Tony Ayala Jr: Talented boxer whose promising career was disastrously undermined by his chaotic and destructive life outside it

'If I had not gone to prison I would have died,' he recalled. 'Prison kept me alive'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There is a story Tony Ayala Jr told about the afternoon in New York in December 1982 when he had just left Madison Square Garden after signing to fight for the world title. He was going to get $700,000 for the fight with Davey Moore, planned for May 1983, at the historic location; he was in great spirits, and as he walked away from the signing, as the snow fell he heard some street musicians playing drums, standing by a barrel of fire and he went over for a look.

“I saw [Roberto] Duran there and I’m gonna kill him – I hate him,” said Ayala Jr. “He sees me and he takes off, runs from me. I was not that bothered because I knew I would get him soon, get him in the ring.” It never happened, Ayala Jr never got Duran and he never got the world title fight, or the money. At 3am on 1 January 1983 he left his common-law wife, Lisa Paez, asleep at home, broke into a neighbour’s apartment and sexually assaulted her in a brutal attack.

Ayala was 19, unbeaten in 22 fights with 19 knock-outs, just a fight away from becoming one of boxing’s biggest attractions; a win against Moore and he would have joined the glorious quartet, known as the Four Kings, of Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Marvin Hagler. Duran replaced Ayala Jr and stopped Moore; Ayala was already serving 35 years in prison, with a minimum of 15.

Ayala served 16 years and emerged in April 1999 ready to resume his career, ready to consider the offers waiting for him. “He was ferocious, people wanted to know if he could still fight – if he was still a contender,” said Bob Arum, the veteran promoter. He was 36, he had to lose 20lb, but he looked good.

Ayala had turned professional after his 17th birthday and, guided by his father, Big Tony, he won 22 fights in two years and five months. He was ruthless in the ring and was involved in several incidents where he hit opponents after they had been rescued, got into scuffles with his opponent’s friends and family or spit at his victims when they were on the canvas. His notorious corner man and co-manager, Lou Duva, was always right in there scuffling with him and making it look normal for a mass brawl to follow every Ayala Jr fight.

He was known as El Torito, the baby bull, and he was out of control, high on crack, drinking all the time and dangerous to be near. “If I had not gone to prison, I would have died that year – prison kept me alive,” he said. He could have gone to prison five years earlier when, tried as an adult at 15, he was sentenced to 10 years for a sexual assault at a drive-in theatre in his home town of San Antonio, Texas. However, his victim spoke on his behalf and he ended up on 10 years’ probation. She was paid $40,000 by the Ayala family not to pursue a civil case.

Ayala Jr was brilliant in the ring but deeply troubled outside it; once, after a weigh-in for a fight in New Jersey, he drove to New York to buy crack, smoked it on the way back and fought that night. “You have no idea what was being offered to me at the parties after the fights – I had everything,” he said.

At that time, nobody had any idea that between nine and 11 he had been sexually assaulted by a close family friend. He had not told his father for fear of rejection. It was a harsh environment of macho extremes and nobody wanted to accept that some of Big Tony’s training methods for El Torito and his three brothers were cruel and brutal. In 1977, at 14, he sparred with world champion Pipino Cuevas at the family gym. Cuevas was a good world champion but he was given a beating: the legend started – El Torito could do what he liked and he did.

In the hours after the final assault on 1 January 1983, the police found him high on drugs, topless, wandering round shadow-boxing. Lisa stuck with him, married him during his first year in prison, and divorced him after six.

In Trenton prison he met Rubin Hurricane Carter outside the offices of prison psychologist Dr Brian Raditz. “Rubin gave me some advice, he told me, ‘Forget you are a fighter, forget about boxing and forget about your previous life.’ I listened and that is how I survived 16 years.” He became friends with Raditz and received training as a rage counsellor before walking free. He was released into Raditz’s care in April 1999 and I interviewed him sitting by Raditz’s pool in the sunshine. Lisa Paez was back with him and would marry him again.

He was, he told me, a changed man and desperate to fight again. He wanted to meet the woman he had assaulted – he would, he insisted, pull out of a fight if she agreed to meet him. She never did and four months later more than 12,000 packed the Freeman Coliseum in his home town. His journey from the Texan city’s Mexican barrio known as Browntown was, after a 17-year gap, back on. He won that night and was paid $200,000.

The following year it began to go wrong. He lost for the first time in his 28th fight when dehydration and a broken hand forced him to quit against tough guy Yori Boy Campas in the summer; in December he was shot in the shoulder by a teenage girl after a break-in at her house. It was 3.45am: leaving Lisa in a strip club, he had left Babe’s with a stripper and ended up at Nancy Gomez’s house. He knew her from the family’s Zarzamora St Gym, where she had started taking boxing lessons. “I just wanted to talk,” he said. He was not, amazingly, recalled to prison and he carried on fighting in search of a lost dream. Lisa divorced him again.

He fought until 2003, finishing with two defeats, 31 wins, no world title and no money. In 2004 he was arrested again, for a parole violation and was charged with driving without a licence, possession of heroin and drug paraphernalia and for speeding. He was sentenced to 10 years and was released in April 2014. He was allowed out for a day, just nine days before his release, to attend Big Tony’s funeral. “He missed his dad so much,” Raditz said. 

With his brothers he was trying to get the family gym up and running again. He was trying to lead a good life, finally. He went to the gym alone, locked the door and was found dead in the morning by Jenna, his latest wife. “There are no angels on this earth, I know that,” he told me in 1999. “I just wish I could have done things differently.”


Tony Ayala, Jr, boxer: born San Antonio, Texas 13 February 1963; married; died San Antonio 12 May 2015.