Tony Ayala, Jr., Tejano-American boxer and controversial figure, was born the third of four sons to Antonio C. Ayala, Sr., and Pauline (Torres) Ayala, at San Antonio, Texas, on February 13, 1963. Ayala Sr. was a U. S. Marine who served in the Korean War, a boxer, and noted boxing coach. In the Marines he had a boxing record of 31–7. Later, as a coach, he trained female boxing world champion, Maribel Zurita, and four other world champions, including John Michael Johnson and Jesse Benavides. Ayala Sr. referred to his sons as “The Fighting Ayalas.” The eldest, Miguel “Mike” Ayala, won National Golden Gloves championships in 1973 and 1975, while his second-born, Samuel “Sammy” Ayala, won in 1977. The youngest brother was named Pablo and known as “Paulie.” Considered San Antonio’s premier boxing family throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Ayalas were pushed early by their father to focus on boxing; consequently all four sons dropped out of high school and went on to professional boxing careers.
Tony Ayala, Jr., began boxing at the early age of five, and by age fourteen, his impressive amateur career included two National Junior Olympic championships. A vicious brawler, Ayala Jr. won the Golden Gloves National Championship in 1979. He earned the nickname “El Torito” (“the Little Bull”) due to his savage style of a straight forward attack. Ayala, however, was regarded by many as a “dirty” fighter who once spit at a downed opponent. He also had a predatory preponderance to attack and sexually assault women. At age fifteen, he brutally assaulted a female in the restroom of a drive-in theater. Ayala received ten years’ probation. At age eighteen he had a common-law wife, Lisa Paez, who was living with him in the Ayala family residence.
On June 17, 1980, Ayala made his professional debut with a quick knockout of forty-fight veteran Zip Castillo. Standing five-foot seven and a half inches with a sixty-eight-inch reach and an orthodox stance, “El Torito” beat his first four opponents with decisive knockouts. Ayala proceeded to pummel through the competition in his class and expeditiously climbed atop the boxing ladder in the junior middleweight division. KO Magazine ran a cover story of his prodigal rise in August 1981, and in the fall of that year, he fought on the undercard (against José Baquedano) of the memorable battle between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns in Las Vegas. Ayala was also featured in an article in Sports Illustrated in October 1981, and he graced the cover of The Ring magazine in 1982. By age nineteen in 1982, Ayala had amassed an impressive undefeated record of twenty-two wins with nineteen knockouts. His success in the ring and ferocious fighting approach earned him a title fight with Davey Moore, which was scheduled for 1983. Up to this point in Ayala’s nascent career, many experts in the boxing world, including Muhammed Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee, considered the Tejano to be one of the most prominent boxing prospects of all time.
Ayala’s sinister conduct quashed his chance for boxing gold on New Year’s Day of 1983. High on heroin, he broke into a neighbor’s home in New Jersey, then sexually assaulted and robbed the young woman. He was convicted of rape and initially sentenced to a fifteen-to-thirty-five-year term, with at least fifteen years without the possibility of parole. An appellate court later changed the sentence to fifteen-to-thirty years. Ayala was paroled in 1999 after serving sixteen years. Shortly after his release, he married former common-law wife Lisa Paez, who had left him during his incarceration. He then resumed his boxing career in the middleweight division in 1999. In four years he fought eleven opponents, of which six were highly-touted fights.
In 2000 his troubles continued when he was shot in the shoulder by an eighteen-year-old woman he knew, after he broke into her home in the middle of the night. In the ring, Ayala first tasted defeat by the fists of Luis Ramon “Yori Boy” Campas in front of a crowded stadium at the Freeman Coliseum in his hometown. At the end of the eighth round he did not stand up because of a broken hand. Ayala won four fights after his first loss but was stopped by Anthony Bonsante in the eleventh round of the final bout of his boxing career. Ayala’s boxing fingerprint encapsulated 141 rounds, 31 wins, 2 losses, no draws, and 27 knockouts; recording a tabulated 82 percent knock out rate.
In 2004 Ayala violated parole when he was pulled over for speeding and was found to be in possession of heroin and pornography. He was sentenced to ten years and was re-incarcerated. At some point he and his wife divorced. Tony Ayala, Sr., died on April 10, 2014, just days before his son’s release. Ayala Jr. attended his father’s funeral under special permission and was later released from the Walls Unit in Huntsville on April 25, 2014. He returned to continue his father’s legacy in San Antonio and trained local youths at the Zarzamora Street Gym that his father had established. Ayala Jr.’s memory as an illustrious boxer has been overshadowed by his reprehensible decisions. Ultimately, whether or not his violent criminal history was fueled by drugs, a turbulent childhood, or both, he shattered the lives of his victims as well as his own. The controversial figure of Tony “El Torito” Ayala, Jr., was one of boxing history’s most abysmal yet most promising fighters who threw it all away.
On May 12, 2015, at age fifty-two, the Tejano boxing legend was found dead of a heroin overdose at the Zarzamora Street Gym. He was buried in San Fernando Cemetery III. At the time of his death, his common-law wife, Jenna Lewis, laid claim to Ayala’s remains and his ownership of the Zarzamora Street Gym, and the Ayala family was in litigation.