Orlando Cruz was in the middle of training for his world featherweight title fight Tuesday when he heard of Emile Griffith’s death.
Cruz, who announced he was gay last year, had previously attempted to meet personally with the ailing former world welterweight and middleweight champion who died at age 75 Tuesday in New York.
Griffith struggled for years over questions about his sexuality, and was taunted viciously by 1962 opponent Benny Paret. Griffith unloaded repeated unanswered punches on Paret in their Madison Square Garden fight, and Paret died of brain injuries days later.
“I wanted to see Griffifth after my last fight,” in March, “but my grandma died and I missed him,” Cruz told the Times on Wednesday in a telephone call from Florida. “I’m very sad for his loss.
“Griffith meant a lot to me. When he was alive, things didn’t get as far for gay people who wanted to come out in the open. Still, he was very brave and had much courage.”
Griffith told his biographer and reporters in later years of having a lengthy relationship with a man during his career, and he became intimate with a young man he adopted later in his life.
Cruz said while he has been subjected to some taunting about his sexuality, he “would never let it get to me. I would discredit that talk outside the ring and do my work inside it.”
Cruz will fight Orlando Salido on Oct. 12 at Las Vegas’ Thomas and Mack Center on the pay-per-view undercard of Juan Manuel Marquez-Timothy Bradley.
“I didn’t make my statement in the first place thinking about Griffith,” Cruz said. “I’m happy I did it. It feels good to be free and winning a championship on top of that would be unexplainable.
“To be able to accomplish this … I’m hungry and ready for this opportunity. No discredit to Salido, but if anyone gets in front of me for the world championship, I will beat him.”