Early on the morning of New Year’s day 1983, Tony Ayala threw away his youth, his promise, his honor, and his family’s good name. The nineteen-year-old San Antonio boxer was training in West Paterson, New Jersey, for a world title fight in which almost no one gave the junior middleweight champion, Davey Moore, a chance to win. Undefeated in 22 pro fights, Tony was poised for lucrative bouts with Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, and Marvin Hagler—some of the biggest names in boxing—and he might have beaten them all. Except that his strongest bent was for self-destruction.
He lived in an apartment with Lisa Paez, his nineteen-year-old common-law wife, also from San Antonio. The day before, he lay on the couch in a bad mood. Okay, Lisa finally said, she was going to a movie by herself. He told her to let him get dressed so that he could go with her; they had a shouting match when she wouldn’t wait. She returned to an empty apartment. After a while the phone rang, and he said in an eager-to-please voice, “Lisa, get ready. I’m coming to get you. We’re going out.” The blithe tone was a tip-off to Lisa; he had scored some cocaine and heroin. When he was on drugs, he would often become very affectionate and attentive. He would cling to her like a coat of paint.
Tony and Lisa were always fighting about his drug use. She’d move out, he’d swear he had quit, she’d come back—then the cycle would start again. But Lisa didn’t want to spend New Year’s alone or quarreling, so she accompanied him to a ferryboat that had been converted into a restaurant and bar. Many people there treated him like the celebrity he was, wishing him well in his big fight. But he was manic and surly, throwing down bourbon-and-colas, and he got into a brawl that had to be broken up. The doorman, a friend and fellow boxer, said later that he had never seen Tony acting so crazy. Lisa spent the evening sitting by herself at a table, sipping a screwdriver. Around three-thirty in the morning, she finally got him to go. He nearly got into another fight on the way to the car. Then he insisted on driving and almost steered them into a head-on collision. “Tony, you’re all over the road,” she told him. “Please let me drive us home.”
It was past four when they reached the apartment. He told her he was going back down to the car to get his cigarettes. He was gone long enough that Lisa went outside and yelled for him. Tony came lurching up the stairs with a crazed look in his eyes. “Lisa,” he gasped, “you’re not gonna believe it! I just saw the Devil!” Exasperated, she dressed for bed. He followed her but found that the events of the night had not exactly left her feeling amorous, so he went back to the sofa and turned on the TV.
At about five, while Lisa slept, he again went downstairs to the car in search of cigarettes. It was parked in front of an apartment rented by a thirty-year-old schoolteacher. Tony had seen her before and perhaps admired her looks, but he didn’t know her. He broke into her apartment, entered her bedroom, blindfolded her, tied her hands, threatened to kill her with a knife, and held a pillow against her face while he raped her. Happy New Year.
The trial four months later followed the familiar, dreary pattern of so many rape cases: Impugn the victim and claim the sex was consensual. Tony contends that his attorney taught him to use certain Yiddish words because the victim was Jewish and a Chicano’s knowledge of them would imply intimacy. Lisa, for one, believed he was innocent. Seated in the courtroom near Tony, she gaped and her heart raced when the jury came in and guards surrounded the defendant’s table. At the judge’s words—”Guilty.” “Thirty-five years.” “Fifteen without the possibility of parole”—Tony’s mother raised wails of anguish.
Nobody cared that he had been projected as boxing’s next superstar; all that vanished with the snap of handcuffs and the slam of an iron door. Steel and stone, Tony would often say—that’s all prison is. He did fifteen years and “maxed out” at sixteen; New Jersey kept him locked up until April 20, 1999, as long as its penal regulations allowed. At 36 most people are considered young. Their lives are full of possibilities. But what can life hold for Tony Ayala now? He can still make some money using his fists, but can a person capable of so vile an act return to the community that knew him best and somehow redeem himself?
In August, waiting nervously in San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum, he was beginning to find out. The foyer of the aging venue had been adapted for a press conference. A sign behind the podium sported a stylized charging bull and the words “Torito II: To Hell and Back.” (Tony’s boxing nickname used to be Torito, or Baby Bull. In the past few months his ring name has changed to the full-grown Toro, and the slogan has grown more contemporary: “He’s BAAAACK!”) Tony wore a long-sleeved shirt and slacks and dark sunshades. His mustache was neatly trimmed and his thinning black hair was combed straight back. When he was young, he always looked a little soft and flabby. On this day he looked dapper and extremely fit.
