Orlando Cruz's dream still awaits him

Orlando Cruz, left, said coming out gave him better focus to face experienced fighter Orlando Salido. AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

The night was supposed to complete the storybook ending for Orlando Cruz: openly gay boxer walks into arena draped in a gay pride flag, defeats opponent and homophobia, claims world championship.

But then very little in life, especially as it pertains to sports, goes the way it's supposed to.

And the unraveling of the plan started with Cruz's team not being able to find the CD with his entry music on it. Then the gym bag that had his boxing shoes, shorts and gloves, among other things, was left in the van that brought them from their hotel on The Strip to UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center. The official who was supposed to oversee Cruz's hands being taped was late. Consequently, by the time the stage manager came into the locker room, yelling "15 minutes," Cruz had only one hand wrapped.

He hadn't warmed up yet.

Hell, he wasn't even dressed.

This is how frantic it was for Cruz just one hour before the biggest match of his career.

Not that the chaos in the locker room was the reason Cruz failed in his bid to become the WBO featherweight champion.

It was clear early on that his opponent, Orlando Salido, was bigger and stronger. Though the percentage of landed punches was only slightly in Salido's favor -- 33 percent to 30 percent -- the difference between the power of each blow wasn't even close. Salido also was more experienced, having won two other featherweight championships -- including a win in Puerto Rico over a previously undefeated Puerto Rican. He was comfortable on the big stage and simply overpowered Cruz the entire match, culminating in a seventh-round knockout.

Dreams of an openly gay champion boxer will have to wait.

"None of that stuff matters," Salido said about Cruz's sexuality through a translator afterward. "He is a very strong, tough fighter."

Cruz has to be.

It's one thing to tell the world in an interview you're a gay man.

It's a totally different scenario to strut into a ring on the Las Vegas strip with a gigantic rainbow flag flying over your head wearing a rainbow robe and trunks.

Cruz actually had received a handmade rainbow scarf from a fan in Mexico but opted not to wear it. But it did prove that while he is far from a household name, he has moved the needle forward. In fact, Cruz was on the cusp of doing something no openly gay male had ever done before -- reside at the top of his respective sport.

A quick glance through the names of gay male athletes who have come out over the years reveals that more often than not the men do not have a Hall of Fame resume.

Billie Bean was in and out of major league baseball; Esera Tuaolo played for five NFL teams in seven seasons; Jason Collins is an NBA journeyman still looking for a team; Robbie Rogers' soccer career has been plagued by injuries.

There have been gay men who have been champions, but they typically didn't reveal their sexual orientation until retirement. For example, Greg Louganis is an Olympic legend who didn't come out until after his final dive. Emile Griffith, a world champion boxer, didn't officially come out until he was 67.

The truth is, for all of the talk of one's sexuality not dictating level of play, all we have to go on with regard to the professional level is deductive reasoning. It's a situation very similar to the notion of a Super Bowl-winning black quarterback. Until Doug Williams, it was stuck being an anecdote. There is no tangible evidence of an openly gay man being a champion on par with his female counterpart -- especially in contact/impact sports.

Had Cruz won, he would have changed that.

But he lost, so now what?

"I rest, spend time with my family, talk to my family and go from there," he said. "For some people, me losing is sad. For others it's not."

Some of those "others" he's referring to were chanting the slur "puta, puta" as Salido was beginning to impose his will on the match, though it would not be accurate to characterize the entire crowd in this manner. In fact, most of the chants were in support of Salido's Mexican roots, not denouncing Cruz's sexuality. And who knows, had they boxed in an area with more Puerto Rican pride -- say New York -- maybe Cruz could have drawn some energy from the crowd.


"We did what we wanted to do," Cruz's trainer, Juan de Leon, said. "It was just Salido's night."

But as Cruz and de Leon sit next to each other quietly in the locker room, occasionally glancing up at the boxing match playing on the monitor overhead, it's clear this is not what they wanted to do.

They wanted to win.

They wanted the storybook ending. One in which the openly gay man is carried out of the boxing ring a champion -- draped in rainbows, chiseled into the tablets of history.

"When is the wedding?" I ask, remembering he proposed to his boyfriend, Jose Manuel, on Facebook earlier this year. Something he did not have the courage to do just 12 months prior.

Cruz looks up at me, bruises peppered around his face, smiles and says, "November 16th."

"You excited?"

He smiles even bigger: "I'm happy."

And then he looks back up at the monitor, watching the fight, appearing a bit lighter in spirit, perhaps remembering there's more than just one kind of storybook ending.