De Leon joins us, in a stark dining hall next to the gym, and Cruz rolls his eyes at me as he listens to his trainer. "I love this kid," De Leon says, "but I was hard on him today. You've heard how important this fight is to Orlandito. Last October he released something he was holding inside him for so long. He's free now."
The trainer remembers Cruz beating up another fighter who had taunted him a few years ago for being gay. "Orlando had already confessed to me," De Leon says. "I had no problem. A couple of my cousins are gay or lesbian. I accepted him and we kept it secret. But this guy in the gym knew the rumours. When he and Orlando sparred he was kidding around. Orlando said: 'Keep your hands up because I'm hitting you.' But this fighter kept taunting him. He said: 'Hey, do what you gotta do, you fucking gay . . .'"
De Leon glances at Cruz who says: "He called me maricon."
"Oh, Orlandito," De Leon sighs, "you opened up on him." He pumps his fists and cries: "Ba-ba-ba-bam, ba-ba-ba-bam! Orlando got him in the corner and said: 'I'm gonna fuck you up . . .' Bam-bam-bam! You talking about me? How does it feel? A fucking gay beating you up?"
De Leon's eyes widen at the memory. "You know what it reminded me of? Griffith against Paret. That's how angry he was."
The truth, even when it's smeared with hurt and violence, matters to Cruz: "I was different then. I had a lot of pain in me. I carried a persecution complex." De Leon confirms that, "back then Orlando didn't get on with my fighters. He thought they were all laughing at him because there was so much gossip. He would say to them: 'What you looking at?' I would say: 'Hey, Orlandito, people can look at you.' So that's why, when the guy called him maricon, Orlando cut loose. But guess what? They became good friends. The next day they both apologised and started working together. That's Orlando's strength."
A defining measure of that strength was established exactly a year ago when Cruz came out. It is striking that, now, he can concentrate more on his career than repeat why, as he told me last October, he removed "the thorn from my side".
"I'm much more tranquil now. My mind is on the fight. It was the same with my two other fights after coming out. I was calm and won easily. I'd said what I wanted to say for so long. I'm a gay man - and a fighter. This gives me calm."
Cruz felt more jittery when, three months ago, he proposed to his partner, Jose Manuel, on Facebook. "I'd like to say, and share it with your friends, and my friends: 'Do you want to marry me?' It's an important step, a step I've thought about, a step we've thought about . . ."
It did not take long for Jose, who is older than Cruz and an engineer, to accept and tell Cruz: "I love and adore you."
Cruz looks almost dazed as he remembers his unusual proposal. "I came in after a long run and just did it. It was very spontaneous. Life is much more positive for me now. I'm much more confident. My marriage can happen in a year or two but a world title fight against Salido is a once-in-a-lifetime chance."
Marriage between gay men is banned in Puerto Rico, as in many states of America, and so their struggle is not over. Cruz also recalls the homophobic murder of a close friend, a transvestite, in San Juan. "It happened two years ago and I will think of all the people who died in these hate crimes. But winning the fight will be the strongest message I can give."
We leave the gym and cross the street for lunch at the house belonging to De Leon's brother. Over steaming bowls of soup, Cruz plays with De Leon's baby niece, throwing her gently into the air as she squeals excitedly. "I would love to have kids," he says simply.
He and Jose will have to marry in New York and try to adopt children away from Puerto Rico where, again, the notion of gay parents is illegal. But, lost in the moment, Cruz echoes the little girl's laughter as he turns her into a small aeroplane and flies her around the kitchen. His battle with Salido seems an age away.
On my last day in Buffalo, Cruz suggests we go to church. He arrives late, having slept in, but he grins. "It's better I go to church than a gay bar," he says as we walk into St Joseph's where De Leon's 11-year-old son, Angel, is an altar boy. I find it hard to shake stark thoughts of everything Cruz will face against Salido - especially when his head is bowed in silent prayer. The hymns roll on - and Cruz sings quietly that Lord, I'm Coming Home. When we are asked to link hands he holds mine tightly while the priest prays for those about to face danger, or darkness.
Encouraged to turn to each other and say, "Peace be with you . . .," Cruz shakes my hand and says the words sincerely. But he is a fighter and so he also winks.
Now, a month later in Las Vegas, the tension is palpable. At Thursday's final press conference for HBO's pay-per-view event the veteran promoter Bob Arum held court. He recalled his promotion of Muhammad Ali and hailed Cruz as another boxing pioneer who will wear pink gloves and multi-coloured trunks that look more like a skirt in the ring. Arum suggested that, even recently, a fight featuring a gay boxer would have led to the appearance of "a thousand protesters. But boxing, and the world, is a much better place now".
On the podium and wearing a smart charcoal-grey suit, Cruz smiled and spoke clearly in English. "Today I'm making history . . . and on Saturday I'll be the new world champion." Salido cut a contrasting figure in a black tracksuit. The old Mexican warrior's usually stony face kept twitching. But he did not sound frightened when he said: "It's going to be a war."
Away from the hoopla, a quiet force runs through Cruz. He knows that, whatever happens tonight, he will make history as the first publicly gay fighter to challenge for a world title.
"Everything I've been through has taken me to this point," Cruz says in one last moment of private reflection before we part. "It's the most important fight of my life. I'm a gay man, but I'm also a boxer. My two worlds have come together and I will fight with all my heart. The world knows the truth about me as a man. Now the world will see the truth about me as a fighter. I'm ready. This is my time."
(c) 2013 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
Original headline: 'I am a gay man, but I'm also a boxer. My two worlds have come together': Exclusive A year after coming out Orlando Cruz tonight hopes to become boxing's first openly gay champion. The Guardian joined him in upstate New York as he prepared: Cruz prays for peace as 'war' looms
Most Popular Stories
- SpaceX's Satellite Launch Is 'Game-Changer'
- Reid Confident Congress to Pass Immigration Bill
- Maui Visitor Killed in Shark Attack
- Donors Abandon GOP Over Gun Stance
- Mexico: 'Extremely Dangerous' Radioactive Material Stolen
- CEOs More Optimistic About Economy, Hiring
- Climate Change Early Warning System Urged
- Private Sector Employment Surges by 215,000 Jobs
- Calif. Likes Christie, Says Tea Party's a Drag
- Newtown 911 Tapes Being Released Today