Things had not gone entirely well since his release from New Jersey’s Bayside State Prison. Lisa Paez Ayala had matured into a polished middle-class woman. They had been married and divorced while he was imprisoned; their relationship had been off and on—always a little tortured, oftentimes stormy, but she’d waited for him all these years. Uncertain how they would be received in San Antonio, they had talked about living in Philadelphia, but Tony wanted to be near his family, especially his father. They were greeted back home by a San Antonio Express-News poll that found people evenly divided on whether he was a changed man; 54 percent felt that it was not in his or boxing’s best interest for him to resume his career. Interviewed by the paper, Andrew Consovoy, the chairman of New Jersey’s parole board, piled on with some street-corner psychology: “I could see a scenario where, if he lost a fight, maybe felt he got robbed by the decision, and he ran across a female who wanted to be nice to him . . . I’d be very afraid. Is it likely to happen again? I’d have to say yes.” Great start with the media.
Nor had the comeback fight come together smoothly. Tony had been sued by a group that claimed it had bought his promotional rights more than a decade ago. Also, Tony had gotten in a silly ego spat with “Jesse” James Leija, a former world champion from San Antonio. Leija, Tony had heard, had quipped that a suitable first opponent for him would be the alleged serial killer Rafael Resendez-Ramirez—if true, a tacky remark. Tony’s response, on the record, was to rip his promoter and to call Leija a “coward” who “laid down” in a knockout loss to Oscar De La Hoya.
In the coliseum foyer, alternately slumping in his chair and then squaring his shoulders, was Tony’s opponent, 21-year-old Manuel Esparza. A native of Oklahoma City, Esparza wore baggy, low-slung denim shorts, a sports team jersey, and a couple of brads in his right eyebrow. Esparza’s dad had turned him pro at fourteen and he’d built a record of 19-4-1. When the press conference got started, the youth, whose sharp, handsome chin long ago earned him the nickname Pretty Boy, stood before the reporters and said confidently, “He’s old and flat-footed. I got the speed, I got the shots, and come August twentieth, I’m gonna give him hell.”
At the podium, Tony flashed a smile and nodded at his impertinent foe. “I was once where you’re at,” he said. “I just hope we don’t have a lot of ballroom dancing. All you gotta do is stand and fight the old man. We’ll see about it on the twentieth. May the best man win.”
To the chagrin of the promoter, the press conference then turned into a din of shouts about Tony’s feud with Leija. Esparza took a chair, staring thoughtfully at his sneakers. “When I’d get in trouble,” he told me, “my dad used to say, ‘You’re gonna wind up just like Tony Ayala.'”
Tony Ayala, Sr., was an ex-marine who found work as a mechanic at Kelly Air Force Base. He wanted his four boys to be able to defend themselves, so he started teaching them to box in his back yard. Soon other kids joined in, and before he knew it, he had a boxing team sparring in the dust. The elder Ayala eventually opened and ran a respected downtown gym that kept a lot of poor kids off the street. His San Antonio teams were a dominant force in Texas amateur competitions, and his most gifted pupils were his sons. Mike, Sammy, and Tony Ayala were the first and only trio of brothers to win national Golden Gloves championships. (The fourth son, Paulie, also had a successful amateur career and went on to win his share of pro fights; he is not the Paulie Ayala who now holds the world bantamweight title.) To some Chicanos, Tony Senior has earned the community’s esteem and affection for the credit he brought to their young people and the city of San Antonio. But to others, it is an article of faith that the Ayala boys succeeded in the ring because their father raised them like pit bulls.
Mike and Sammy got in trouble with drugs too, but neither fell as far and as fast as Tony. By age twelve, Tony has said, he was smoking dope, boozing, and using heroin. Yet at fourteen he volunteered to spar with world welterweight champion Pipino Cuevas, a superb fighter who was notoriously hard on partners. Cuevas snarled that he wasn’t going to go easy on Tony just because he was a kid. The kid knocked him on his can, and legend has it that Cuevas had to be assisted from the ring.
