Antonio Ayala Sr. pilots his maroon Citation through the largely undeveloped countryside northwest of San Antonio, his dreams along for the ride.
"Look at this country, eh, amigo. I get out here and I'm like another person. What we want to do is build a nice ranch house with a little gym next door and enough land to keep some horses. Maybe 15, 20 acres. Get up every morning, look out over the hills toward the city. Hey, it's a long way from the barrio, eh, amigo! I guess I'm one crazy Mexican thinking about this. But it's like my father used to say: 'A man without dreams is nothing.' "
Ayala drives up a steep road and slows down by an attractive Spanish-style house built on a knoll. A frown appears on his round face. "That's the place we had picked out before, amigo, back when Mike was going good. That dream didn't work out. You know, the Mexicans have a saying that goes, 'No falta una mosca en caldo.' It means something like, 'You're never lacking a fly in the soup.' I believe that. I'm a dreamer, but I still believe that fly's always buzzing around somewhere. There's always something that goes wrong. Like with Mike and, later, Sammy. But with Tony...well, so far there's been no fly."
Undefeated Antonio Ayala Jr., the 18-year-old boxer who will either answer his father's prayers or put the mosca back in the caldo, has knocked out 12 of his 14 professional opponents, 11 of them in four rounds or fewer. He is the WBC's 14th-ranked junior middleweight and he is rated fifth by The Ring magazine.
But Ayala is more than just a legitimate challenger for Wilfred Benitez' title and a future contender in the middleweight division, in which he fought during much of his amateur career. He's a blood-and-guts mauler, a barrel of Chicano oil for boxing's hyperbole machine. Remember Marciano? Hey, you should see Ayala. Remember the young LaMotta? Hey, you should see Ayala. Remember the pre-no-màs Duran? Hey, you should see Ayala. His nickname is El Torito, the baby bull.
Some Ayala reviews:
Promoter Bob Arum: "The best young fighter I've ever seen in my life."
Flash Gordon, a respected judge of ring talent: "The best young fighter in the world right now."
Angelo Dundee, cornerman for Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard: "There's no telling what he can do. He's going to be champion."
You wouldn't necessarily know it from Ayala's physique. When he isn't training, he has weighed as much as 170 (the junior middleweight limit is 154), which is a lot on 5'8". His arms are thick pumping machines that wear down an opponent with body punches. His dark face is full and round, though not as much as his father's: Antonio Sr. could have been cast in one of those old bandido movies. There is a little roll around Torito's middle, but that, too, fits his image: a Ruthian sort who could go blithely to seed but for now chooses to stay reasonably fit and overpower mere mortals.
Because of his lack of height, Ayala has become a slugger, battering and burrowing inside. "Most of the guys I've boxed have been taller and I've laid most of them out," says Torito, who hasn't lost a fight since he was eight years old. "I get 'em angry and make 'em come into my range." So far only Mike Baker (who lost an eight-round decision to Torito last Nov. 1) and Nicanor Camacho (who lost a 10-round decision two months ago) have stayed out of range.
The Camacho fight was particularly important to Ayala's development. It took place in his hometown of San Antonio, and the crowd was screaming for a knockout...in the first round. But Camacho ran for 10 rounds (it was Torito's first fight at that distance) and Ayala couldn't put him away. So Ayala had the poise to stalk Camacho, refusing to allow the restive crowd to incite him to rash assaults, and won nearly every round. Torito began fighting at age five (he won 140 of 148 amateur fights, and at age 14 he more than held his own in a sparring session with Pipino Cuevas, then the WBA welterweight champion) and he's ring-wise beyond his years. Nonetheless, he still has a tendency to rely too much on a left hand to the body, his main and most effective punch.
But that might be changing, as was demonstrated in his most recent fight, against Jose Baquedano on the Leonard-Thomas Hearns undercard in Las Vegas. Baquedano came to slug it out and did score early in the first round while Ayala looked for an opening. He found it when he came off the ropes with a short right about 40 seconds into the bout. It stunned Baquedano and Torito knocked, him out with a barrage of lefts in just 69 seconds. "He has had a good right hand," says Lou Duva, who helps manage Ayala, "but he's never had to use it. We're trying to get him to not rely just on the left so he'll become a more complete boxer."
Ayala's defense needs work, too. "I can't get up in the ring and bounce around for 10 rounds," he says. "I ain't got the height. I'm not going to pretend I'm a boxer.... I'm basically a slugger. But I do have my own artistic way of slipping [punches]. I don't get hit easily."
Complex strategy has never played a role in Torito's fights. To date, his handlers have more or less just pointed him toward the center of the ring. "He's basically a fight fan's fighter," says Duva. "But with some of the tougher opponents, we'll make a battle plan and have him stick to it." Torito has worked with veteran Philadelphia trainer George Benton to smooth out some of his rough edges and learn the slip-and-slide method.
