BUFFALO -- Four weeks ago, just after 10 o'clock on a Saturday night in downtown Buffalo, New York, Orlando Cruz looked wistfully out the window as our car sped through the deserted streets. After a brutal day in the gym, sparring 12 rounds against four different opponents, he yearned for a fleeting escape from preparations for his first world title fight.
"There are only four gay bars in Buffalo," Cruz said, switching from Spanish to English, "and they're not so exciting. But . . . you know . . ."
Cruz laughed because, a year after coming out as boxing's first publicly gay fighter, he could afford to be open. He was a month away from the fight of his life, which takes place tonight in Las Vegas as he challenges Mexico's Orlando Salido for the WBO world featherweight title, but he still loved his new liberty.
The temptation of slipping into a bar was obvious after months of monastic training. But boxing is merciless towards laxity and indulgence. Cruz's trainer, Juan de Leon, a fellow Puerto Rican, was also waiting for us at home in the suburbs of a blue-collar city deep in New York State. So we raced on through the darkness.
It was the night, last month, when Floyd "Money" Mayweather earned around $70m for outclassing the previously unbeaten hope of Mexico, Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, in boxing's fight of the year. Mayweather, on pay-per-view television, offered a taster of everything that awaits Cruz.
"It's been my dream all my life," Cruz murmured as he considered his own world title fight. He sounded like a typical fighter then; and he also looked like one as the streetlights cast an eerie glow across his battered and suddenly pensive face. The idea of a gay boxer, which he introduced so calmly last October, has been accepted. Yet his dreamier notion - of becoming the world's first gay world champion - would bring Cruz the money and respect he has long craved.
Cruz, or Orlandito, as De Leon calls his 32-year-old fighter, smiled when I disappeared into the trainer's kitchen soon after we arrived. It felt rude not to accept De Leon's offer of a shot of tequila and cognac to get us in a big fight-night mood. Cruz remained in the sitting room, drinking water while we knocked back the hard stuff. But there was no stopping him when, after 1am, Cruz belted out the Mexican national anthem alongside the crooner singing it for Alvarez in Vegas. Cruz was as word-perfect when, the cameras trained on Mayweather, he hollered through the Stars & Stripes. He seemed to be having more fun here than in a Buffalo bar.
There was a cruel beauty to Mayweather's work as he speared blurring combinations into Alvarez. The raucous anticipation in De Leon's living room quietened as the Puerto Rican boxing men showed appreciation of a master of their vicious trade. Cruz was the most concentrated of all as he studied Mayweather.
At 2.15am, in the cool air outside following Mayweather's decisive win, Cruz stretched out his hand. "Four weeks tonight . . . it's my turn."
That raw immediacy fills every sparring session at the Northwest Buffalo Community Centre because Cruz knows how hard he will have to fight. Salido has boxed professionally for 17 years - since he was 15 - and has won the IBF and WBO world titles. He is the same age as Cruz but has had 53 fights - 30 more than the Puerto Rican whose record of 20 wins, a draw and two defeats was shadowed by a fraught battle over his sexuality.
It took years for Cruz to find the courage to make history as a gay fighter. But now, released from the shackles of secrecy and guilt, he works with new intent. "He's had his time," he murmurs in Spanish of 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."
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