Tony’s first encounter with the law came a year later. At a drive-in theater in San Antonio he wandered drunk into a women’s restroom and beat a college coed savagely—he allegedly tried to rip out her genitals with his hand. Officials charged him with aggravated rape and certified him to stand trial as an adult. But the victim, who acknowledged receiving a $40,000 payment from the Ayalas, asked the judge to grant leniency after Tony pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. Tony got off with ten years’ probation.
Two years later he turned pro, and now he had enough money to do all the drugs he wanted. He might shoot up two or three times a day while pouring whiskey or tequila. Yet he wasn’t always like that. One Sunday afternoon, Tony saw a girl with dark wavy hair and a broad flashing smile sitting on the hood of a car in Brackenridge Park. She was friendly enough that the next day, when she came home from school, she found him sitting out front in his ’76 Ford. Lisa Paez was no submissive good girl or boxing groupie from the wrong side of town. Her dad owned a small trucking firm, and she would graduate from Holmes High School a year early. Still, when she turned seventeen, she moved in with Tony.
He bought a house on the northwest side of town. One night he broke into a neighbor’s house; police officers arrested him inside and charged him with burglary. Tony’s excuse was that he was so drunk he didn’t know where he was: He thought he was in his own house. The matter went away when the homeowner, who also received money from the Ayalas, decided not to press charges.
The criminal justice system had every reason to lock him up then, but the Ayala name carried much weight in San Antonio. Plus there was Tony’s youth and the reflected glamour of his imminent world title. Whatever the reasons, the judge and the district attorney blinked. To avoid having his probation revoked, Tony agreed to undergo a month of drug and alcohol rehabilitation in California. He spent his time there finding ways to get drunk and high. The other condition of his freedom was to leave the state of Texas. In New Jersey he would presumably be under the stern watch of his manager, Lou Duva, a streetwise former bail bondsman. So there was an element of communal guilt in San Antonio’s response to Tony’s return seventeen years later. The city had foisted off its problem on an unwitting New Jersey town, and on a math teacher who never saw it coming.
A few months into his incarceration at Trenton State Prison, Tony hit bottom. “I’d been smoking dope,” he recalls the night, “and was watching M*A*S*H* on TV. Very funny show; I was laughing my ass off. Then I thought, ‘Man, look at you. You’re in this hellhole, this dungeon, and you’re enjoying yourself!’ I decided then, ‘You’ve either got to change or die.'” At first he was inclined to opt for the latter. Unable to face endless years in prison, he called his father in San Antonio and asked for permission to kill himself. “That’s right,” Tony Senior says, confirming the story. “I said, ‘Son, you have my blessing. But you should know I’ll be coming right behind. Because I don’t want to live in a world without you.'”
Tony made it to the office of Brian Raditz, the prison’s director of psychology and psychiatry. Raditz had played small-college football well enough as a safety that the Washington Redskins invited him to a training camp, but he loved boxing. “Tony could relate to me because I’d been an athlete,” says Raditz, “but what really brought us together was our closeness to our fathers. Sometimes, when things really started to happen for him in therapy, I’d see Tony four to six hours at a time. I’d never seen anyone work at it like he did. He read everything he could get his hands on. He was into theory of psychology, group therapy. And at some point we became close enough that I could say, ‘Tony, what’s really wrong? What really hurts?'”
Tony told him that when he was nine years old a friend of the family had sexually abused him, and as it often happens, the abuse was coerced seduction. It went on for a couple of years. Here was a boy born into a family in which machismo was the ultimate value, and he had not only fears but also evidence that he was gay. (The New Jersey State Parole Board would discount this story, in the only year Tony was eligible for parole, because he refused to name this person, thereby leaving others vulnerable to abuse.) “When he finally opened up and talked about the abuse,” says Raditz, “the pressure was off him. He could begin to deal with himself constructively.” The psychologist became Tony’s confidant, but also his friend; he and his wife opened their home to Lisa. She arrived from Texas thinking she’d stay with the Raditzes a couple of weeks, until she got settled, but she lived with them for three years.
