Tim Graham

Monday, October 2
Updated: October 6, 3:04 PM ET
Good guy Ayala gets overlooked

By Tim Graham
Special to ESPN.com

When Terrell Owens made an ass of himself on the Dallas Cowboys' midfield star, Paulie Ayala was a few miles away in Fort Worth, spending time with the family.
Paulie Ayala
Tapia (left) and Ayala are very different fighters -- especially out of the ring.

When C.J. Hunter embarrassed himself, his wife Marion Jones and his country on a world stage, Paulie Ayala was thousands of miles away, helping his wife around the house.

While a jury decided whether to punish Marty McSorley for braining Donald Brashear with a hockey stick, Paulie Ayala was mowing the lawn, accepting his son's Sony Play Station challenges and giving motivational speeches at schools and churches.

The average sports fan probably doesn't know who Paulie Ayala is. And that's a shame.

Ayala is the WBA bantamweight champion, but more importantly he's a classy, soft-spoken human being in a time when flamboyant sports personalities with a knack for the negative seem to be getting all the press.

So many touchdowns were scored. So many gold medals were won. And the NHL season is starting. But the acts of Owens, Hunter and McSorley have garnered the most attention recently in their respective arenas. Fans bemoan the lack of role models in today's sports world. Yet there is Ayala, anonymously doing exactly what everyone wants more of. Ayala possibly is the nicest guy in all of sports.

"Family keeps stability in his life," says Ayala's wife, Leti. "He lives for his kids. Boxing is just what he does for a living."

Ayala will fight Johnny Tapia Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas. The bout is a rematch of The Ring Magazine's 1999 fight of the year, in which Ayala and Tapia went toe-to-toe for 12 scintillating rounds. Ayala won a close-but-unanimous decision, handing the celebrated Tapia his lone professional loss and taking his title in the process.

With the landmark victory Ayala joined the lineage of Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Marvin Hagler, Ray Robinson and Ray Leonard as he received The Ring's prestigious Fighter of the Year Award.

One would think Ayala would continue to get his just due at least in the hard-core boxing community, if not the mainstream sports world. Unfortunately, he doesn't.

It wasn't until recently Ayala was properly recognized on his own merit in his own state. People routinely confused him with San Antonio's Tony Ayala, who resumed his boxing career in 1999 after serving 19 years in prison for rape.

Even in Paulie Ayala's fight Saturday night -- a rematch over a guy he already has defeated -- he's almost an afterthought.

  Why is the focus so much on Tapia and not the man who already has beaten him? Simple: Tapia -- like Owens and Hunter and McSorley and Mike Tyson -- has screwed up enough to capture the public's imagination.  

Tapia is listed as an 8-to-5 favorite in the Las Vegas sports books. Tapia (48-1-2) is getting paid $600,000, while Ayala (30-1) is receiving only two-thirds of that. The purses are disproportionate because Tapia has a contract with the Showtime cable network, which is airing the event. Ayala, meanwhile, has no TV contract.

Tapia-Ayala will be fought at a catch weight of 124 pounds, six pounds over the bantam limit because Tapia can no longer make the weight. It's for the vacant IBA feather title. Ayala, whose WBA title is not on the line because of the weight, will decline the IBA belt if victorious.

The MGM Grand Garden is expected to sell out its scaled-down 8,000-seat capacity. Those fans are expected to be overwhelmingly behind Tapia, who draws throngs from Southern California and his native Albuquerque.

Why is the focus so much on Tapia and not the man who already has beaten him? Simple: Tapia -- like Owens and Hunter and McSorley and Mike Tyson -- has screwed up enough to capture the public's imagination.

"Paulie got his hand raised, but Johnny's still the attraction," says Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler. Top Rank is Ayala's promoter and also has promoted Tapia. But the former champ broke away after Ayala beat him, accusing Top Rank president Bob Arum of somehow influencing the outcome.

"This is Johnny's show, Johnny's event," Trampler says. "He's giving Paulie the chance to make a lot of money."

Tapia, whose motto is Mi Vida Loca (My Crazy Life), has overcome more in his 33 years than most people could handle if they lived to be 133.

His mother was murdered when he was a child. He was banned from boxing for 3½ years because of a cocaine and alcohol addiction. He spent time in prison on drug charges. He was hospitalized twice this summer for depression. Between stints he was involved in a road-rage incident and had gunshots fired at him.

There also have been allegations of domestic abuse from his wife and manager, Teresa, which she since has recanted. His first hospitalization this summer reportedly stemmed from a suicidal episode.

People hear about Tapia's travails and they say "How tragic."

They read about Ayala's lifestyle and the say "How dull."

"He's a better story," Ayala says. "Me? There's nothing. I'm just a normal guy who chose boxing for a career and happens to be good at it."

Ayala is the guy you would love to be your next-door neighbor. He's the guy you would feel comfortable leaving your kids with. He's the guy you would want your daughter to bring home for dinner ... if he weren't already married.

The 30-year-old enjoys his modest lifestyle. The Ayalas live in the same three-bedroom home they've lived in since Paulie and Leti moved out of her parents' home ... years before he even was a contender. They plan on looking for a bigger place after the Tapia fight.

Although he has been a champion for over a year, Saturday will mark Ayala's biggest payday by far. The first time he fought Tapia he made only $65,000, not an exorbitant amount for a title fight against a champ who, at the time, was considered among the pound-for-pound best on the planet.

Unlike most fighters, Ayala isn't about to start throwing money around. He's not about to have his name added to the long list of elite fighters who got rich and then went broke.

The family's two vehicles are a 1996 Ford Mustang he bought used and a 1999 Ford Explorer. He doesn't even own the Explorer, which he is allowed to drive as part of an endorsement package with a local dealership.

After beating Tapia, the first thing he did was buy Leti a nice wedding ring. Her previous band cost him $200 on layaway at Service Merchandise.

College funds already have been set up for 8-year-old Paul Jr. and 16-month-old Aleah. Ayala, who plans on retiring and going back to school himself in two years, says money also has been set aside in case his wife wants to attain a degree.

Ayala is extra careful with his money. He thought one landscaper was crazy to charge $25 to do a job that takes him 15 minutes. Do you think Julio Cesar Chavez mows his own lawn? Maybe that's why the Mexican icon is reportedly broke.

"It's all for my kids and Leti," Ayala says. "We're comfortable. We're rich in family. Our needs are always met, so there's no sense in wasting money."

Ayala is saddened when he thinks how the lives of two former champs from Fort Worth turned out. Donald Curry and Sergio Reyes have spent time behind bars, and that makes Ayala want to do the right thing even more.

He says he tries to attend the nondenominational Teaching Word Faith Center in Fort Worth each Sunday and Wednesday, and he gives motivational speeches to crime- prevention groups and at local schools and churches.

It is because Ayala is so well-grounded he doesn't mind that Tapia is considered the attraction.

"I am not jealous in any way," Ayala says. "The fight is good for boxing. ... In order to establish myself, I want to beat him again. I need it. I want it.

"I already have the victory. I just haven't gotten the glory."

But there is one price Ayala won't pay to achieve the attention, money and other benefits of superstardom.

"I can't be a hood," Ayala says. "One day I was talking to Leti and said 'Maybe I oughta change my image.' She just laughed at me. I wouldn't be good at that."

ESPN.com boxing writer Tim Graham covers the Sweet Science for The Buffalo News and The Ring Magazine, and formerly wrote for the Las Vegas Sun.

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