Being a hot prospect in the contemporary world of boxing is inherently difficult. If a high profile prospect is fed an array of stiffs and tomato cans to pad his record, he’ll be criticized regardless of the fact that the fighter’s management is more blameworthy than the fighter himself. On the other side of the coin, if a prospect is traditionally inculcated in a difficult, character building apprenticeship, he’ll likely be criticized as well because more chinks will appear in the armor against tough opposition. High expectations are heaped on prospects today, and when expectations aren’t met, criticism is often disproportionately vicious.
Not long ago, Miguel Cotto and Jermain Taylor were two of the top prospects in boxing. Cotto currently holds the WBO junior welterweight title, and Taylor is poised for his first title shot against Bernard Hopkins. Cotto’s management developed his career and honed his skills in the time-honored manner of an old-fashioned apprenticeship. Cotto proved that he’s not a one-dimensional front runner in the process, and quickly ascended the ranks in the toughest division in boxing. In contrast, Taylor was brought along slowly in the modern and fashionable mode of low risk and high yield in the talent-anemic middleweight division.
Ironically, Cotto faces an intricate web of difficulty to prove himself as the top junior welterweight in the world. The competition is deep and stiff. Taylor’s task is also tremendously difficult, but less complex. Jermain cuts straight to the chase and needs to beat 40-year-old Bernard Hopkins to become the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. Taylor’s management waited for the right time to strike, and they think the time is now.
It’s difficult to assess who will have a more successful career in the long run. Boxing is a chaotic and often counterintuitive sport where old-fashioned values don’t necessarily equate to long term success. To be sure, in watching Cotto and Taylor in the ring, Cotto appears to be the more relaxed and seasoned fighter. He’s faced comparably more difficult opposition during the embryonic stages of his career. He’s also faced adversity more often than Taylor, and that will probably help him in high profile title fights down the road. With Taylor, we have more questions than answers. With Cotto, we have more answers than questions.
When I watched Cotto coming up the ranks as a prospect, he reminded me of several fighters, but his level of comfort in the ring was unusual for a young boxer in this era. It was refreshing to watch a fighter execute the fundamentals of the sport against hardened opposition. I hadn’t seen a prospect as comfortable in the ring as Cotto since watching former jr. middleweight prospect and contender Tony Ayala Jr. in the early 1980s. In my opinion, El Torito was the best prospect in boxing history. In the future, we’ll get to see the best of Cotto. Unfortunately, we never got to see the best of Ayala.
As Barry Tompkins once stated before one of Ayala’s early fights, Tony Ayala Jr. was born to be a fighter. Tony Ayala Sr. raised all four of his sons to be fighters. Besides El Torito, Mike became the most accomplished of the fighting Ayala brothers, and is best known for his classic ebb and flow war against Danny “Little Red” Lopez in The Ring magazine ’s 1979 “Fight of the Year.”
El Torito started boxing at the age of 5 after watching his brothers in a Texas amateur tournament. From the age of 8, Tony never lost a fight, and won multiple amateur titles while compiling nearly 150 amateur bouts.
Perhaps more important than Ayala’s stellar amateur record was the reputation he gained in sparring with professional fighters. At the age of 14 in 1977, Ayala engaged in a famous sparring match with welterweight champion Jose “Pipino” Cuevas.
Cuevas was known for being hard on sparring partners. Indeed, a tough, quick former amateur fighter from the east coast who once trained me actually turned down the opportunity to spar with Cuevas at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles in the late 1970s after watching Cuevas concuss and bludgeon two sparring partners in the gym. Ayala was fearless, and his sparring session in San Antonio with Cuevas is still the stuff of legends.
In 1992, Knockout Magazine, which was published three times per year by G.C. London Publishing Associates, released a gem of a publication about knockout artists. Included in the edition were profiles of Bob Foster, Earnie Shavers, Alfonso Zamora, Pipino Cuevas, George Foreman, and Tony Ayala Jr. Superb boxing scribe Phil Berger did a great piece on Ayala entitled “The Odyssey of Tony Ayala Jr.: The Rage of the Fighter, The Destruction of The Man.” Berger perfectly captured the essence and action of El Torito’s infamous sparring session with Cuevas.