Tony and Lisa had married—in the prison chapel—because they thought it was important to make it official. But bars weren’t the only obstacle between them. Foremost was the essential matter of honesty. “He was my husband and that’s just how it was,” she says. “But for two or three years I went on believing in his innocence—that he’d been wrongly convicted. I couldn’t bring myself to believe that he had done this horrible thing. Finally I asked him. And he said, ‘Yes, Lisa, I did it.'” She was driving back and forth between Philadelphia and Trenton. On weekday visits they could talk through a plate of glass; weekends, they could be in the same room and sit beside each other. “It’s an awful life,” she says. “Six years of that was all I could handle. I wanted to go to a movie with a companion. I wanted a normal relationship. So I divorced him.”
The papers were delivered to Tony on his birthday in 1989. She had a good job by then, working as a sales rep for an orthodontics company. She also had a boyfriend. She didn’t want to marry him, but she enjoyed his company, and the relationship lasted three years. For Tony those years were long and bitter. “It had always been a struggle,” he says. “Lisa managed to keep it going. To have love in that kind of situation, you really have to be committed. The only place I could see her was in that hateful prison. So some years down the line, we split. That was bad enough. But she’s a young, attractive woman. I knew about this other guy. I’d lie there in lockup thinking about him making love to my wife.”
Raditz discharged Tony as a patient in 1986, and the same year the psychologist left the prison system to concentrate on his private practice. But he continued to talk to Tony almost daily. Tony was transferred to Rahway State Prison—still a maximum-security unit, only with more activities for the inmates—and there he helped found a system-approved peer-counseling program. Tony stayed in shape by lifting weights. He had found that if he tried to relieve his stress by working out in the meager boxing gym, it was like an old western: Somebody was always out to prove something by taking him on, and if it went badly for the challenger, in prison that could be reason enough to kill. “I’d done it for big money in Atlantic City and Vegas,” he says. “Boxing in prison was pouring salt in a wound.” Raditz, meanwhile, started spending more time with his old acquaintance Don Elbaum, a crusty boxing promoter in Philadelphia, and eventually he came to manage the career of a world lightweight contender, Tracy Spann.
Lisa never stopped asking Raditz about Tony, and finally, one day, she listened to her heart and called him. They got back together again, but now her role was not as passive. She and Tony’s lawyers were constantly looking for a way to get him out, but it was tough—even with comparatively good press. When Mike Tyson was awaiting his indictment on rape charges in 1991, the New York Times rediscovered Tony. In the photo that ran with the piece, Tony sat on the back of a chair, eyes and mouth conveying a mix of stoic humor and self-beratement. Although his comments were thoughtful and articulate, in many ways he did seem like the first coming of Iron Mike. Yet while Tyson served just three years, confessed to nothing, expressed no remorse, scorned the victim, and was soon back out fighting stiffs for millions, Tony was doing hard time—and lots of it.
I talked to Tony by phone in 1996, when a lawyer was trying to win his release (then from Bayside) with a plea for executive clemency. From Republican crimestopper Christine Todd Whitman? For rape with a deadly weapon? Fat chance, I thought, and in the tired flatness of Tony’s voice, I could tell he knew it too. “I went into Trenton with the conviction I was going to die in prison,” he told me. “I was going to kill somebody or get killed. I would not submit. And I had some close calls. I about got stabbed. I was getting into drugs again. But that night I heard that voice—my inner voice—in my cell. And then I met Brian Raditz. So in a sense, prison saved my life. It gave me the chance to make a new start. And if I were to die tonight, I’d die a better person than I was when I came here.”
At the time we spoke he and Lisa had broken up again. She was living in Euless then, and she agreed to meet me at a restaurant. It was chilly that night, and her dark hair was clipped behind a thick white turtleneck. She had an abrupt kind of poise. Her voice seemed to slice out of the right side of her mouth—I realized later that her accent resulted from those many years living in Philadelphia. She was now working for a pharmaceutical company. She told me she went to church and had a group of friends there. She was dating again. Yet she told me that it wasn’t over with Tony. “Evidently,” she said with a laugh, “I am supposed to be with this man.”
She said her friends in Dallas and Fort Worth had no inkling of her life with him. I was flabbergasted. “What are they going to say when he gets out and it’s in the news?” I asked.
She laughed again. “They’ll say, ‘You’ve thrown away your youth! For this monster!'”
