TONY AYALA JNR died on his own one night in 2015 when he locked the doors at the family boxing gym and fired a final shot of heroin to clear the darkness he had been fighting every day and night of his life.
His time in boxing and away from the ring is the stuff of legend, invention, awe, depravity, pity, remorse and savagery. There were plenty who smiled when his death was official and only a few mourned.
Ayala Jnr was 52 at the end and just 19 when it went wrong. And it went spectacularly wrong, perhaps the greatest tumble from glory in boxing history.
In December 1982 Ayala signed to fight Davey Moore at Madison Square Garden; Ayala would get $700,000 for the May 1983 fight, he would win Moore’s world title and he would join the Four Kings. Make no mistake, this is not fantasy.
He was just 19 when he signed, unbeaten in 22 fights with 19 knockouts or stoppages. Two weeks later, 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. He was on crack, again, and was arrested topless and shadow-boxing in the street. It was the end.
In 1999 I first met Ayala at a party to welcome him home after 16 years in prison for a crime he did commit. There is no doubt about his guilt. Ayala was anxious that day, fidgeting, packed with nervous ticks as he tried to relax by a pool at the house of his prison psychologist Dr Brian Raditz. He had married and divorced Paez during his incarceration, but she was back now and she looked as drained as her ex-husband. It was high intensity, extremely unsettling. She looked scared.
I was late to the April party and it was just me, Ayala and Raditz by the pool – Paez was off to the side, clearing away plates and glasses. A release party the previous April had been cancelled at just 24 hours’ notice when it was decided that Ayala should serve another year of his 35-year sentence; he served 16 in the end, he was recommended to serve a minimum of 15 for his crime.
We sat in the late afternoon sun, talking about the offers to continue fighting from various promoters, Ayala twitching, a vein throbbing in his skull, his eyes flashing crazily. He showed me his speed, he put punches together. He talked of deep remorse, of reaching out to his victim. He had been a rage counsellor in prison, he had changed they said. Raditz had helped Ayala survive inside and now the boxing was back on Tony’s agenda. Bob Arum was in the mix and told me: “He was ferocious, people wanted to know if he could still fight – if he was still a contender.” He had been a contender, make no mistake. That day by the pool he was 36, balding and just 20 pounds above his old fighting weight; he finished that afternoon in the fading light by beating a bag in the garage. El Torito, the baby bull, was back.
Four months later I went to San Antonio to watch the return of El Torito, the kid from the Mexican barrio called Browntown, the kid who had fought bare-foot at the start, the kid of 14 who exposed world champion Pipino Cuevas in sparring, the kid who could have been king. On that night at the Freeman Coliseum over 12,000 welcomed back their fighting idol. He won in three rounds, but it was gone. And he knew it. He continued to fight in the ring, winning eight more times, losing two and having his last fight in 2003.
Ayala was out of control again. Back in the Eighties he had been excused his anger, his crack attacks and his predatory ways by the boxing world. Lou Duva defended him and he was not alone, but in the Nineties Ayala was raging against a far less accepting boxing world. A woman shot him in the shoulder when he was caught in her house; he had left the long-suffering Liza Paez, who had married him again, in a strip club an hour earlier. He escaped prison for that, but in 2004 he was stopped for speeding, found with drug paraphernalia, heroin and sentenced to 10 years. Paez divorced him again. He got out in April 2014 and was working with his brothers at their gym. It was a last hope and one year later he was dead.
“If I had not gone to prison, I would have died,” he told me in 1999. In Trenton Prison, back then, he had met and befriended Rubin Hurricane Carter. “He told me to forget about boxing,” Ayala Jr added. “I tried, but couldn’t.”
He told me a story that day by the pool and I like it. After signing for the Moore fight, knowing he had $700,000 to come and with a wrap of crack in his pocket, he walked away in the snow from Madison Square Garden. He heard street musicians banging drums, laughing and standing by a barrel of fire; Ayala went over, curious and happy.
“I saw Duran there and I’m gonna kill him,” Ayala told me. “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 the ring.” That was the closest he would ever get.
“There are no angels on this earth, I know that,” Tony Ayala Jnr said. “I just wish I could have done things differently.” We all do.