KISSIMMEE - In what could bring him one step closer to becoming a world boxing champion, Orlando Cruz prepares to face opponent Jorge Pazos on Friday just days after announcing that he was gay, the first active fighter in the macho sport to openly discuss his sexual orientation.
Cruz, 31, a featherweight currently ranked fourth by the World Boxing Organization (WBO), likes to mix his training session with bit of salsa dancing as he prepares for his fight in Kissimmee, Florida on Oct. 19.
Cruz (18-4, 9KOs), was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, a Caribbean island usually unfriendly to the idea of homosexuality. He said it had been a difficult and long journey to reach the decision to finally come out.
"It's been a long time since I've been dealing with this - twelve years," the charismatic boxer told Reuters.
"I moved to New York four years ago where I underwent psychological therapy with professionals to mentally and physically prepare for this step, so important in my life, and I'm very happy."
Once seen as one of the last bastions of homophobia, athletes from a whole of range of sports have announced in recent years they were gay, but no active boxers have come out, until Cruz.
He said he had been stunned by the amount of support he has received from other professional fighters after initially being filled with anxiety about how people would react.
But an intense desire to live an authentic life compelled him to make the announcement.
"The only thing I want is to be respected. I'm an athlete," he said, exuding confidence moments after his workout to popular salsa tunes.
"I'm a professional and my personal life should not matter to anyone."
Cruz said he began boxing at the age of seven after being captivated by the way Muhammad Ali moved in the ring.
"Muhammad Ali and I, we're very similar. We have the same motion in the ring," said Cruz.
"We have the same move, the same show. 'This is my ring! It's my show! It's my time!' That's Muhammad Ali. I love him!"
Domiga Torres Rivera, Cruz's mother, recalled the moment, several years ago, when her son held her hands tight and said "Mom we need to talk" and had difficulty uttering the words: "I'm gay."
"For a mother, it's very tough to hear that," she said.
"But it's your own blood and there's no question that you will love them and support them, not shun them. We can't force our children to be who they're not."
Cruz said he was now ready to move on with his life and focus on the road to the world title. He was ambitious and determined to make it to the top and said his next bout was a key step in that direction.
"I will do it with ease. I respect my opponent, but he is just a stepping stone to me. I cannot wait to hear the sound of that bell," said Cruz wiping the sweat off his forehead with his glove and shuffling his feet to salsa during a workout break at his training facility in Kissimmee.
Mexican fighter Jorge Pazos, (20-4, 13 KO) said he was more focused on his opponent's fighting style than his sexual orientation.
"I don't care because that's something personal," said Pazos. "I know he's a great boxer in the ring so that's what I'm focused on."