Tony’s comeback was supposed to commence when the parole board rewarded him for being a model prisoner and granted him parole in 1998. “People were down there talking about multimillion-dollar fights,” says Elbaum, shaking his head. “I thought, ‘Man, that’s gonna backfire,’ and it did.” Parole was denied. It always seemed that part of the punishment was to ensure that he would be too old to fight again. But at that point, what was one more year to Tony? If he just stayed out of trouble, the authorities had to let him go. When the date of his release finally arrived, he walked to a limo Raditz had rented. “Hey, Tony, we finally got you out,” quipped his lawyer. “During the ride he was quiet and just really watching,” Lisa says. “Taking everything in. When we got close to Philadelphia, he said to me, ‘So this is the way you came,'” referring to her long drives all those weeks to see him.
Within a day or two, Tony was working out in a gym. Raditz arranged a poolside press event at his home. “It was all lovey-dovey,” says John Whisler, an Express-News boxing writer who had contended that Raditz was an “opportunist,” and that his role as past shrink and present manager automatically presented a perception of a conflict of interest. In attendance were some ex-cons who had preceded Tony in their freedom and were extremely loyal to their friend and counselor. Throat noises were heard; steps were taken. For a moment it looked like the reporter was going for an early-spring swim.
While Tony was doing his time, Tony Senior had come into possession of a boxing gym fashioned from the shell of an old grocery store on Zarzamora Street. Raditz invested money in the gym and became the Ayalas’ partner; the old man would train Tony, Raditz would be Tony’s manager, and Elbaum would serve as an outside adviser. They were going to do it just like George Foreman had done in his second career: fight every four to six weeks and build up at an even pace. The light at the end of their long tunnel was De La Hoya, the matinee idol of Chicano boxing. Other desired opponents were Puerto Rican Felix Trinidad, African Ike Quartey, and maybe the light heavyweight champion, Roy Jones—three of the best fighters on the planet. If the idea sounded preposterous, well, so had Foreman’s.
But the light flickered. Three weeks after his press conference, in stifling heat, the elder Ayala had his boy sparring five-minute rounds against James “Cowboy” Coker, a southpaw with a 19-1 record who knocked down Olympic gold medalist David Reid three times en route to losing a decision in 1998. Against this skilled sparring partner, Tony’s punches were tentative. He started to throw them but pulled up because the opening he had seen was gone. Tony couldn’t get off, in the jargon of the trade, while Coker jolted him almost at will with his jab and straight left. The next day, in walked Roland Rangel in construction clothes, front teeth knocked out, ugly as a train yard. He changed into his shoes and trunks, pulled on tattered headgear, climbed in the ring, touched Tony’s glove, and then began to blast him too. At one point Tony whipped his head around and staggered. On the apron his dad raised a hand at Roland to hold off. Tony’s wisdom teeth had flared up, subjecting him to oral surgery two weeks out from the fight, and Roland’s punch had just sent a bolt of white heat through his head.
After the workout the patriarch took a seat and stretched his arms across the backs of metal chairs. Wearing shorts and a sleeveless undershirt, he looked his age, 65. “My son came out of his incarceration weighing 196 pounds,” he said calmly. “He weighed 162 ten minutes ago. He’s not quite there. It’s going to take him five or six fights. His hand speed’s fair—he’s never been a wizard at that—but he’s a good defensive fighter. Good puncher. Takes a hell of a shot. It’s all there.”
In San Antonio many people believe the old man is evil. But as he talks about the troubles that have beset his family his speech takes on evangelical rhythms and flair. “One time my oldest son said, ‘Where were you when all these things began?’ My wife and I sat down. When you don’t have an education, and your income is low and you have to pay the rent and you’ve got kids, you hold many jobs. I washed cars, changed tires, worked in restaurants. I used to go to the farms and buy fresh eggs and sell them out of my pickup on the West Side. I was always working. That’s where I was. I wish I could have brought them up in a better neighborhood. I used to go to the city council and plead with them. But it wasn’t until rich kids on the North Side started using drugs that they got excited. Then we had a War on Drugs.
