Yes, Paulie Ayala is watching Ayala vs. Johnny Tapia now, on Showtime
Very, very often, the quality of a fighter is fashioned as much from his geography as his genetic topography. In Texas, young Paulie Ayala saw how dudes like Donald Curry, Bruce Curry, Troy Dorsey, Gene Hatcher and “Rockin” Robin Blake handled things.
Inside the ring, and outside, the work that needed to be put in to maybe get to a place where boxing would pay off, the dedication that had to be present, which made you push ahead with a 5:30 am road work sesh when all you wanted to do was lay in bed til 8 am.
And here’s a cliche for many a fighter of high caliber for you, which applies to Paulie Ayala, who engaged in the 1999 Fight of the Year with Johnny Tapia, which you can watch tonight on Showtime (10 PM ET, Ayala-Tapia I, then the rematch.)
“You know, my folks were together, but my deal was that I felt boxing helped me because my pops was a Vietnam vet,” the Forth Worth, Texas based ex bantam champ told me in a recent Zoom chat. “So, you know, he was a Marine Semper Fi devil dog, and that’s that’s how it was 24/7 for myself and my brother, so whenever I went to the gym, I didn’t realize that all that training was really releasing dopamine and some feel-good chemicals, to where I was able to forget about all my stress as a kid.”
The stress release suited him; Ayala had an eye on the Olympics, that didn’t pan out, hut after licking his wounds, he re-gained love for the sport, and was a gritty campaigner.
“The little guys” started getting more respect, more eyeballs and more money in the 90s, and Ayala benefitted, for sure. As Kevin Kelley told Eric Raskin for HBO a few years ago, “The purses you see today, in the featherweight division and lightweight division, started with me and Naseem Hamed.”
And new fans may not know, but Johnny Tapia had all the assets (and deficiencies) to become a most compelling athlete to follow. Physically talented, emotionally complex, this tortured soul was at home in a ring, because punches didn’t scare him, after the scarring he’d taken on a kid in rugged home atmosphere.
Ayala had to grind his way up the ladder more, because he wasn’t one to stir the pot, attract interest with his behavior and pronouncements. So while he didn’t become a cross over attraction, there were enough hardcore boxing fans to make it so guys in his weight range garnered buzz and bucks. “When when all the guys were there, you know with with Barrera, Morales, Tapia, Bones Adams, I mean, you know even Too Sharp Johnson and the Marquez brothers, I mean they were all around at that time. So they created a lot of interest. It was a bit of a golden era. That’s right.”
Ayala rose to 27-0, and was named mandatory to fight for the WBC belt, in Japan versus title-holder Joichiro Tatsuyoshi.
“So I went up to Japan, hoping to bring back that that belt and it ended on a technical decision. I lost because we accidentally headbutted ..they went to the scorecards,” and his undefeated mark was marred. “So I came home and I didn’t think I was ever going to get another shot. I just stayed busy immediately after that. I took a couple fights and then I get another phone call and they tell me that I have another title shot. I thought it was a rematch (versus Tatsuyoshi) but it was it was going to be a shot against Johnny Tapia.
“I remember they had offered Johnny a lot of other guys that they said he could beat, but I was going to be the tougher fight and because it was a pay-per-view he wanted he wanted to take me.. so that loss was basically, probably a blessing in disguise!”
And what did Paulie think of Johnny at the time? “Mi Vida Loca” had been stepping in it, publicly, since the 90s. Then a super flyweight, the mega-troubled pugilist tested positive for coke in the fall of 1990. And he would kick himself, announce that he’d fly straight, and then…crash again.
“It was a one time thing that happened and it will never happen again,” Tapia told a New Mexico paper at the time, and he probably meant it. But such a brain, impacted by trauma, can be overwhelmed by the need to secure relief from unpleasant feelings stemming from dark memories. So, Tapia battled the demons of the variety which were impervious to his in-ring skill-set. After getting back into the game in ’94, Tapia had a solid run which saw him able to maintain equilibrium, to fight regularly. By 1996, a narrative had built, which gave Tapia a rock-solid rival to clash with. No, not Ayala; it was another New Mexico kid, tat-free, respectful, looked like he just took vitamins, nothing harder than that. Danny Romero.
They had metal detectors to screen fans when they collided in July 1997. Johnny’s weapons were more varied than Danny’s and Tapia snagged the W, and built his eyeballs base even higher. By 1999, Tapia had re-upped with Top Rank, after moving on from Don King, and plans were even grander. His first PPV was planned; who’d be the right foe for that step-up? Ayala was chosen. Now, Paulie didn’t know what was going on in Johnny’s head. Heck, even Johnny often didn’t know. He’d slip into harsh bouts of depression as is detailed in Paul Zanon’s book for Hamilcar Publications, “The Ghost of Johnny Tapia.”
