Last night, super featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz defeated Alejandro Valdez with a seventh round knockout in Kissimmee, Florida. Cruz has now racked up 24 wins in his boxing career, but his toughest fight has happened outside the ring.
“I won those other fights but, all this time, I have been living with this thorn inside me,” he told The Guardian in 2012. “I wanted to take it out of me so I could have peace within myself.”
Cruz became the first gay boxer to come out while still competing in October 2012. The Puerto Rican boxer and former Olympian made history, telling the world he was a proud gay man.
“I don’t want to hide any of my identities,” he said in a statement. “I want people to look at me for the human being that I am. I am a professional sportsman that always brings his best to the ring. I want for people to continue to see me for my boxing skills, my character, my sportsmanship. But I also want kids who suffer from bullying to know that you can be whoever you want to be in life, including a professional boxer, that anything is possible and that who you are or whom you love should not be impediment to achieving anything in life.”
Check out some clips of Cruz in action, below.
It wasn’t until he competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics that Cruz realized he was gay. He said in an interview with Spiegel that the experience was difficult for him to process. “For a long time I didn’t want to accept that I was gay. Better said: I couldn’t accept it because I was too afraid. Homosexuals were discriminated against in Puerto Rico back then, sometimes even killed. I had a friend named José, but we called him Linoshka because he was a transvestite. He was stabbed to death in the street at the age of 19 by a homophobe because he had taken part in a gay-pride parade.”
Cruz received support from his family, celebrities like Ricky Martin and his Olympic teammate Miguel Cotto, and from his fellow countrymen. He told The Advocate “I’ve had overwhelming support from the Puerto Rican people. We’re very proud people, and they have been so accepting of me.” Not only has he spoken openly about his sexuality, but he’s also proudly worn rainbow attire during his fights and weigh-ins. He was one of the inaugural class of inductees into the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame in 2013.
In October 2013, Cruz was preparing for his first world championship match against Orlando Salido. “Now it’s my time. People think I’m not strong enough. They doubt me. They wonder if a gay man can win a world title,” he posited to The Guardian before the big fight. ”The skeptics will see what I am capable of …” Unfortunately, Cruz fell short in the fight, losing to Salido after a seventh round knockout.
Earlier this year, Cruz had some thoughts for fellow fighter Manny Pacquiao when the Filipino boxer said gays were worse than animals. “For you to say that homosexuals are like animals is very irresponsible, I’m a homosexual and you shouldn’t judge me for my lifestyle,” Cruz said in a video message. “I invite you to meet with me to get to know me as a human being first and I guarantee you that you will think differently. Maybe afterwards we can do a sparring session. Take care and I will be praying for you and your family.”
Cruz knew some of the victims of the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. He recently got a new tattoo of a memorial ribbon that is partially rainbow and partially the Puerto Rican flag to honor those lost in the attack. Before his fight last night, Cruz appeared in a robe adorned with the same memorial ribbon, and the bell was rung 49 times, once for each life lost.
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