Berger clearly pointed out that Tony Sr. was reluctant to allow his teenage son in with a brutal punching champion like Cuevas, but Tony Jr. contended that Cuevas wouldn't be able to hurt him, and insisted on the sparring match. Berger describes Tony Sr.’s version of the action after his son talked him into arranging the match.
“Well, word got out. The gym was packed that day with spectators. And for the first two rounds, it was nip and tuck, man against boy. At the end of the second round, I asked him, ‘Torito, is he hurting you?’ He says no to me, ‘he may be a world champion, but he ain’t sh** to me.’ And he went out and kicked his butt the next round.”
Naturally, a father might embellish on his son’s accomplishments, but Berger was careful and astute to mention that Tony Sr. wasn’t the only person in the gym who saw it that way.
“San Antonio fight promoter, Tony Padilla, who has had his differences with the Ayalas, was there the afternoon Cuevas and young Tony went at it. He remembers Lupe Sanchez, Pipino’s manager, saying to Cuevas afterward, ‘Aren’t you ashamed — a 14-year-old boy doing that to you?’ And Pipino, Padilla said, was muttering ‘Increible, increible’ – which is incredible in English.”
When Ayala turned pro at the age of 17 in 1980, he was touted as one of “Tomorrow’s Champions.” Ayala’s stablemate and sparring partner, Bobby Czyz, was perhaps the most marketed of the young prospects climbing the ranks, but Ayala was by far the most precocious and talented. Ayala had the ability to slip and counter to the head and body unlike many top contenders despite his tender age. More importantly, Ayala faced adversity early in his career, and responded like an old school champion when he was hurt and on the brink of defeat.
In Ayala’s ninth pro fight, he faced dangerous, deceptive, and unpredictable Mario Maldonado. Maldonado sported a mediocre record of 11-7-1, but possessed tremendous punching power and a style that could rattle well-rounded, battletested opponents.
In the first round, Maldonado took the fight to the 18-year-old Ayala. Ayala characteristically responded with beautifully executed counter hooks to the head and body. As the round commenced, Maldonado was surprisingly getting the better of the exchanges. After trading salvos in the center of the ring, Maldonado was able to land a combination that backed Ayala against the ropes. Under fire, Ayala attempted to retaliate, but was caught with a wicked right to the temple that froze him and had him out on his feet. Maldonado followed up, and Ayala was on the deck for the first time in his young, fledgling career.
Most importantly, Ayala was badly hurt. He took a short count, and slowly stood up on unsteady and twitching legs. Despite being in a fog, Ayala instinctively looked to his corner, and nonchalantly waved to them that he was ok and to sit down. Even near the brink of defeat and career destruction, Ayala had a fearless, defiant look on his face. His nervous system had suffered a severe shock, and it seemed like Ayala might become a first round knockout victim. The cynical reaction of many of observers was that Ayala would prove to be yet another hot prospect who failed miserably when adversity was unexpectedly manifested.
What happened shortly thereafter is the difference between a prospect and a true contender. El Torito methodically picked his spots, and turned the tide of the bout. He began to tattoo Maldonado with thudding left hooks and vicious right hands. As the first round ended, Ayala was in complete control, and Maldonado was in trouble.
During the next two rounds, Ayala punished Maldonado. Ayala’s attack was a study in controlled, professional fury. Jabs, short, compact left hooks to the body and head. Lead right hands followed by more hooks. Ayala effortlessly slipped Maldonado’s desperate shots, and attacked with increased fury.
In the third round, a hook shot Mario’s mouthpiece several rows into the crowd. Shortly thereafter, Maldonado hit the deck and gradually succumbed to the pounding. The referee stopped the bout after it became clear that Mario didn’t want to continue.
It was both a scary and revealing bout. Tony Ayala Jr. could be hurt and knocked down, but he could rise from the brink of defeat to dominate dangerous opposition. He was no longer a prospect. He definitely wasn’t a one-dimensional front runner who couldn’t handle return fire.
A contender was born.
