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Art of Boxing Series: Paulie Ayala (Part Two)

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It was like a duel between two Old West gunslingers as Paulie Ayala a little-known Texas southpaw stood poised to greet New Mexico’s Johnny Tapia, the mercurial world champion from Albuquerque.

When the bell rang that Las Vegas night on June 26, 1999, the tightly wound bantamweights delivered the most riveting battle of the year. Showtime will replay the 1999 Fight of the Year on Friday, April 17 as part of their “Rivalries” series.

Their battle proved so captivating they did it again a year later.

Ayala grew up in a town famous for producing world champions in the 1980s. And though his amateur career fell short, it allowed him to realize he could compete with the best. It also allowed him to sharpen his fighting style to hair-splitting accuracy that still goes unnoticed.

As a youth, he served as a sparring partner for world champions like Freddie Norwood and Stevie Cruz. Norwood would defeat Juan Manuel Marquez and Cruz would hang a loss on Barry McGuigan. Those victories by his stablemates opened up his eyes to his own possibilities.

“Freddie Norwood beat Marquez. And to me he didn’t train 110 percent and to be able to do what he was able to do and fight the way he fought, he was really a goofy guy,” said Ayala thinking back on helping Norwood prepare for Marquez in 1999. “So, when he beat Marquez I wondered how long he trained for that. Probably nothing. He beat Juan Manuel Marquez; that’s crazy.”

Ayala toiled away sparring against some of the most talented fighters in the world in hopes of getting his own world title shot.

“I was never really concerned who I was going to fight because my sparring was better than anybody I was going to face at that point of my career until I fought for a title. I sparred Freddie Norwood, Robert Quiroga, and John Michael Johnson when he was getting ready for Junior Jones. I sparred a lot of top guys during that time,” said Ayala of his battles in Fort Worth. “Sparring in those days was like war every day.”

After three years of mowing down the competition, Ayala captured the NABF bantamweight title with a third-round knockout of Miguel Espinoza on March 1995. He held it for more than three years, wondering when he would get a world title shot.

Yokohama, Japan and La Vida Loca

Sometimes when you lose you win. That proved true when Paulie Ayala arrived on the shores of Japan to challenge for the WBC bantamweight world title against Joichiro Tatsuyoshi.

Despite starting strong, an accidental clash of heads resulted in a technical decision loss after six rounds in front of 22,000 fans in Yokohama Arena on August 1998.

“I thought I was in control. He was a boxer and had a little charisma in his boxing and little flamboyance. In the first round I caught him and he buckled so I started boxing him and tried to see if I could catch him again. He had a little cut in his left eye so I started working on that, so the next thing you know I went to the body and we crashed heads. The referee deducted two points from me. They said I intentionally did it. It ended in the sixth round,” said Ayala. “It was one of my biggest disappointments because I wanted that green belt.”

After waiting six years to get a world title opportunity he worried that another might not come around for another six years. He was wrong.

“I immediately went back to the gym when I got home and took a couple of quick fights. And next thing you know I got a phone call from Top Rank and they said we got another title shot for you. This time it’s in the states and that’s when it was with Johnny Tapia,” said Ayala. “To me, I know they accepted the fight because my fight in Japan was not televised here. So, no one got to see it. That’s why I thought I even got that opportunity anyway. They didn’t see the fight. They just know I went to fight for the world title and I lost. I think it was a blessing in disguise.”

Tapia was undefeated and perhaps the most charismatic bantamweight in the history of prizefighting. His “Mi Vida Loca” tattoo said all you needed to know about his lifestyle but fans loved the bad boy from Albuquerque who spent several years in jail. When he returned to boxing his popularity soared once again.

In 1994 Tapia won the WBO super flyweight world title by knockout against Henry Martinez and held on to it for 11 title defenses. Then on July 1997 he engaged in a battle to unify the super flyweight division against crosstown rival Danny Romero who held the IBF version. Tapia won the bloody rivalry by unanimous decision after 12 rounds in Las Vegas.

After two more defenses of the WBO and IBF super flyweight titles, Tapia moved up a weight division and captured the WBA bantamweight world title by majority decision over Nana Yaw Konadu in Atlantic City. After one more fight Tapia was ready to defend the bantamweight title and Ayala was the chosen opponent.

“He was a super popular guy,” said Ayala. “Definitely I was the underdog. I was going to take the back seat. Johnny Tapia was the fan favorite, media favorite, I mean everybody loved him.”

The first press conference took place in Beverly Hills, California and the media showed up in full force at the Friars Club on Santa Monica Boulevard. Tapia was surrounded by reporters with cameras, microphones and handheld recording devices.

Near the entrance to the Friars Club sitting on a metal chair next to his trainer was Ayala who calmly watched the media frenzy around Tapia. It was the only time Tapia would enjoy dominance.

“When you start the press conferences and the press tours everything is cordial. Then there is camp and you come back and it’s time to fight. When we first saw each other at the first press conference, we made eye contact and I could see, not concern but he knew I was focused,” said Ayala.

Mandalay Bay

Just three months earlier the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino had opened its doors for the first time. As a boxing venue, it was still brand new when Paulie Ayala and Johnny Tapia met for the WBA bantamweight title on June 26, 1999.

It would soon become home to a bevy of epic prize fights starting with the bantamweight clash. There’s a particular reason why casinos in Las Vegas love boxing. It has a seductive allure to gamblers, real sports fans and boxing fanatics.

Prizefighters are a different breed.

Outside of a boxing ring many prizefighters are congenial, and eager to talk to fans and media. But once the weigh-ins take place their faces and demeanor change drastically like Jekyll and Hyde.

