The news that former junior middleweight contender Tony Ayala Jr., 52, was found dead early Tuesday morning in San Antonio, Texas, shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the turbulent and troubled life of the onetime boy wonder who was known as “El Torito,” the Little Bull, when he was blasting his way to a 22-0 record with 19 knockouts and a No. 1 ranking from the WBA before his 19th birthday.
Perhaps the only stunner is that Ayala passed away so apparently peacefully, slumped over in the otherwise empty Zarzamora Street Gym where he had again been trying to dig out from the wreckage of a lifetime of abhorrent behavior and disastrous decisions, this time as a boxing trainer.
There are those who would have wagered heavily that Ayala’s end would have come violently or under suspicious circumstances, befitting someone who squandered his once-prodigious talent, and huge chunks of his time on earth, behind prison walls for crimes that even now that are chilling to polite society.
Thus are there two schools of thought that are invariably intertwined when recalling Ayala: one is the potential all-time great who might have been held in the same lofty esteem as contemporaries Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns; the other is an emotionally disturbed, heroin-addicted volcano always threatening to erupt. That Ayala went on drug binges and brutalized women whenever his inner demons could no longer be suppressed.
Of Ayala the fighter, his former manager, Lou Duva, once observed: “Forget Leonard, forget Hagler and, yeah, forget Mike Tyson. Rocky Marciano and Tony Ayala were the guys. Not even Muhammad Ali, great as he was, had it quite like those two.”
Dispute Duva’s take on Ayala the fighter if you must, but the prevailing viewpoint of the man outside of the ring is not in such glowing terms.
“I hope they prosecute him to the max in San Antonio,” Passaic County (N.J.) assistant district attorney Marilyn Zbodinski, who prosecuted Ayala for the 1983 rape convicted that landed him in prison for 16 years, said upon learning he had been arrested for a strikingly similar transgression in 2000. “He is a habitual, vicious criminal, and he’s not going to change.”
In many ways, the Tony Ayala Jr. story is reminiscent of another extremely gifted but tortured fighter, Johnny “Mi Vida Loca” Tapia, who was just 45 when his finally heart gave out on May 27, 2012. If there is a difference between them, it is that Tapia stayed out of trouble long enough to capture world championships at super flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight, and whose lengthiest period of inactivity was 3½ years. Ayala on the other hand, did not box for nearly 17 years, his first conviction forever erasing his already-agreed-upon title challenge of WBA 154-pound champ Davey Moore.
Were Ayala and Tapia victims of unfortunate circumstances that predisposed them to tragedy and heartbreak, directed at themselves as well as others? Were they deficient in some way that prevented them from rising above those circumstances? Or, especially in the case of Ayala, was he simply an inherently bad seed who pondered at length the forces that shaped his destiny?
For Tapia, the compelling reality of his life was the rape and murder of his mother, Virginia Tapia Gallegos, when Johnny was eight years old. The pain of her absence in his life drove him to dull the most jagged edges of his psyche with narcotics, and to take his anger out on opponents inside the ropes.
During his first incarceration, Ayala admitted to having been sexually abused as a boy by a male acquaintance of his family, something he was unable to speak about to his parents, Tony Sr. and Pauline, and then-wife Lisa for many years.
B. “I kept this from everybody, especially the people I care about,” Ayala told me during a two-hour interview session at Bayside State Prison in Cumberland County, N.J., in January 1998. “I kept it from my mother, my father, my wife. The first person who ever heard about it was my prison psychologist (Brian Raditz, who became Ayala’s manager upon his release).
“My drug use was more of an open secret. Other people knew about it. My dad didn’t. My dad is very ignorant about things like drugs and drug use. My dad never did anything like that in his life and he couldn’t imagine anyone he loved doing that either. He couldn’t detect the signs and the behavior that are associated with drugs.”
Not that Ayala’s personal failings or his heroin habit prevented him from battering his way toward the top of his profession.
“It became a situation where I had to prove myself constantly,” he said during the same interview. “Everything I did, including boxing, became about my machismo, my manhood, my ability to dominate and control my world and the people in it. It was about imposing my will on another person.
“It affected my sexuality as well. I felt a constant need to prove myself to be straight and strong and virile. There was this cycle that kept repeating itself. I’d fight and receive a great deal of praise. I was everybody’s favorite child. Then, within a short period of time, I would get arrested for being drunk, getting into a brawl, breaking into somebody’s house or whatever. Then I would fight again and the bad things would be more or less forgotten. Until I did them again, and I always did.”
The insanity came to a boil in the early-morning hours of Jan. 1, 1983, when a booze-fueled Ayala committed an act so heinous it could no longer be swept aside with by his boxing fame. No longer would he be everybody’s favorite child.
According to testimony presented at Ayala’s trial, a 30-year-old woman living in his apartment complex in West Paterson, N.J., was awakened by the sound of her bedroom doorknob turning. The door opened to reveal a man, a man she saw only by the light of a clock radio. The intruder produced a knife, tied her to the bed with her socks, blindfolded her, then had his way with her. In the next room, the woman’s 29-year-old roommate was awakened when a man entered her bedroom. He warned her that her roommate was tied up, and would be killed if she attempted to call the police. Minutes later, the roommate jumped out of her first-floor window and ran to a neighbor’s house, where she called the police. When the cops arrived at the apartment complex at 5:30 a.m., they found Ayala, clad only in blue jeans, wandering the grounds and smelling of alcohol. He claimed he was going to his car for cigarettes, but he fit the description of the assailant and was arrested.