He turned 32 and that triggered him, his wife Teresa told Zanon, because now he’d been alive longer than his mama, who’d been murdered in 1975. Survivor’s guilt meant Johnny would subconsciously punish himself for being alive. His depression worsened when he was told they’d figured out who had killed his mom–but the guy wouldn’t be brought to justice, because he’d died after being run over by a car ten years after killing Johnny’s mom.
But Tapia professionally was enjoying a smooth-ish run, he was 45-0-2 entering the June 29, 1999 fight at Mandalay Bay, against Paulie.
“Johnny was at the top of his game,” Ayala, entering that bout at 27-1, told me. “He had just got through and beat Danny Romero, then he went up to bantamweight and wanted another world title. It was the top Johnny, he was at the peak of his career.
And Bruce Trampler had his hands on this one; what did the Hall of Fame matchmaker think of it going in? “We thought it was an attractive match between two of the best in their weight class,” Top Rank lifer Trampler said. “A solid fight in the ring, one that would attract fans from Texas and New Mexico. Figured to be a solid scrap for TV. Checked all the boxes.”
Did he see it as a 50-50?
“I liked Johnny in a close fight,” Trampler replied. “Don’t remember what the betting odds were,” he said, finishing with a thumbs up for Paulie, and his missus, too.
Going into this one, there wasn’t much shit talking, Johnny, age 32, had felt it was personal against Danny, but not Paulie. “You know, I really didn’t trash talk. I wish I probably should have, I think it would have would have made more money,” Ayala said to me, with a chuckle. “I couldn’t try to add something I wasn’t…but I knew what I was in for. It was the biggest fight of my career because no one had seen my fight in Japan so they don’t know how it ended. I knew I wasn’t going to let anything slip away and I was going to go a hundred percent, dive in headfirst, that way I wouldn’t have to look back at anything and say, ‘Oh, I could have, would have, should have.”’
And what should people re-watching, or screening for the first time, be on the lookout for as they tune in to the Showtime library classic tonight? “Before the fight, Johnny’s corner had some issues with the law, they were getting removed from the arena. We caught eyes and it’s showdown, you know Jimmy Lennon’s doing the ring announcements. Johnny came across the ring and he shoved me into the ropes when they were doing the announcements. So I wanted to make sure that the fight didn’t get disqualified, I’d get disqualified for something, some reaction. So I waited…Going in, I felt that I kind of had Johnny where I needed him to be, which was, I wanted him to fight me because I knew he had Freddie Roach in his corner, they were going to box, that would have been his best game plan. But then I knew when he shoved me, I felt that I had them. But then when the bell rang, he started boxing and he was moving pretty good. So I was trying to cut him off and I knew that it was just a matter of time before I started catching him. The crowd started getting into it and with Johnny being an emotional fighter. All you hear is the ‘ohhhhs’ when I’m landing shots and then of course by the third round, after that, he decided to stay there and fight me because the crowd was already getting
Any difficult moments for Ayala, 29 years old that night, that we should watch for tonight?
“No, I never felt I was in trouble, I always thought I was in control, as long as I had him stay in there and fighting me. That was more my style of what I needed to work with. But I remember in the eighth round, taking the crowd out of it in the eighth, he had his hands up again and he starts waving his hand in the air, so it got the crowd in the game, but I also did the same thing. You know, that was out of my character but I was really into the fight so I was able to take that away from him. Then by the twelfth….
…the crowd was taken out of it. They all started booing him whenever he did (that hands up to stir them up). I heard after, Alexis Arguello, the late great Alexis Arguello called it on the Spanish network and he said Johnny looked like a defeated fighter.”
The Texan knew he was doing well and wasn’t too worried as they went to the cards, then.
If you’re wondering, yes, Ayala will see how he does against Tapia, he will tune in to watch his effort tonight…
“It’s always exciting to watch, I watch it every so often and I try to watch it unbiased though,” Ayala said. “Because I want to learn, to continue to learn from that fight.”
Yes, a quest for learning doesn’t end, ideally, as the decades accumulate behind you. “This is a big week for me. On the 22nd next week, Tuesday, I turn 50 years old, man. So I’m trying to continue to learn. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I’m trying to figure this stuff out, just technology and everything.”
We had a chuckle over that, while we chatted on Zoom.
Bottom lining it, then. What does Paulie, who runs a gym in Fort Worth and is doing training remotely now, as the virus cuts its dark path through the nation and the world, want people to take away tonight?
“How I was a six to one underdog, I had lost my first world title shot and I was coming for my second world title shot against the great Johnny Tapia, also the great Freddie Roach was in this corner. And I’m fighting against Showtime as well, because Johnny had been a Showtime fighter for years. So, I was fighting three giants at once, so I had to overcome that,” Ayala said. “I gave my whole heart into the fight. I gave everything I had. I collapsed (after), I didn’t just fall, it was complete exhaustion. I gave everything I had and that’s what it took to defeat a guy like Johnny. I continued to defend that title and went up to win more titles and you know gave the best that I could!”
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