“It breaks my heart. I never knew about the abuse my son endured. Demons hounded him throughout his life. And when he used drugs and alcohol, he just exploded. When my son was incarcerated, I didn’t come out of my house for three months. There is an old saying that everybody makes firewood out of a fallen tree. That’s what happened. I went broke. My wife and I lost everything. Everything. So I went back on the road. Emanuel Steward, an old friend, gave me work at the Kronk Gym in Detroit, then we opened Kronk West in Tucson. We were away for eleven years. But we’re not strangers. We’ve been in rough seas before. And now Tony . . .”
He looked away and blinked his eyes. He apologized for his tears. “I don’t know how we can make things right. I told him, ‘Tony, there’s nothing we can do. Just go forward.'”
After a moment he wiped his eyes and raised his chin proudly. “When I came back to San Antonio, a young man said, ‘You’re the old warhorse. In the old days your name went from pillar to post. But you’re history. It’s our turn now.’ Well, here I am,” he said, gazing around the gym. “We own this place. Tony will eventually take over for me. As far as Tony’s concerned now, don’t be surprised if he’s a better fighter than he ever was. Sure, he’s going on thirty-seven. But go back to the yesteryears. Fighters like Jersey Joe Walcott, Archie Moore, George Foreman. They were on top well into their thirties and forties. Things are no different now, and Tony’s here to prove it. And if he doesn’t make it, let me say it in the manner of my son: He’s already a winner. He’s a free man.”
Two days before the weigh-in, the press conference at a San Antonio hotel was packed with boxing people and press. Young Manuel Esparza was digging all the attention. He zipped around the room granting interviews to anyone who asked for one. Ever since he arrived in San Antonio he’d been talking trash about Tony. When he took his turn at the podium, he turned to Tony and asked him if he preferred mustard or mayonnaise—Tony gazed straight ahead, eyes like jade—”because I’m going to be feeding you fist sandwiches all night.” The kid squirmed and giggled at his wit.
In the crowd some looks were exchanged. Esparza’s record was deceptive. He’d won his first twelve bouts, nine of them four-rounders, and since then had been mediocre. In his last outing he’d gotten stopped. He had knocked out only five opponents, so his strategy had to be to hang in for ten rounds and try to steal a decision in Tony’s hometown. He was a carefully chosen opponent for the first bout. In the old days, Tony fought like a baited wild animal released from its cage—like he truly loved to do damage. He spat on one opponent after knocking him out, gave another a whack after that one was counted out. He once chased Roberto Duran down a New York street, daring boxing’s ultimate macho man to get in the ring with him.
But at the weigh-in Tony stunned even the most cynical observers. “Jesse” James Leija had taken a fight on the undercard. Tony looked at the boxer he had called a coward and said, “I would like to offer my sincere apologies to James. That was said at a moment when I was not in the best frame of mind. I never once questioned your character outside the ring. And in fact I commend you for that. I wish I had conducted myself in the same manner when I was younger.” Surprised applause erupted. One thing people had never expected of Tony was class.
A couple of nights before, I had met Tony in a hotel restaurant. Why San Antonio? I had asked him. Why not go someplace where he could truly start over?
“This is where I was born,” he answered in a deep voice. “Where I was raised, where I raised a lot of hell. Where I broke a lot of hearts.”
“So you’re trying to make it up to people?”
“I can’t make up anything to anybody,” he replied. “Sixteen years are gone. I can’t expect people to forget what happened. That’s one of the things I have to accept. The past is related to my family, related to the victim. There’s nothing I can do about that. So I’d best just leave it alone. Otherwise it would just consume me and kill me all over again.” He paused a moment. When he spoke again, his tone was gruff. “All I can do is the best I can. I’m never going to be perfect. I still have my faults. Lisa probably told you there are some days she hates my guts for the way I am.”
I was a little jolted by the way he put it. “No. She didn’t say that.”
He lowered his gaze and toyed with the food on his plate.
“I was married to a beautiful woman. But that wasn’t enough. I was always out chasing other women. Trying to get another notch on my belt. I had to keep proving my sexuality. It was the same with my fighting. I had a sheer hatred of losing. Because losing meant more than just losing a fight. Losing meant being stripped of my manhood.”
“Of all the things that could have happened that night,” I said, “why rape?”