At his trial, Ayala contended that the victim had invited him into her apartment and that they had engaged in consensual sex. The jury wasn’t buying it, and after deliberating for only 3½ hours, Ayala was found guilty on six charges: burglary, aggravated sexual assault, two counts of possession of a knife for an unlawful purpose, threatening to kill, and terroristic threats.
In noting Ayala’s history of violent behavior – at 15 he was placed on 10 years probation after pleading guilty to aggravated assault in the beating of an 18-year-old woman in the restroom of a San Antonio drive-in theater – the presiding judge sentenced him to a 15- to 35-year prison term, ordering that he serve at least 15 years without the possibility of parole. An appellate court later adjusted the sentence to 15 to 30 years.
B b“I can’t express how much regret that I allowed myself to get to a point where I had to commit this terrible crime to recognize what I was doing to myself,” said Ayala in admitting that his claim of consensual sex was a blatant falsehood. “I deserved to be punished for what I did. I am remorseful beyond words that I caused pain that person will have to carry for the rest of her life.
“But you know what? I don’t blame anyone or anything else for my circumstances. It was me. It’s not society’s fault. It isn’t mommy and daddy’s fault. It’s not because I’m Hispanic (of Mexican descent) and not white. It’s not because I’m misunderstood. That’s a crock of crap.”
Well-spoken and seemingly sincere, Ayala talked a good game, but he was denied early release on several occasions despite being what he termed a “model prisoner,” and one who even served as a counselor to fellow inmates. He served the full 15 years mandated by the presiding judge because, according to Andy Consovoy, then a member of the New Jersey Parole Board, the nature of his crimes indicated an especially high recidivism rate.
“John Douglas (an FBI profiler who was a consultant in the making of the Academy Award-winning “The Silence of the Lambs”) talks about something called `precipitating stress,’ Consovoy said. “Once Ayala (lost a fight), he was going to go off. There was no doubt.”
Having regained his freedom, Ayala vowed he would never again put himself in a situation that might again entrap him in a cage with iron bars.
V “I want to live a good, positive life, not just in boxing,” he said. “My life isn’t boxing. Boxing is only a small part of my life. After I fight two, three, four years, I fold that tent and go on with the rest of my life. I won’t lay down and die. I didn’t spend all those years in prison to get out and make a comeback. I prepared myself for life in its entirety, with all its problems and its choices. I want to make good choices from now on.”
For a time, Ayala’s impossible dream of rediscovered contention seemed, well, maybe not quite so impossible. He won five fights as a super middleweight, lost to Yori Boy Campas, then won four times more before Consovoy’s dire prediction came true, not long after the erstwhile “El Torito” was stopped in 11 rounds by Anthony Bosante on April 25, 2003. In 2014 he completed a 10-year prison sentence in Texas for burglary of a habitation.
But there was still a bit deeper toward rock-bottom that Ayala had to sink. His father, a trainer to world champions John Michael Johnson, Jesse Benavides, Gabby Canizales and Maribel Zurita and who pulled all four of his sons out of high school to concentrate on boxing, was 78 when he died of complications of diabetes on April 10, 2014. Even in Tony Jr.’s darkest hours, his dad had been the closest thing he had to an emotional anchor, and now that anchor line had been cut, leaving the son to drift away.
One wonders what might have happened had Ayala, during his first incarceration, cooperated with Sylvester Stallone on a movie project that would have taken an unstinting look at Ayala’s ruined life and career.
“He offered good money to do my story,” Ayala said in 1998. “But I didn’t want my story being told then because the movie would have had to end one way and one way only, with me in prison. It would have been a sad ending. I’d rather be forgotten than to have my story end that way.”
Now the story has its ending, and it’s still sad. All that remains is the speculation and conjecture as to what a focused and trouble-free Ayala might have accomplished in the ring. Ayala thought about that, and often, given all the years he had to contemplate the might-have-beens.
“Hagler, to me, was a great fighter, a great warrior,” he said of one of the dream matchups that never became reality. “I think me and him would have been one of the greatest fights in history. One of us would have gone down.
“Duran, I would have blown out. At any time in my career I would have knocked him out. Duran punked out and I still hold it against him. He punked out before `No Mas’ (his surrender in his second fight with Leonard), as far as I’m concerned. Duran’s place in history is undisputed, but if he had come into my territory, he would have been mine. I owned the junior middleweight division.
“To beat Leonard, I would have had to knock him out. I wouldn’t have won a decision because he was America’s poster boy. He was everything America tells blacks they can be. And he played the role good. He was a great fighter. Bu he was so popular, he won some fights he shouldn’t have won, against Hagler and the second one against Hearns.
“Tommy Hearns and I would never have fought. That was an agreement made between Emanuel Steward (Hearns’ manager-trainer) and my dad. Emanuel and my dad were real good friends from the amateur days. Anyway, Emanuel knows I would have taken Tommy apart.”
This is where any story about the death of a notable boxing figure is supposed to end with the expressed wish that he rests in peace. Here’s hoping that peace also extends to the victims of the uncontrollable rages that took Ayala down a road no one should ever have to travel.