“I feel that’s another part of the fight, It’s a mental fight,” Ayala said about the drama involved at weigh-ins and pre-fight press conferences days before the fight.

When the two bantamweights stepped in the middle of the ring to hear instructions Tapia was hyper and eager to unload. Ayala quickly noticed as referee Joe Cortez gave his instructions.

“I could see in his eyes he had a totally different demeanor. His eyes were like gone. He was into the fight. I already knew he was angry. And to me, that’s better. The more angry he is the less he is going to listen to Freddie (Roach),” said Ayala remembering their face-to-face moment seconds before the fight. “He kept looking at me (during instructions) and he kind of jumped to the side and I jumped to the side. But I didn’t know he was going to come and push me.”

Tapia shoved Ayala seconds before the actual fight.

“Joe Cortez said specifically to me ‘Paulie if you do anything and don’t let me do my job I’m going to disqualify you.’ And I already lost my first world title (bid) I wasn’t going to risk something stupid to lose the fight like that again,” said Ayala.

Tapia was an excellent boxer and could be difficult to hit. But his main weakness was his machismo inside the boxing ring. Ayala figured it out quickly.

“I kept catching him, I would kind of go whew! Every time I hit him with a good shot I’d go whew. And he hated that,” said Ayala explaining that the verbal taunts set off Tapia to engage more. “The main thing is I got him out of his fight game for one, of course Freddie Roach was trying to get him to box, and turn, then counter. But he wasn’t listening.”

Suddenly the tactical skirmish turned into an all-out war. Neither was willing to move backward and the two 118-pounders were blasting each other relentlessly daring each other to match power shots. It was exciting stuff for the fans who roared and reacted every time a big blow landed.

Early on Ayala thought Tapia was tiring. But he was mistaken.

“I thought he was already tired the way Johnny would suck up all the air after a round. So, I thought it was already downhill for him. So, we’re getting into the 10th round he is still doing the same thing. But his work ethic in the later rounds was even more intense. So, I was like ‘man, this is what championship boxing is all about,’” Ayala said.

Ayala was in his element as Tapia attacked with his unrelenting assault. The Texas southpaw caught many of the blows off his gloves and slipped and countered with perfect timing. It was memorable stuff as the pair of pocket-sized destroyers traded bombs over 12 rounds.

“He was boxing good but he wasn’t landing any hard shots and I was landing way better shots than he was landing. That’s why he decided to stop boxing and moving and he decided to trade with me. I’m not saying he made it easier but he made it better, by far for me. Because I was having to cut off the ring and it was a lot more work than for him to just stay there in the pocket and we could just fight it out right there.”

It was the type of warfare that Ayala preferred: in-the-pocket exchanges. The kind he had perfected for years in Fort Worth sparring sessions against world champions.

When the final bell sounded Ayala slumped to the ground.

“Right when the bell rang to complete the final round I fell down in the middle of the ring, not only because of the excitement but I was exhausted. I used everything I had,” recalled Ayala.

Ayala knew he was not the favorite and Tapia had never been beaten. But he hoped the judges saw what he felt was his victory.

“All I was waiting for is when they said ‘and the new champion of the world!” That was an experience that I will never forget,” said Ayala who won by unanimous decision 116-113 twice and 115-114.

Bedlam ensued and some booed and others cheered. According to CompuBox, an unofficial group that tabulates punches for the television fans, Tapia landed more blows. But Ayala had a style that wasn’t easy to tabulate correctly.

All in all, it was a spectacular fight and one that would later be voted Fight of the Year by Ring Magazine. For the impressive win, Ayala was also selected Fighter of the Year in 1999 by the same publication. Think of it. He was voted over Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones Jr. and Lennox Lewis.

Ayala was the last fighter to win that honor in the 20th century.

“That was the greatest feeling. Look at all the champions around. You had everybody. You had the Klitschkos, De La Hoya, Vargas, you had all these guys. Erik Morales, you had Johnny Tapia all these guys that are in the Hall of Fame. I beat all them for Fighter of the Year award. That was in 1999. I mean everybody was fighting. Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao those guys were all fighting back then too. People don’t take that into consideration. I was going against the top guys so for them to even consider me that was so awesome,” said Ayala.

Ayala in the 21st Century

Ayala and Tapia would fight again 16 months later but at the MGM Grand. Once again Ayala would defeat the New Mexican fighter but at a catchweight of 124 pounds. Just like their first encounter the pair of sluggers let the punches fly.

The Texas southpaw would defend the WBA title successfully three times then move up a weight division and defeat Clarence “Bones” Adams for the IBO super bantamweight title twice. And just like the Tapia clashes the wars with Adams proved scintillating too.

Ayala tried the featherweight division too and was denied by Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera. He finally retired after the loss to Barrera in Los Angeles.

“In boxing you have to have that killer instinct. You are training for war. It’s not a sport where you are in there to win on points. You are in there to hurt that guy, to take his will,” said Ayala. “It doesn’t matter what a fighter says after the fight. Sometimes you know you took his soul.”

Ayala still lives in Fort Worth, Texas with his wife Letitia. They have two grown offspring and maintain a boxing gym called the University of Hard Knocks Gym. They provide classes for those suffering from Parkinson’s Disease called Punching Out Parkinsons. They also provide boxing therapy classes for At Risk, suicidal and autistic youth.

They have an Instagram account called Paulie Ayala’s UHK and can be found on Twitter.com too.

Don’t forget to watch Ayala vs. Tapia 1 and 2 on Showtime’s boxing series on Friday April 17.

Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel 

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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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