Let’s be clear: He is a former Olympian, a 19-2-1 pro boxer, and I’m a hobbyist just breaking in my gloves at an amateur gym in Pawtucket. But Orlando Cruz and I have a lot in common: Our birthdays are only four months apart, and we’re both featherweights, at 5 feet 6 inches and 125 pounds — which makes us small men, men used to being underestimated. We’re also men who didn’t come into our own until our thirties. For Cruz, that’s when he came out as gay, making him the first openly gay boxer; for me, that’s when I began my gender transition.
I got into boxing because I’d been holed up in my house for a year and a half, trying to figure out who I was, mostly by working out. Testosterone gave me a jangly energy that I found could best be released by high-energy, endurance-oriented sessions: jumping rope, burpees, chin-ups, mountain climbers, push-ups, squats, planks — repeat. I wanted to build a strong core, and when I went to my first boxing gym, I discovered I’d been training to box all along.
I loved everything about my first day: the drop-dead drills, the smack of my fist on a bag, the way the old pros hassled each other. Few sports so mimic the basic reality of life — how, in the end, it’s always you against yourself, no matter who’s in the ring or hitting the bag beside you.
As a trans man, a different kind of man, it’s a lesson I needed to remember.
Being a writer, I know boxing is the most literary of all sports. The simplicity of it in the sparkly, crazy MMA age has led many to declare it dead. But it can never really die: As everyone from Mailer to Hemingway to Joyce Carol Oates knows, pro boxing is one of the most poetic physical expressions of masculine vulnerability.
I’ve trained a little with a former pro in Narragansett who’d speak in these tender metaphors: “When the other guy comes at you, baby, lean in; you’ll want to do anything else, but the only way you win is to move toward him. Relax and be here. If you back off, you lose.”
In the ring it’s just you, exposed — and exposure is a particular kind of bravery. It draws a certain kind of man. Men like Cruz. Men like me.
Just as I was learning to shadowbox, Cruz, not exactly a household name at the time, came out in a press release. His announcement in October was a moment the sports world watched closely, and not just because 2012 was the year of pro athletes coming out in droves. No, more darkly, it was that the last pro-boxing story involving homophobia was the infamous 1962 fight that began with an anti-gay slur lobbied at Emile Griffith (who has, since retirement, said he’s slept with both men and women) and ended in the death of his opponent, Benny Paret, 10 days after their brutal match. Redemption was a necessity, then, for both the sport and the man willing to risk his career in order to be himself.
And he got it — in his first bout following his announcement, Cruz beat Jorge Pazos, silencing any trash talk and beginning a turn in the national spotlight that’s only grown since.
Cruz told ESPN that he wanted to be “true to himself,” and he’s said elsewhere that he’s finally at peace. He’ll be the grand marshal at this year’s Pride parade in his native Puerto Rico. Truth is a potent force if his career is any indication: He’s as good a bet as ever for a title this year.
I watch him, and I get it. There’s a certain strength, a deep grace in taking that kind of risk. You’ve got to jab to free up the space for a well-placed hook; and you’ve got to face the chance of the other guy ducking and catching you on the side of the head, the fear you’ve left yourself open. Boxing, like life, is graceful precisely when it demonstrates the fleetingness of grace.
Recently, my wife came home during my workout and watched me bang out combinations for a while. “It’s like ballet,” she said. She’s right. It’s ballet with black eyes, it’s a way to make our most base instincts beautiful.
And for men like us, men with bodies targeted for violence, it’s an opportunity to value your body enough to expose it, to shoot for the real glory of it all. It’s not the winning that matters as much as the freedom that comes from not backing off, even when you’re all alone out there. It takes heart to move your body toward what scares you, but he’s shown us that the only way to win, baby, is to do it on your own terms — which is my favorite metaphor of all.