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Orlando Cruz prepares for championship bout

Out gay sports-media personality Jared Max catches up with Orlando Cruz at a workout as the boxer prepares for the biggest fight of his life

Jared Max shares a moment with Orlando Cruz
Jared Max shares a moment with Orlando Cruz
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

There is something surreal about discussing being gay in professional sports. It's probably because being gay has nothing to do with being in professional sports.

I was asked countless questions about this very topic when I came out publicly on my ESPN Radio show two years ago. The questions for me then sounded identical to those directed Tuesday at WBO featherweight contender Orlando Cruz at a media session with the out gay boxer in New York. It was surreal hearing these questions all over again, being the only publicly out gay sports reporter among several media members assigned to interview the first openly gay, active prizefighter.

As I gathered with other broadcasters and writers at Mendez Boxing Gym, I chuckled to myself imagining why so many media outlets assigned reporters, photographers and audio engineers to meet a 32-year old former Olympic boxer who is on the undercard on an upcoming HBO Pay-Per-View event. I knew the answer to my question. Had Cruz not sent homophobes to a standing eight-count last October when he announced he is gay, would ANY reporter have been in the basement boxing mecca Tuesday?

Somewhat ashamed to admit this, I was ignorantly curious to see what a "gay boxer" looks like -- how he acts and sounds. Stupid me. Still, I was comfortable knowing I would not ask any questions that would cause a scene, make the subject uncomfortable or make me look like a fool -- uninformed or insensitive. For other reporters, however, I was fearful of an "uh-oh" moment. Thankfully, the entire exchange between mainstream media and gay boxer was mature and humane.

Whether asking in English or Cruz's native Spanish, reporters respectfully peppered the softly spoken fighter with the same questions, relatively: "How have you been received in and out of the boxing community since you came out"? Politely, yet excitedly, Cruz answered that it has been an ultimately positive experience, receiving congratulations and encouragement from the boxing world and beyond -- from Sugar Ray Leonard to Ricky Martin. Proudly, I told the powerful 5-foot-4 puncher that responses to my coming out were equally great.

Even though I had never met Orlando Cruz before Tuesday, I felt as if I could speak to him as a brother. It is a rare gay-sports connection. So, when it was my turn to address Cruz, I leaned in toward his right ear and spoke quietly -- more privately than in a "Q&A" mode which I am used to and how all the other reporters addressed the boxer. We chatted about how foolish each of us had been for so many years, how we allowed our fears of being gay and being outed to nearly cripple us. One word we shared about where we are: Free.

Still, being "the gay boxer" is not how Orlando Cruz wants to be known.

While the featherweight fighter (who announced that he plans to marry his boyfriend Jose Manuel in New York in December) accepts and relishes being a role model and wants to win a world title next month for the LGBT community, he was adamant about how he wants to be perceived.

"When people talk, I want them to say that I'm a professional boxer and that I'm a world champion."

Three weeks from now, I hope to speak about Orlando Cruz, WBO champion -- who happens to be gay.

You can follow Jared Max on Twitter @Jared_Max

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