Over the next twenty months, Ayala roared and ripped his way through tomato cans, journeyman, and legitimate contenders. To this day, I have never seen a fighter so young with as much game as Tony Ayala Jr. At age 18, he could execute a shoulder roll off an incoming right hand and counter with his own right hand as well as James Toney or Evander Holyfield. During infighting, El Torito would sometimes cross his arms in the style of Archie Moore, and then counter with a five-punch head and body combination, pivot, and land another thumping combination that would paralyze and befuddle his opponents.
Tony was uniquely relaxed and vicious in the ring. Barry Tompkins compared him to Jake LaMotta, but with better instincts. Ferdie Pacheco compared him to Roberto Duran because of the relentless ferocity of his attack. It is hard for me to articulate who Ayala reminds me of because he was actually quite original.
As the sordid story of boxing goes, Ayala never fulfilled his potential. On the verge of a title fight with WBA belt holder Davey Moore, Ayala was convicted of rape and was given a 15-35 year sentence in the New Jersey penal system.
We should’ve known. Ayala had been in serious trouble before. He reached an out of court settlement in a sexual assault case when he was only 15-years-old. Just months prior to the aforementioned rape, he was arrested while wandering intoxicated in a neighbor’s home. Like Mike Tyson, Ayala was careening out of control, and nothing could stop the wreck.
When Ayala entered prison in 1983 at the age of twenty, his professional record was 22-0 with 19 KOs.
When Ayala emerged from prison in 1999, I was surprised when he announced a comeback. In his first career, Ayala once admitted that he really didn’t like boxing as much as fans might think. I was also surprised that he would compete near his original weight. Ayala emerged from prison around 200 pounds, but didn’t appear obese.
Many people forget that Bernard Hopkins immediately called Ayala out at that time. Hopkins was still laboring in obscurity while waging war against the establishment. Hopkins’ overtures might’ve been a great marketing coup if Ayala’s impulses superceded his intellect. Ayala smartly ignored Hopkins’ challenge. He knew as well as Bernard that 16 years in prison doesn’t improve a fighter’s ability to slip jabs and hooks.
Ayala’s comeback didn’t go far. Initially, some compared his comeback to that of George Foreman, but the comparison is both unfair and inaccurate. I strongly believe Ayala was at a huge disadvantage compared to the comeback of Fifth Ward George. I have always believed that the level of pure boxing skill tends to increase in inverse proportion to weight. Especially in the contemporary era, the heavyweight division is based more on power than boxing skill. Foreman could easily compensate for slowed reflexes with his freakish power. In contrast, Ayala’s slowed reflexes would be more apparent and detrimental at 154 or 160 pounds. The fighters are quicker and harder to tag cleanly than heavyweights. Therefore, Ayala would automatically experience more difficulty than did Foreman.
Ayala was doomed from the beginning.
As it turned out, Ayala’s comeback record was 9-2 with 8 KOs. In his last fight, Tony appeared listless and a caricature of his former self when he was stopped in 11 rounds by Anthony Bonsante during the spring of 2003. Truthfully, his comeback ended when Yori Boy Campas stopped him in 9 rounds on July 28, 2000. Ayala attempted to rebound, but the demons and trouble of the past insidiously crept back into his world.
Legal troubles started months after Ayala lost to Campas. Ayala was shot when he broke into the home of a young woman who trained at his gym. After much legal haggling, he was placed on 10 years probation.
In another legal scrape, Ayala was falsely accused of rape by a young woman, but spent a few months in jail while fights fell through.
When Ayala was released from prison in 1999, he proclaimed himself to be the original Mike Tyson. The parallels fit in many ways.
In 2004, Ayala was aimless. His boxing career was essentially over, and career prospects appeared elusive. He was arrested for speeding, driving without a license, and possessing drug paraphernalia in his car. Ayala was sentenced to 10 years in prison for violating the terms of his probation.
Ayala is now a two-time loser, and only time will tell how Ayala will fare if he survives the next several years in a Texas prison and is granted yet another shot at freedom.
In classical music, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Nicolo Paganini are two of the greatest virtuosos to grace the planet. Both were child prodigies. Mozart was composing music at the age of five. He was most comfortable effortlessly composing the most exquisite operas and symphonies in history. Mozart was the standard by which eccentric geniuses are measured. Outside of his element, he was a careless spendthrift and nonconformist who didn’t possess an iota of common sense or business acumen. He died destitute and was buried in an unmarked grave at the age of 35.
