Tony Ayala Jr., a fierce, gifted and troubled fighter who was a rising middleweight contender before a rape conviction sent him to prison, was found dead on Tuesday at his family’s boxing gym in San Antonio. He was 52.
His brother Mike confirmed the death in an interview on Thursday. The San Antonio police said they had found heroin and a syringe next to his body and suspected that a drug overdose had killed Ayala, The Associated Press reported.
Part of a celebrated San Antonio boxing family — his father was a noted trainer, and his three brothers all found amateur or professional success — Ayala, who was known as el Torito, or the Little Bull, was a blunt puncher and an aggressive stalker in the ring. He had a bully’s chip on his shoulder, with a penchant for trash talking and other intimidating (some said dirty) tactics.
“I was Tyson before there was a Tyson,” he said in a 2001 television interview, three years after his release from the first of two extended prison terms, and he had reason to say so. He was referring to the fearsome former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who also could not seem to stay out of trouble, and who also served time for rape.
“People feared who I was,” Ayala said. “I was the undisputed No. 1 contender, and there was no question I would’ve won the world title.”
Ayala was a tough customer from an early age, both in the ring and out of it, earning both accolades and a rap sheet.
At 14, he won the first of his two national junior Olympic championships. At 15, he assaulted a girl at a drive-in theater. In 1979, at 16, he was the national Golden Gloves middleweight champion, and by the end of 1982, at 19, he was undefeated in his first 22 professional fights.
He had already been featured in an article in Sports Illustrated and on the cover of The Ring magazine, which described him as the bad boy of boxing. He seemed to be on his way to joining the ranks of the great welterweights and middleweights of the era — Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Marvin Hagler — but in January 1983, while living in New Jersey, Ayala broke into the apartment of a neighbor, a 30-year-old teacher; tied her to a bed; and raped her. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison and served 16.
Antonio Ayala Jr. was born in San Antonio on Feb. 13, 1963. His father, by most accounts an exacting and occasionally harsh taskmaster when it came to boxing, trained him from the time he was 5, but his upbringing was riddled with cruel realities. He began drinking and shooting heroin in his early teens, and he said in interviews that he had hidden the fact that between the ages of 9 and 11 he was molested by a family friend, telling no one until he disclosed it to a prison counselor.
“Looking back, that was ground zero of what set everything on its course,” he said, referring to the molestation, in a 1998 prison interview with The New York Times. “I don’t blame everything on that, because I made the decisions to do the things I did. But it explains why I did what I did.” He added, “I’d like to show people that you can come back, and not in boxing terms but in life terms.”
It did not work out that way. Released on parole in 1999, Ayala resumed his career and won his first five bouts before losing to Luis Ramon Campos, known as Yori Boy. Then, in December 2000, Ayala broke into the San Antonio home of two women, one of whom shot him.
Awaiting trial, he recovered from his injury and won his next fight while wearing an electronic monitor around his ankle. Later, in a plea bargain, he received a short jail term and 10 years of probation.
Four years later, however, he was sent to prison for violating his probation after he was caught speeding and driving without a license and the police found drugs and pornography in his car. He was released in April 2014, just about the time his father died. Ayala had recently been helping to train fighters at the gym owned by his family on North Zarzamora Street.
In addition to his brother Mike, a Golden Gloves flyweight champion who won 45 of 51 professional fights and lost title bouts in the featherweight and super bantamweight divisions, he is survived by his mother, the former Pauline Torres, and two other brothers, Sammy and Paul.
“He had a good heart, but he was troubled,” Mike Ayala said of his brother Tony, who he said could be articulate and thoughtful. “That was one part of his character. Another part was that he was self-destructive.”