Paulie Ayala was so bummed last year about his low boxing profile and even lower boxing paydays that as a publicity stunt he asked his wife, Leti, to beat him up. With whip-flick artistry, Ayala had upended the unbeaten Johnny Tapia in 1999 for the WBA bantamweight title and won his next four bouts, but he was still earning chump change compared with what a lot of guys were pulling down in other divisions. "I told Leti, 'Whack me around a little, and I'll report you to the police and send you to jail for a night,' " Ayala says. Husband-beating, however, was not among Leti's wedding vows. "She said, 'No way! Try something else.' "
So he did. Last August, Ayala bypassed the second-rater who was the WBA's mandatory challenger and took on IBO super bantamweight champ Clarence (Bones) Adams in Las Vegas. Though stripped of his WBA bantamweight belt, Ayala was rewarded with $500,000 and a split-decision victory. The victory was so hotly disputed that the two returned to Vegas last Saturday to mix it up again for even more money.
Since outpointing Tapia as a heavy underdog, Ayala has had enough close shaves to dull a Gillette Mach3Turbo. He came into the rematch with Adams having gone the 12-round distance in his last six fights. Those decisions in his favor rankled some ringside pundits. Showtime announcer Bobby Czyz, who worked two Ayala fights in 2000, told his audience after the second bout that Ayala had lost both of them, and last March, ESPN2 boxing analyst Teddy Atlas was so appalled by Ayala's narrow victory over Hugo Dianzo that he said there should be a federal investigation into possible corruption by boxing authorities. "As I look back, I don't think Paulie's ever won a fight," cracks his manager, Scott Sherman. "For two or three years all I've heard about is people getting cheated."
Ayala flicks off the criticism as effortlessly as he would an ill-placed uppercut. "I've been dogged by all these self-proclaimed boxing experts," he says. "Personally, I don't think my critics are the best commentators out there, but I don't go around saying there are better ones."
There's not a lot of lip in the 31-year-old Ayala, boxing's most lovable Paulie since the first Rocky film. "I never used to be this nice," he protests. In fact, as a kid in Fort Worth, Texas, he could be downright nasty. To young Ayala the sport was an expression of cruel-spirited will. "There was a mean side to Paulie," says Leti. "He didn't care about anything but himself."
That was before he hooked up with Sherman and turned pro. Ayala wasn't a stylist then; he was strictly a southpaw arm puncher. Sherman showed him how to block blows with his elbows instead of his gloves and to use his jab to set up more damaging shots.
Ayala's punches are still sharper than they are staggering, but he has a quick right jab and the respect of opponents. "Paulie's a gentleman and a family man," says Adams. "It's a shame I have to fight such a decent guy to make decent pay."
During his first bout with Adams, Ayala sometimes seemed too decent for his own good. In the 11th round, a cut the width of the Rio Grande opened over Adams's left eye. All Ayala had to do to ice the fight was press the issue in Round 12. But he laid off his punches and let the broken Bones back in. Adams won the round on every card and very nearly won the bout.
In Saturday's rematch Ayala picked Bones apart, driving him mercilessly around the ring, jabs raining incessantly on his body and head. Adams tried to upset Ayala's rhythm by working him laterally, but the supple Ayala slipped nearly everything thrown his way and kept Adams backing up. Ayala won a unanimous decision to raise his record to 34-1 and took home $650,000.
Ayala's new million-dollar scheme is to move to featherweight and meet the winner of Marco Antonio Barrera's scheduled WBC title showdown with Erik Morales. "Either one of them would make Paulie an easier opponent than Leti," reckons Sherman. "He can't handle her."