A Boxing Memory: Paulie Ayala & The Journey to Greatness
By Ian Aldous
Going back and watching old fights for research purposes can be a chore, but not when Paulie Ayala is the subject. A tandem of classics against both Johnny Tapia and Clarence ‘Bones’ Adams are extremely watchable, his first with Tapia even earned Ayala two of the biggest annual accolades in the sport. But we’ll get to that in due course.
At just four years of age, Ayala embarked on a lengthy and fruitful amateur career consisting of just over 300 fights. Approximately 270 wins saw the young southpaw patiently learn his craft as he edged ever closer to a crack at the professional game, not without a few twists and turns on the way, though.
“Actually, I quit,” the 51 year-old reminisced to me recently. “I quit boxing a little bit after 18. Then I fought Golden Gloves when I was 19 and I wound up winning the State Golden Gloves, and I went to the Nationals. I beat Eddie Cook. We had fought twice, he beat me the first time and I beat him in the State Golden Gloves. Eddie wound up being WBA bantamweight champion in the early ’90s.”
That very title is one Ayala would eventually become familiar with himself.
Turning pro in the winter of 1992, he would have to remain composed as he reeled off 25 consecutive wins in his search of a world title shot. In the summer of 1998, The Land of The Rising Sun beckoned; The WBC’s 118-pound champion, Joichiro Tatsuyoshi awaited.
“I was just finally happy to get a title shot after all those years of fighting,” Ayala opined. “I was the NABF champion for three years. I was ready to take the next step.”
“We clashed heads in the sixth round and he got cut. The referee said I intentionally headbutted him, so then we completed the round. I already had him cut over his eye. From the head clash, he received a cut on his forehead. They went ahead and went to the scorecards, and because of the headbutt, they deducted two (one according to Boxrec) points from me because they said it was intentional – I lost on points.”
The loss in Japan still hurts to this day, when he voiced his disappointment at not winning “that green belt, which I know I should have had.”
The heartbreak lingered long before the Texan dusted himself down and won two more, before an even bigger opportunity arrived. The undefeated, multi-time world champion, and future legend Johnny Tapia stood in the way of Ayala winning a world title at the second attempt.
“I was just excited that I received another title shot so soon,” he told me. “I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to get another shot. Plus, I was wanting the rematch (against Tatsuyoshi), so when that came up – I jumped all over it. I think the only reason he took the fight was because he didn’t see what happened (in Japan), he thought I was good enough to get there, just not good enough to cross over and become a champion. It was a blessing in disguise.”
It was a breathless encounter and I urge those who haven’t witnessed it to find it on Youtube. Ayala shocked the boxing world and captured the WBA bantamweight world championship with a unanimous decision, not only that, he handed Tapia his first-ever loss.
As the new millennium approached, a wonderful year for Ayala concluded by being awarded the Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year award, as well as the Fight of the Year gong for that battle with Tapia.
“To me, that was more important than winning any title itself because of everyone who was nominated,” he said with pride. “I mean, Pacquiao is still fighting and Mayweather just did his little match. These guys were apparent back then, they were who they were, but I won it that year, so it was a very special event for me.”
Two subsequent successful championship defences ensued before Ayala and Tapia crossed paths again in the highly-anticipated rematch. This time though, the title wasn’t up for grabs when a 124-pound catchweight was reluctantly agreed by Ayala. He made every concession possible to make the fight and prove any doubters that the first bout wasn’t a fluke. Ken Norton, Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns were just some of the expectant boxing legends in attendance.
“I figured him out in how he was fighting. I didn’t approach him the same way the second time as I did the first time. He was expecting me to come all out at him again, so when I started countering him more, that threw him off his gameplan. They weren’t expecting that at all. I guess they thought I couldn’t pull that off.”
Ayala did pull it off and bagged another unanimous decision. He was 2-0 up in fights that were competitive classics but there was no need for a trilogy-making battle.
“It was hard enough to make the rematch; I don’t think a trilogy would have ever materialised,” he admitted.
Ayala, coached by Henry Mendez, defended his gold once more by the time a clash with Clarence ‘Bones’ Adams was scheduled in Las Vegas, on HBO. Having competed somewhat under the radar, despite his success, Ayala was finally beginning to reap some deserved recognition.
Adams hadn’t lost for seven years and provided another stern test in the IBO super-bantamweight world title fight. Both men had been stripped of their WBA bantamweight and super-bantamweight straps. Emanuel Steward, on commentary duties, applauded both men at the end of the gripping clash.
The razor-thin split decision went Ayala’s way, much to the chagrin of Adams and many at ringside.
“I didn’t feel that it was a close split decision like that. On every card I did lose the last round because I was playing around and thought I had won it securely.”
“I usually take before-and-after pictures for every fight,” he explained. “That one, I remember particularly taking the pic after the fight at the press conference, and the picture would clearly tell you I landed the harder punches; I landed the better punches. Everything he threw, I was deflecting it and blocking it. Just because his punches were landing on my shoulders doesn’t mean that he was scoring.”
“He looked like mincemeat.”
In an attempt to, yet again, prove his doubters were wide of the mark, Ayala chose to rematch the man he’d already beaten. He would comprehensively outpoint Adams on this occasion and register another big win on HBO. Even with his world titles in two divisions and only loss being hotly-disputed, the super-bantamweight king was still disappointed with his low paydays, with Bob Arum once stating that “maybe he’s too nice.”
“I should’ve crossed over into the seven figures after that,” he said with a wry laugh. “Then I got my shot with Morales that was a seven figure fight (but) I had to make featherweight.”
“There were good fighters, but not as recognised names as Bones and Tapia at junior-featherweight, so everybody was moving to featherweight. We took that chance and moved up again.”
Moving up to 126-pounds, having only just been competing at 118-pounds, prior to the Adams double-header, would prove to be a step too far.
The legendary Erik Morales would inflict Ayala’s first defeat since that disputed night in Japan, headlining on HBO pay-per-view, for the vacant WBC featherweight crown. He would win once more before Marco Antonio Barrera became the only fighter to stop Ayala. He retired with a record of 35-3 in a pro career that spanned twelve years.
“When I retired I wasn’t sure which direction I was going to go.”
Fortunately, he established the University of Hard Knocks gym in 2004, in Fort Worth, Texas. Proving to be soundly adept as a coach, the gym is still thriving to this very day. Wanting to give back to his community, Ayala and his wife have produced boxing classes including Punching Out Parkinson’s as well as working with at risk youngsters and those suffering with autism. A seven-year spell as a promoter left he and his wife, Leti, a little too busy.
This August, Ayala’s legacy continues when German Lopez, under his tutelage, competes in the National Championships as the reigning Texas Golden Gloves 125-pound champion. If he can even remotely emulate the career of his coach, it’ll be a journey to watch very closely.
Photo Credit: John Gurzinski /AFP via Getty Images