These last two weeks have weighed heavily on Orlando Cruz.
But as soon as he walked out to a cheering crowd displaying flags of his native Puerto Rico, boxing’s first openly gay fighter could finally breathe and do what he came to do, slugging his way to a victory by unanimous decision over Jorge Pazos.
"That was my moment, my opportunity, my event," Cruz said Friday night after the bout, his mother Dominga Torres-Rivera seated beside him. "And I won."
Cruz was touched by the support on display at the Kissimmee Civic Center outside of Orlando, the latest in a continual outpouring since his announcement two weeks ago that made him the first active male athlete in a major sport to come out.
"I was very happy that they respect me. That’s what I want — them to see me as a boxer, as an athlete and as a man in every sense of the word."
Cruz’s declaration has garnered plenty of attention and interview requests for the WBO’s fourth-ranked featherweight, as well as public support from everyone from former Olympic teammate Miguel Cotto to singer Ricky Martin.
"With all that’s been going through my life the last two weeks, I have no excuses," Cruz said. "It did affect me, going here, going there. It did affect me."
But Cruz (19-2-1, nine KOs) looked comfortable once he stepped into the ring, quickly negating Pazos’ longer reach with his own fleet feet. As a result, Pazos (20-4, 13 KOs) spent most of the night lunging after the smiling Cruz. Pazos threw more punches, but Cruz made his count.
Though the Mexican Pazos held his own for much of the fight, it was Cruz standing on the ropes playing to the adoring crowd moments later with a 118-110, 116-111, 118-110 decision.
"He’s a boxer who moves too much, he knows how to box and he has good legs," Pazos said. "I couldn’t get him."
Cruz is hoping this victory will get him a shot at a bigger match in the near future.
"This fight’s going to open my door for a world title fight," Cruz said. "That’s my dream, my mom’s dream, my community’s dream and my team’s."
And Cruz seems to be more at ease with his new position as a gay role model, no longer hiding who he is in one of the world’s most macho sports.
"I’m only one person," Cruz said. "I feel happy with where I am. I’m free. I’m more at peace."