. "His life is more important than what other people think of him," Zabala said.

Many fight fans are aware that New York-based Hall of Famer Emile Griffith said he liked the company of both women and men in the 2005 documentary "Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story."

In 1962, Griffith responded fiercely to taunts from foe Benny Paret and savagely battered Paret in the third bout between the men, leaving him comatose. Ten days after that brutal battle at Madison Square Garden, Paret, who had teased Griffith with a gay slur, died.

Today, the 74-year-old Griffith, who left the ring in 1977, suffers from dementia. One wonders how his life would have been altered had he, if he wanted to do so, been open about his sexual orientation. He spent decades dodging the issue when confronted.