When Ayala has been in trouble he has shot his way out. In the 1979 National Golden Gloves final. Lamont Kirkland knocked him down in the first round. Duva, who at the time wasn't associated with Ayala, was at home watching the fight on television. "That kid got up, shook it off, turned and smiled at his father in his corner and tore into Kirkland," Duva says. Torito also showed Duva what Duva always wanted to see in a boxer—the heart to get off the floor. "That's when I fell in love with the kid," Duva says. Torito showed the same kind of heart last March when Mario Maldonado knocked him down for the first time as a pro with a vicious left to the head in the first round. Ayala struggled up at five and knocked out Maldonado in the third round.
This kill-or-be-killed style has led some to wonder if Ayala will burn himself out prematurely. Indeed, his father and Duva are giving him a rest until at least mid-December, "and when he comes back it won't be a big fight," Duva says. However, there is speculation that Ayala Sr., who admits he's a hard driver, will push Torito too fast. "We'll fight Hearns, Leonard, Godzilla himself," Ayala Sr. said after the Baquedano fight.
"We've got to be a little careful with Tony," Duva says in contrast. "He's still so young. His father sometimes thinks of Tony as a fight fan would. A fan would like to see a kid like that fight four gorillas in one night." Lately, however, Duva is starting to sound like a fan himself. "We're basically looking for any of the top people to fight Tony next year," he says. "[Ayub] Kalule, Cuevas, Maurice Hope. And we'd love to fight Roberto Duran. That would be some fight. I guarantee you one of them would be carried out."
But there appears to be enough savvy in Ayala's camp to keep him from being rushed. His co-manager, with Duva, is Shelly Finkel, who is associated with Main Event Productions, Inc., which promoted the Leonard-Hearns fight. Duva's son, Dan Duva, is the lawyer who heads up Main Event, which, obviously, is actively involved in promoting Torito's fights. All decisions are talked over among Tony Sr., Finkel and the Duvas. The Main Event people, for example, have gotten the Ayalas together with Randy Neuman, a former heavyweight boxer turned financial adviser. "The pension plan Randy's arranging will have Torito set for life," says Dan Duva. The Neuman plan, in fact, will be featured in an upcoming Forbes magazine article on financial planning for athletes who earn spectacular sums over a brief career.
"He was just this fat little guy," Lisa Paez says of her first meeting with Torito 2½ years ago in San Antonio's Brackenridge Park. Six months ago Lisa, also 18, moved in with the Ayala family. She and Tony share a room "except when Torito's in training." The scenario, so unlikely in Endless Love, is so natural here. "Just follow my wife," Ayala tells a visitor. Lisa stops and glares at him. "Sometimes he calls me his wife," she says, "sometimes he calls me his fiancèe, and sometimes he just calls me his friend. He's confused."
Actually, Tony is at his least confused when he's out with Lisa. He's just an 18-year-old with a car and a girl with good looks he wants to be near and show off. On a bright, recent Saturday afternoon he and Lisa are strolling on a walkway above the San Antonio River, which cuts, canal-like, through the center of the city. Tony leans over and makes a guttural spitting sound as a tourist boat passes underneath; most of the passengers look up in horror. "Just kidding," he says with a smile and a wave. "He's really just a big kid still," Lisa says, "no different than when I first met him. He really doesn't like all this publicity, but he knows he's got to go through with some of it." Suddenly, Ayala turns, rushes back and begins bobbing and weaving around Lisa as if they were in a 20-foot ring, irritating her enough that she finally has to protect herself.
Tony and Lisa stop at a restaurant for iced tea. "I'm sorry but you can't drink here without ordering fud," says the waiter, an Oriental. Tony, who in his comic moments sounds a lot like the dope comic Cheech, picks up on it. "Oh, man, we gotta get fud, huh? Well, let's go someplace where we don't need to get fud." Fud becomes the day's standing joke, though Lisa tires of it about the 100th time Tony uses it. It's hard to turn the conversation away from boxing and fud. Tony is told that Nolan Ryan pitched his fifth no-hitter that day. "Who's Nolan Ryan?" Tony asks. He is 18 and he has his car and his girl and who needs this Nolan Ryan? When last seen early that Saturday evening, Tony and Lisa were on their way to Military Drive, San Antonio's most popular cruising spot.
Torito is much more sedate around the Ayalas' southside home. The star on Sunday is Pauline Ayala, Tony's mother. She's up early, making tacos and the cheese-filled tortillas called quesadillas. They will be served with her homemade caldo, which is loaded with beef and vegetables. Her son's trophies and ribbons, along with her own collection of religious pictures, are everywhere, competing for work space in the kitchen.
