Because of his lack of height, Ayala has become a slugger, battering and burrowing inside. "Most of the guys I've boxed have been taller and I've laid most of them out," says Torito, who hasn't lost a fight since he was eight years old. "I get 'em angry and make 'em come into my range." So far only Mike Baker (who lost an eight-round decision to Torito last Nov. 1) and Nicanor Camacho (who lost a 10-round decision two months ago) have stayed out of range.
The Camacho fight was particularly important to Ayala's development. It took place in his hometown of San Antonio, and the crowd was screaming for a knockout...in the first round. But Camacho ran for 10 rounds (it was Torito's first fight at that distance) and Ayala couldn't put him away. So Ayala had the poise to stalk Camacho, refusing to allow the restive crowd to incite him to rash assaults, and won nearly every round. Torito began fighting at age five (he won 140 of 148 amateur fights, and at age 14 he more than held his own in a sparring session with Pipino Cuevas, then the WBA welterweight champion) and he's ring-wise beyond his years. Nonetheless, he still has a tendency to rely too much on a left hand to the body, his main and most effective punch.
But that might be changing, as was demonstrated in his most recent fight, against Jose Baquedano on the Leonard-Thomas Hearns undercard in Las Vegas. Baquedano came to slug it out and did score early in the first round while Ayala looked for an opening. He found it when he came off the ropes with a short right about 40 seconds into the bout. It stunned Baquedano and Torito knocked, him out with a barrage of lefts in just 69 seconds. "He has had a good right hand," says Lou Duva, who helps manage Ayala, "but he's never had to use it. We're trying to get him to not rely just on the left so he'll become a more complete boxer."
Ayala's defense needs work, too. "I can't get up in the ring and bounce around for 10 rounds," he says. "I ain't got the height. I'm not going to pretend I'm a boxer.... I'm basically a slugger. But I do have my own artistic way of slipping [punches]. I don't get hit easily."
Complex strategy has never played a role in Torito's fights. To date, his handlers have more or less just pointed him toward the center of the ring. "He's basically a fight fan's fighter," says Duva. "But with some of the tougher opponents, we'll make a battle plan and have him stick to it." Torito has worked with veteran Philadelphia trainer George Benton to smooth out some of his rough edges and learn the slip-and-slide method.
When Ayala has been in trouble he has shot his way out. In the 1979 National Golden Gloves final. Lamont Kirkland knocked him down in the first round. Duva, who at the time wasn't associated with Ayala, was at home watching the fight on television. "That kid got up, shook it off, turned and smiled at his father in his corner and tore into Kirkland," Duva says. Torito also showed Duva what Duva always wanted to see in a boxer—the heart to get off the floor. "That's when I fell in love with the kid," Duva says. Torito showed the same kind of heart last March when Mario Maldonado knocked him down for the first time as a pro with a vicious left to the head in the first round. Ayala struggled up at five and knocked out Maldonado in the third round.
This kill-or-be-killed style has led some to wonder if Ayala will burn himself out prematurely. Indeed, his father and Duva are giving him a rest until at least mid-December, "and when he comes back it won't be a big fight," Duva says. However, there is speculation that Ayala Sr., who admits he's a hard driver, will push Torito too fast. "We'll fight Hearns, Leonard, Godzilla himself," Ayala Sr. said after the Baquedano fight.
"We've got to be a little careful with Tony," Duva says in contrast. "He's still so young. His father sometimes thinks of Tony as a fight fan would. A fan would like to see a kid like that fight four gorillas in one night." Lately, however, Duva is starting to sound like a fan himself. "We're basically looking for any of the top people to fight Tony next year," he says. "[Ayub] Kalule, Cuevas, Maurice Hope. And we'd love to fight Roberto Duran. That would be some fight. I guarantee you one of them would be carried out."
But there appears to be enough savvy in Ayala's camp to keep him from being rushed. His co-manager, with Duva, is Shelly Finkel, who is associated with Main Event Productions, Inc., which promoted the Leonard-Hearns fight. Duva's son, Dan Duva, is the lawyer who heads up Main Event, which, obviously, is actively involved in promoting Torito's fights. All decisions are talked over among Tony Sr., Finkel and the Duvas. The Main Event people, for example, have gotten the Ayalas together with Randy Neuman, a former heavyweight boxer turned financial adviser. "The pension plan Randy's arranging will have Torito set for life," says Dan Duva. The Neuman plan, in fact, will be featured in an upcoming Forbes magazine article on financial planning for athletes who earn spectacular sums over a brief career.
"He was just this fat little guy," Lisa Paez says of her first meeting with Torito 2½ years ago in San Antonio's Brackenridge Park. Six months ago Lisa, also 18, moved in with the Ayala family. She and Tony share a room "except when Torito's in training." The scenario, so unlikely in Endless Love, is so natural here. "Just follow my wife," Ayala tells a visitor. Lisa stops and glares at him. "Sometimes he calls me his wife," she says, "sometimes he calls me his fiancée, and sometimes he just calls me his friend. He's confused."