Although not as well known on a pound-for-pound basis, Italian violinist Nicolo Paganini might’ve been better than Mozart. Paganini received classical training early in life, but was mostly self-taught. Reports from that era indicate that Paganini’s passages were so beautiful and awe-inspiring that his audiences would weep in admiration. Many were stunned by his virtuosity, and theorized that he was in a pact with the devil. Today, the best musicians in the world continue to struggle in duplicating his work.
Nicolo’s peccadilloes were also at a different level than Mozart. Like Mozart, he was a spendthrift. Deeper and more disturbing, he was a murderer and a rapist. He was also hopelessly addicted to gambling. Moreover, his wife suffered as Nicolo relentlessly assuaged his sex addiction through countless extramarital affairs, many of which occurred with underage girls. As Paganini’s hubris and instability ultimately hampered his career, it destroyed his life as well. The Catholic Church deemed him a heretic and denied him a Christian burial at his death in 1840 at the age of 57.
Prodigies often don’t last long, nor do they fit into the established norms and mores of society.
Tony Ayala Jr. was the prototype of the prodigy gone wrong. Like Mozart and Paganini, he started his profession early in life, and his skill set improved at an unnatural rate. Robbie Epps lost to Ayala on a first round knockout in 1982. He was once a sparring partner of Ayala, and a family adversary. Epps described Ayala’s bizarre and precocious development in Berger’s excellent article.
“I first saw Torito compete in San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium in 1972. I couldn’t believe it. Nine years old he was, and he was fighting a guy with a mustache and a tattoo—a 15-year-old man. It was the first time I’d ever seen a kid that young whose punches made a thudding sound when they landed. He had that squatty body of his, but he beat the hell out of the mustached guy. Stopped him in the third round. It was amazing.”
Ayala stunned and amazed Epps, just as he enthralled fans at the Freeman Coliseum in San Antonio with his curious blend of barely controlled fury and advanced ring savvy.
The downfall of Tony Ayala Jr. has been explained in many ways. It is well known that Ayala was pushed hard in his development, grew up too fast, and was raised in a tough environment. Ayala was exposed to drugs and alcohol during the onset of puberty. Heroin was one of Ayala’s toughest adversaries. El Torito later admitted that he was actually detoxing from heroin before some of his most notable performances. Additionally, it is well known that Ayala was molested repeatedly as a child. Some have speculated that the unfortunate nature of Ayala’s upbringing contributed heavily to his self-destruction and criminal behavior.
In truth, the real professional tragedy of Tony Ayala Jr. is that he was blessed with unusual gifts he didn’t maximize. He simply made the wrong choices, and destroyed his life along with the lives of others. He could’ve been more than a contender. He probably would’ve become at least a good belt holder and might’ve engaged in memorable battles with Hearns, Duran, Hagler, Leonard and Mugabi. At his possible zenith, he might’ve defeated the best, changed the history of boxing, and transcended the sport.
From a different angle, another tragedy looms. In watching interviews with Ayala, he is actually well-spoken and intelligent. Tony Ayala Jr. could’ve helped a lot of people. Tony could’ve emerged from prison, and counseled those who suffered from the residual effects of sexual abuse and drug addiction. He could’ve helped ex-convicts through the precarious web of integrating back into society. He could’ve trained fighters, and helped them overcome the pitfalls of both success and failure. In the end, Tony Ayala Jr. simply chose to self-destruct instead of taking the opportunity of freedom and turning it into the multi-faceted redemption story he was fully capable of accomplishing.
Tony Ayala Jr. was the top prospect in boxing history. He was blessed with abilities only the greatest fighters in history can fathom. He is yet another example in a long line of sad stories in our complex and tough business. His story isn’t tragic because he was manipulated by promoters and managers. The legacy and tragedy of Tony Ayala Jr. is that he couldn’t conquer his inner demons. He simply failed to transfer and channel his innate abilities and intelligence into the ultimate professional and personal success he seemed destined to attain.