“Well, rape is about anger and violence, right? You impose your will on another person. But it’s more complicated than that. I was convinced I was unworthy of being loved. I thought the only way I could be with someone like Lisa was that I had fooled her into thinking I was an okay guy. If she knew the truth, she wouldn’t be with me. The actual rape: I was drunk, I had broken into the woman’s apartment, and I was looking for someone who didn’t know me—a total stranger. In the mix of all that, the sexuality had to do with me being a man. I wanted to impose myself on a woman as a way of proving my straightness, my heterosexuality. Which goes back to my being abused, being sodomized, being pushed into things I didn’t want to do, and blaming myself, thinking somehow I had invited the situation. Plus all the other—the control and dominance and anger. It’s like a soup; it’s all thrown in. It’s hard to distinguish where one ends and the other begins.”
“Will you ever be at peace with yourself?”
“I am now. I never thought, ‘I don’t deserve to be in prison. I didn’t hurt her that bad’—nothing like that. I think I should have gone to prison for what I did. I committed a horrible crime. But how much time is enough time? Too much time? You’ve got to give people the desire and motivation to turn their lives around. And give them an education and the foundation to get out and find a good-paying job. You can’t expect a thirty-six-year-old man to work at McDonald’s the rest of his life. Punishment for the sake of hurt. Anybody’s going to rebel against that. I think that’s where the whole system’s got it wrong. Of course, I’d assume the victim thinks I should die in prison for what I did. I would guess she thinks I’m the devil incarnate because of what I put her through.”
He set his jaw and looked away, eyes rimmed and gleaming with tears. “My only hope,” he said quietly, “is that she’s gotten the proper therapy to put her life back in order. And that’s always possible. It’s not to say you’re going to forget what happened to you. But you can put the past behind you to a point that it doesn’t assault you every day. When I was growing up, the past always haunted me. Those demons were with me every day. My inability to let the past go caused me to stop being the victim and become the perpetrator. That’s what I regret. I care about having raped her. Putting my family in shame. Not having won the title? Who gives a shit?”
We were almost alone in the restaurant. A young Hispanic man in a suit had passed our table several times. Finally he stopped and said, “I know you from somewhere. Is your name Ayala? Do you have a brother . . . ?”
“Yeah, I’m Tony. Sammy used to work here. How you doing?”
The young man shook his hand and immediately fell into the rhythms of barrio English. “Yeah, Sammy and I worked together. Banquets, catering. How you doing, man? You doing all right?”
“I’m doing great, man. I’m doing a hell of a lot better than I was last year.”
“Good luck to you, man. It’s an honor meeting you. Having you here.”
Mood buoyed by the exchange, Tony looked at me and said, “Where were we?”
“Your crime. Your demons.”
“Well, I don’t think of my crime as a demon. But that woman will always be scarred by what I did. It’s a wound that will never heal. I hurt this girl. I invaded her sanctuary—her bedroom. Being violated is not something you get over, ever. I wonder if she can sleep at night. Whether she has to lock all the doors. I’ll carry that with me the rest of my life.”
THE FIRST HINT WAS THE TRAFFIC. From every approach the cars and trucks inched toward the silver dome of the old coliseum. Its seating capacity was over 10,000, and it filled up. Even in the highest rows, I couldn’t see open spaces. I had wondered if they might show up dressed to the nines, as Muhammad Ali’s fans did when he came back from the idleness forced on him by his refusal of the draft. But it wasn’t like that. The style here was boots and jeans and cowboy hats. It was a blue-collar crowd—largely Hispanic but not predominantly, as I had expected.
One person who did dress was Lisa Ayala. Her hair was up and she wore a glittery black dress. Accustomed to working, she had plunged into the fight by practicing her trade, which is selling things, and she had sold a lot of tickets. She moved around ringside chatting, checking on the comfort of her tiny, quiet mother-in-law. I could tell she was nervous because she couldn’t stay in her seat. I had spoken to her too about the prospects for their marriage. “We’ve hardly had any time together,” she told me. “[During] the lawsuit by the other promoters, he had to go back to Philadelphia to be deposed. On the way back, our flight was canceled in St. Louis, and we had to stay over. We went to the park, a museum. It was wonderful. But we’re living with his parents”—it was the only time I’d seen her roll her eyes. “It’s an adjustment, just the personal space. Tony’s bond with his dad is so strong. They talk about building two houses on the same piece of land. I don’t know. I’m just going with the flow.”
