Mac Engel

One night. One brilliant fight. One built a life. The other died a tragic death.

At his boxing gym in Fort Worth, Paulie Ayala holds up a photo from his win against Johnny Tapia in June of 1999 for the bantamweight championship belt.
At his boxing gym in Fort Worth, Paulie Ayala holds up a photo from his win against Johnny Tapia in June of 1999 for the bantamweight championship belt. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

They were both brilliant fighters, and 20 years after they danced, one looks over the wonderful life he and his wife built together while the other is dead.

Paulie Ayala, one of Fort Worth’s genuine good citizens, is now 49 with a successful career and a wife, who together have a daughter and a son.

Next to his busy boxing gym in West Fort Worth, Ayala sits in his office that is stuffed with mementos from his boxing career, he speaks of the man who made at least some of this possible with kindness, respect, and sadness.

Twenty years ago today, Ayala won the bantamweight title in a brutal 12-round match against Johnny Tapia. What might Ayala’s life look like today without that fight?

Ayala won a unanimous decision, and was named the 1999 Fighter of the Year; his bout with Tapia was named the 1999 Fight of the Year. Watch the fight today and it remains as thrilling, and savage, as it was that night.

On May 12, 2012, Tapia died reportedly of heart disease at the age of 45. He was a beloved fighter for his theatrics, and his willingness to be vulnerable about his life, specifically his struggles with drugs, alcohol and a horrendous childhood.

DEFEATING JOHNNY TAPIA

Ayala had made an agreement with his wife, Leti, that after he turned pro in 1992, once he lost he would retire.

After climbing for six years for a title shot, he lost a controversial technical decision against Joichiro Tatsuyoshi in Japan for the WBC title.

“It was home cooking,” Ayala said of the decision. “I asked Leti, ‘Do you think I lost?’”

Leti didn’t, and she encouraged Paulie to keep fighting.

Not long after, Ayala received an offer to fight the undefeated Tapia.

“They took it because I was a decent opponent. I was formidable to market but I would not win,” Ayala said.

Before the two fought, Tapia shoved Ayala in the ring during the introductions. When the two men were in their respective corners before the first bell, Ayala said he could see Tapia shaking in anger.

Both fighters landed hard shots. Both men displayed endless stamina and conditioning. Neither man ran, or danced. Neither man flinched.

“I got him to fight my fight, which was to stay there and fight,” Ayala said. “My best game was to cut him off and make it a fire fight.”

After the fight, both men took turns lifting the other to the crowd. Then ringside announcer Jimmy Lennon said, “.... and the new WBA bantamweight champion of the world, Paulie Ayala!”

Tapia could only smile.

ONE FIGHTER LIVED WHILE THE OTHER DIED

Ayala didn’t talk to Tapia again for “a long time” after their fight. He would again, in 2000, when he agreed on several points for a rematch.

Ayala had the belt. Tapia had the name.

“I had to make every concession; I had to agree to less money and a catch weight he wanted,” Ayala said. “But I wanted to do it again.”

Ayala defeated Tapia in their rematch, this time in a controversial decision. Ayala is convinced he won, but that was the end of the rivalry.

Although the two displayed open disdain for the other, particularly Tapia towards Ayala, they actually became friends.

“In 2004, I was fighting here in Fort Worth and he showed up unannounced,” Ayala said. “I told him, ‘Hey, thanks for coming to my fight. Do you want to hang out after the fight?’”

The two went to the bar 8.0 in downtown Fort Worth.

“It was like all of it never happened,” Ayala said. “He just came down and I never brought any of it up. I was waiting for him to. We just hung out. It was fun. Honestly, I felt bad for him. I was a fan of his. I always liked him as a fighter. I just listened to him talk about his problems.”

Problems ... Tapia had a lot of those. The problems eventually caught up to Tapia, and likely killed him.

“He was doing crazy stuff,” Ayala said. “He was street fighting, bar fighting, fist fighting, after he was done.”

On May 27, 2012, Ayala received a phone call from a journalist who told him that Tapia had died.

“I was beside myself. I could not believe what happened,” Ayala said.

Ayala went to Albuquerque to pay his respects, and to say thanks. He spoke at Tapia’s funeral.

“I know I was given the opportunity because they thought he would beat me, but it was still an opportunity I needed,” Ayala said. “I needed to fight someone great, like him, to even be considered good. I needed people like that.”

I asked Paulie if he carried any guilt about this. He paused and said no.

“At first it did cross my mind. I didn’t do this to destroy his life. I just did it to become champion,” he said. “I put down everything I owned and have on the line. My future finances. I risked everything as well. I had everything to lose.”

Paulie didn’t lose.

Today, he trains fighters both young and old, works with Parkinson’s patients at his gym, is generous with his time, and spends ample time with his family and friends.

In a sport where so often the winners are often losers, Paulie used his fight against Johnny Tapia to build an entire life for a family, a city, and a legacy.

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