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By TIM DAHLBERG
AP Sports Columnist
For more years than he wanted to count, Orlando Cruz kept it a secret as best he could. He thought he had no choice, because of who he is and what he does.
Cruz is a fighter, and a pretty good one at that. He won 179 amateur bouts and represented Puerto Rico in the 2000 Olympics. By the time this year is over, he hopes to hold a piece of the world title at 126 pounds
But his legacy won't be defined with wins and losses, or gaudy green belts. Cruz made sure of that last week by saying words no professional boxer had ever dared utter before.
"I have always been, and always will be, a proud gay man," Cruz said.
The words came easy, because for Cruz it was way past time. He was tired of hiding who he was, tired of trying to pretend he was something else.
He came out to the world, and to his next opponent and the one after that. Then he held his breath and waited to see just how far society has really come.
It didn't take long to get an answer.
The best fighter in Puerto Rico, Miguel Cotto, reached out to offer encouragement and support to his former Olympic teammate. Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin - who came out himself two years ago - sent him a text offering the same.
And the rest of the boxing world more or less just yawned.
"People say, `It's OK, Orlando, don't worry,"' Cruz said in a phone conversation from Puerto Rico "They tell me, `It's your life and we support you."'
That could change, of course, depending on who Cruz faces in the ring and how they view the issue of sexual orientation. It won't be until he actually fights - something he is scheduled to do two weeks in Florida - that Cruz will get a better idea how being publicly gay in the most macho of all sports will eventually play out.
It's uncharted territory, because no active male athlete in any major sport has ever come out before. To have it happen in the sport of boxing - where fighters still routinely taunt their opponents with gay slurs - is almost unthinkable.
But if boxing can live with a gay fighter, could the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NBA be next?
Not likely, because there is still a stigma against homosexuality in major sports played by males. Cruz will have to deal with his own issues after coming out, but he doesn't have teammates he has to win over in the locker room.
That doesn't minimize what Cruz did, or the courage it took to do it. The 31-year-old has been fighting since he was a kid, but this is one fight he couldn't take on alone.
He spoke to psychologists, talked with his family. They were all supportive, but in the end the decision was his and his alone to make.
"I don't want to hide any of my identities," Cruz said. "I want people to look at me for the human being I am."
The decision by Cruz to come out comes 50 years after Emile Griffith - who would later say he enjoyed the company of both men and women - was taunted with a gay slur by Benny Paret at the weigh-in at Madison Square Garden for their welterweight title fight. Griffith would go on to knock out Paret with a savage series of punches in the 12th round, and was still celebrating when Paret was taken from the ring on a stretcher.
Paret died 10 days later in the hospital, something that has haunted Griffith ever since. In a 2005 interview with The New York Times, though, Griffith said he wanted to give Paret a beating for what he said.
"He called me a name. ... So I did what I had to do," Griffith said.
Cruz said he won't respond to any slurs, and isn't concerned what his opponent thinks or says. He's the No. 4 ranked featherweight by the WBO and is focused on resurrecting a career that floundered when he was stopped in two straight fights in 2009-10.
He believes he is good enough to win a world title and, should he win his next fight, would be in line for a shot at the interim WBO belt.
"I don't care if the other guy is homophobic," Cruz said. "My focus and concentration will always be on winning the fight. I am hungry now, very hungry to become a world champion."
He has already become a champion of gay rights activists, who cheered when he came out. And he hopes that kids who are bullied will see what he did and understand that who you are or who you love shouldn't be a barrier to what you can accomplish.
He's happy with himself, pleased with what he's done. Instead of dreading what might come next, Cruz feels a sense of liberation and relief.
For the first time in his life, he has nothing to hide.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg