Juan DeLeon remembers the first time he met Orlando Cruz.
It was back in 1997, when DeLeon took Joe Mesi to Puerto Rico to train just prior to the future Ring 44 Buffalo Veteran Boxers Association Hall of Famer’s professional debut.
DeLeon went to see Cruz workout, but Cruz already knew who DeLeon was because DeLeon’s brother Carlos, a four-time world champion, married one of Cruz’s neighbors.
That initial bond didn’t lead to Cruz and DeLeon working together, however. That didn’t happen until 2005 – when Mesi was engaged in his court battle with the Nevada Boxing Commission. DeLeon went back to Puerto Rico looking for prospects to train and once again ran into Cruz.
This time, Cruz was 5-0 as a professional and a prospect on the rise. DeLeon bought Cruz’s contract from his former manager and brought him into Team DeLeon’s camp.
Yes, they go way back, so much so that Cruz has lived and trained in Buffalo since 2010 – working out at the Northwest Buffalo Community Center without much fanfare while moving his way up to No. 1 contender status among featherweights.
The moment they have been waiting for comes tonight in Las Vegas. They are part of the co-feature bout on the world welterweight titlist Tim Bradley vs. Juan Manuel Marquez pay-per-view card at the Thomas and Mack Center (9 p.m., HBO PPV).
The 32-year-old Cruz, the sport’s first openly active gay boxer, faces Mexican Orlando Salido, a former world champ, for the vacant WBO world featherweight crown.
“This is a big opportunity for Orlando as well as me,” said DeLeon via phone Wednesday night from Vegas. “Orlando has a great, great chance.”
“I feel great and happy that my dream to fight for the world title come true,” Cruz wrote in an email to The News.
DeLeon will be in the corner of a boxer in a world title fight for the second time in a calendar year. DeLeon, who lives in Kenmore, served as the trainer of Mariusz Wach when he lost via unanimous decision to longtime world champion Wladimir Klitschko in Germany last November.
DeLeon really wants this one, though. Besides knowing Cruz most of his life, DeLeon views this fight as a chance for Buffalo to win a title. Yes, Cruz is from Quintana, Puerto Rico, which is way closer to Disney World than the Peace Bridge, but the peace and calm of Buffalo has been part of Cruz’s life the last two years.
“I have the best team any fighter could ask for, and a fight of this magnitude,” said Cruz, who likes training in Western New York because there aren’t too many distractions.
“This means a lot because we were so close with Mesi,” said DeLeon, referring to Mesi reaching No. 1 contender status but never getting to fight for the title because of brain bleeds suffered in a win over Vassily Jirov and then the lengthy court battle with Nevada to get his medical suspension overturned. “This means a lot to Team DeLeon and Buffalo equally.”
Cruz (20-2-1, 10 KOs) has won his last four fights since his last loss in 2010. Salido, also 32, is 39-12-2 with 27 KOs. The 5-foot-7 Salido, a two-time champion who last won a world belt two years ago, is known for his endurance and knockout punch. Cruz, who is 5-4, moves well and punches well, although he’s been stopped in both his losses.
“I know that God has big things for me, and I will make history,” Cruz said.