LAS VEGAS – A year ago, Orlando Cruz had come to something of a crossroads. A member of the 2000 Puerto Rican Olympic boxing team, he'd won his first 12 pro bouts and 18 of his first 21.
By all accounts, he was on a path to a world title. He wasn't a particularly big puncher, but he was smart in the ring. He had that sixth sense about when a punch was coming and how to get away from it. He was clever and cunning and had the ability to dictate the way a match unfolded.
Cruz, though, wasn't completely at ease.
He is gay, and proudly so, and wanted to share the news with the world. Ever since he left the Olympics, there had been suspicions about his orientation. He knew it. He'd hear the gay slurs coming from a fight crowd, directed not only at him, but toward anyone they didn't believe was fearless enough, tough enough.
"Boxing is a macho sport, everyone yelling gay slurs all the time," he said.
He was through living a lie, trying to pretend he is someone other than who he is. He wanted to tell the world his secret, but it was hard to work up the nerve.
Here was a guy who is tough enough to stand across from the hardest-hitting fighters in his division and go toe-to-toe with them, fearful about what a bigoted, thoughtless person might shout from the safety of a crowd in a lame and cowardly attempt to demean him.
"I was scared," said Cruz, who admitted he saw a psychologist in New York to help him work through his feelings. "I was worried about other boxers. I was worried about the fans. I would cry many, many nights thinking about it."
After the toughest fight of his life – the battle within him – he decided to finally break the secret. On Oct. 4, 2012, Cruz told the world what he had known for years, that he is gay. He became the first openly gay man in professional boxing, a sport not exactly overrun with people known for tolerance and understanding.
Since that announcement, Cruz has won back-to-back fights and he'll carry a 20-2-1 mark and 10 knockouts to the ring when he meets Orlando Salido for the vacant WBO featherweight belt Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
By speaking a few short words, a great burden was lifted from Cruz's shoulders. He proposed to his boyfriend, Jose Manuel, earlier this year on Facebook, and the couple is set to be married next month in New York.
Cruz's fear that he would become the target of angry boxing fans never materialized. The LGBT community embraced him, and on June 18 in Chicago, he was a part of the first class of the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame. He was inducted alongside such luminaries as tennis stars Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, diver Greg Louganis and NBA player Jason Collins.
Salido, as tough and hard-nosed a competitor as there is in the game, essentially shrugged when asked about fighting an openly gay opponent.
Salido professed his respect for Cruz for having the courage to come out of the closet, but otherwise, saw little noteworthy about it.
"We are just two human beings fighting for a world title," Salido said.
Salido, of course, is correct. No one should have to hide who they are, to feel afraid to be themselves. There are people who say their religious beliefs forbid homosexuality, but thousands of people have given their lives for our right to be free and to make those personal choices. Those who disagree have a right to their opinion, but not a right to abuse, to hate, to mock.
It's not going to be a breeze for Cruz going forward, because there will always be someone who wants to impose his or her beliefs.
Cruz said on Monday, "I am a man. I am not a girl. I have to fight on Saturday night."
That's the kind of a statement made by someone who has endured years of abuse.
The good thing, though, is that there has been at least grudging acceptance. He's here to fight, and wasn't interested in talking at length about his personal life.
He praised Salido's ability and said he'd have to be "intelligent all the time, very smart, and give him [a lot of lateral] movement" in order to win.
He's probably always going to be the guy with the asterisk after his name: Orlando Cruz, first openly gay fighter. Still, there are encouraging signs.
Since his psychologist convinced him to speak freely, the hostility that Cruz was fearful of hasn't really been there.
"He made me feel better about it and that is how I made the decision to come out," Cruz said of his psychologist. "He made me ready. Since I made the announcement, I have been getting nothing but support. I am happy. I am free. I am comfortable.
"Everybody gives me support and respect. When I interview with a newspaper, I would just like to have respect. Now, when I walk into the ring, I feel I have the support of a lot of people [in the LGBT community], and it makes me very happy."