The stars of the undercard, “Jesse” James Leija and Tony’s sparring partner, James “Cowboy” Coker, had tough fights—they earned their money. When the time for the main event arrived, a nine-piece mariachi band assembled in the ring. The entry of Manuel Esparza brought down an avalanche of boos. His trash mouth had cost him admiration he might have won for his spunk. Pretty Boy wore a hooded gold lamé robe. In the ring he shadowboxed, danced on his toes, genuflected. The voices and guitars of the mariachis built to a crescendo, the trumpet player blew melancholy notes, and the bellow of the crowd engulfed everything else when Tony stepped into the ring. It struck me as I looked up and around that his appeal has much to do with machismo, all right. But he’s also tapped into something else: people who feel they’ve been unfairly given up on as losers in their own lives. That’s a powerful constituency if he can still get it done in the ring.
Tony shed a short yellow robe and rolled his shoulders, rolled his neck. There was no glaring face-off when the ref called them together at center ring. Tony was all business, and at the bell he was after Esparza like a spider with a fly. Esparza had meant to step and glide from side to side, scoring with his longer arms and faster hands, but the legs that are supposed to be an old fighter’s bane were this one’s advantage. Tony was a master at cutting off the ring. The kid tried to dance and establish his range, but Tony’s angular steps intercepted and continually closed the distance. Esparza was soon on the ropes, forced into corners, and all his concentration was devoted to blocking punches and slipping them with his head. Tony no longer fights with the wildness of his youth. His sparring partners taught him that he doesn’t have the same reflexes, that he’d better keep his hands up. His expression was almost thoughtful as he threw a right-hand lead, whacked the kid’s ribs with his left hook. But they were arm punches, doing little damage when they landed.
Between rounds the old man stood before his son’s stool with his feet spread wide and whirled a towel in rapid circles. It couldn’t create much cooling wind, but it looked showy. In the other corner Esparza complained to his dad that his new gold trunks didn’t fit. Simultaneously he was trying to box and keep his pants from falling off. His dad yanked them high over his groin protector and wrapped adhesive tape around his waist.
The second round and the beginning of the third were like the first—Esparza trying to fight off the ropes and out of corners, Tony struggling to find the rhythm, remember the combinations. Then, on the ropes just above me, Tony bent his knees, twisted his hips, and with a loud whunk landed a left hook that sent tingles and the thrill of the old days all the way up his arm and shoulder. It landed just under Esparza’s rib cage. Whatever organs lay under there, the impact made the kid’s face go pale and blank with pain, and his legs collapsed. By grabbing the rope he managed to stay on his knees and make the count. Seconds later, Tony battered him to the canvas again, and the ref jumped between them. Fight over.
The roar of the crowd became the whistling and sustained applause of homecoming. Tony stepped in place, nodding in response. When the tape was off and the laces were loose, he threw one glove to the crowd, then the other. He kept drawing his hand over his mouth, controlling his emotion. Esparza put back on the gold robe, and as he stepped through the ropes, people were booing him again. He stood on the ring apron and took two mocking bows. Objects sailed through the air. Tony saw it and sent his dad to call Esparza back. Tony walked around the ring with the kid, holding his hand up. Young Tony wouldn’t have done that.
The press conference afterward was smooth. Tony answered each question in English, then paused and replied in well-phrased Spanish.
The strategy, his handlers explained, was all planned out. He’ll fight every four to six weeks, though the schedule will be flexible for television. In each fight the opponent will have a little more skill. The fan base is San Antonio, and ultimately they want to prove they can fill up the Alamodome, but they’re going to promote him in Corpus Christi, the Valley, El Paso, Albuquerque, Tucson, Phoenix—all the way to L.A. and De La Hoya. You could call the campaign “The March to Oscar: Who’s the Real Chicano?”
“Huge fight,” contends the crafty veteran from Philly, Don Elbaum. “Could be the biggest ever. Nobody will know how much Tony’s got left until he’s in the ring with De La Hoya. If they do it right.”