The most crowded room in the house, however, belongs to 14-year-old Pablo, or Paulie, the youngest of the four brothers. A boxer himself with a 45-2 amateur record, Paulie lives in the back room with his own trophy collection and his pets—a cockateel, three parakeets, a tank of tropical fish and, usually, the family's four dogs. "This is my family," he says shyly. After his favorite parakeet, Goldie, the one he had taught to talk, died, Paulie was sad for days. Tony and Paulie are the only sons at home now. As much as his father wants to drive Tony to the championship, Pauline wants to drive Paulie to graduation day. He's in ninth grade now and Tony only went that far. Oldest brother Mike quit in his senior year; Sammy, the second-oldest, quit in the 11th grade.
"I kind of think of my boys like the fingers on a hand," Mrs. Ayala says. "They're attached to each other, but none of them is quite like the other. Michael was the sentimental one, very down-to-earth. Sammy was the slugger, independent, never paid attention. Tony kind of keeps to himself, though the publicity has drawn him out somewhat. Paulie's kind of quiet, too. He plays with his animals and he's very gentle. But, like the others, he's got a temper. He can fight.
"But I know one thing that will be different—Paulie is going to finish high school. With the others it was always this macho kind of thing about school: 'Who needs it?' But I'm going to see to it that Paulie finishes. He will be the first Ayala to make it through.
"Sometimes I wonder if other families have had all the ups and downs that we've had. Sometimes I think this boxing has made my boys grow up too fast. They found out about life, girls, everything too early. Look at Mike. He had the stars in his hands and he let go. Why?"
Mike Ayala, now 23, fought Danny (Little Red) Lopez for the WBC featherweight championship on June 17, 1979. Ayala took him to the 15th round before Lopez knocked him out. At the time, Ayala was a heroin user. A year and a half before, he had shot and wounded another San Antonio fighter, Gilbert Galvan, after a quarrel over the ownership of a TV set. Mike is fighting again (he's the top-ranked WBC super bantamweight), but he seems to be a long way from another title shot. Sammy, 22, sells cars by day and dreams of a comeback by night, but his father says Sammy's career (he was once the 16th-ranked WBC junior welterweight) is over. Sammy never liked training and is philosophical about it.
"Me and Mike liked to party too much," Sammy says. "And our other big problem was letting people guide us, people we shouldn't have been listening to. But Tony doesn't have that problem. He's smarter than we were. He's dedicated. Tony's going the right way."
Torito went the wrong way once. In December of 1978 Tony, then 15, assaulted a girl in a restroom of a San Antonio drive-in.-Ordered to stand trial as an adult, he pleaded guilty to a charge of aggravated assault (reduced from attempted aggravated rape) and was sentenced to 10 years in prison on March 28 of last year. In June of 1980 the sentence was reduced to 10 years' probation after the girl appeared in court and testified she felt both she and Ayala had suffered enough.
According to a newspaper report, the girl's suffering was eased by a substantial cash payment. "We paid a large amount of money to get out of it," Tony Sr. told the Dallas Times Herald. "I won't say how much. But Bob Arum needed a commitment from us for television. So he says, 'Pay the damn girl off.' We paid X amount of dollars, and that's actually all they were looking for."
Tony Jr. says he no longer touches liquor, and insists he has avoided the drug trap that ensnared Mike. He still has a little trouble with automobiles—he refers to himself as "one of San Antonio's leading scofflaws"—but he also is quick to add that "some of my best friends are policemen now. Honest."
This isn't to say that Ayala is now a model citizen in and out of the ring. Last January he knocked down Jose Luis Baltazar in the second round, then spit on him because Baltazar allegedly insulted him before the bout. He felt he had been insulted by Jerry (Schoolboy) Cheatham, too, preceding their June 25 bout in Houston, so several times before the fight even started, his handlers literally had to hold him back. Cheatham went down in the sixth, and to this day it's Torito's favorite on the videotape player; on the other hand, he recently dozed off during a replay of his 10-rounder with Camacho.
But the moscas keep buzzing the caldo. Ayala Sr. worries that Tony will drift away like Mike and Sammy, and some boxing people are concerned that Ayala Sr. shouldn't be so closely involved with his son's boxing career.
But not Torito. "The day my dad isn't in my corner is the day I don't fight anymore," he says. "I've had other trainers tell me it isn't good. I tell them it is good." And for now Torito's stated goal is at one with his father's. "I want to make enough money to keep the family close," he says, "and build a place where we can all be together."
They never seemed closer than on the night of Torito's knockout of Baquedano in Vegas. After the fight the son sat on a bench and the father stood beside him as half a dozen reporters asked questions. "Yes, he's still got some baby fat," said Tony Sr., a smile lighting up his pudgy face. "But he's still a baby. He's my baby." Torito looked up, smiled and leaned his head against his father's leg. The old man reached out and cupped his son's face with a chunky hand. Men without dreams, amigo, are nothing.