To hell and back and back to hell

 

Pugilistic aficionados are inclined to look back at the early 1980s as the golden age of boxing's middle divisions. Marvellous Marvin Hagler ruled the 160-pounders, but inexorably working their way up the ladder were the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns, while, in total defiance of the ageing process, the legendary Panamanian Roberto Duran remained a credible player on the scene.

There are those who would argue that Tony Ayala could have been the best of them all. A light-middleweight of spectacular gifts, he was an awesome banger who had won all 22 of his professional fights, 20 of them by knockout, when he was involuntarily retired by the New Jersey penal system. He was only 20 years old.

Almost from the outset of his promising career, Ayala surrounded himself with trouble of his own making. Early on in his pro career he was arrested for raping a teenaged girl in the toilet of a drive-in theatre in his native San Antonio, Texas.

Prosecution of the crime was hamstrung by the lack of co-operation from the victim, who actually asked for leniency, despite having suffered a ruptured bladder and bruised kidneys.

It subsequently developed that her stance had been softened by a $40,000 settlement, which was paid by the boxer's promoters. Ayala escaped that one with 10 years probation, but on New Year's Day of 1983, Ayala was arrested again, this time for breaking into the home of a 30-yearold schoolteacher in West Paterson, New Jersey.

He had already signed to fight the late Davey Moore for the WBA 154-pound title when he was convicted of raping and sodomising the New Jersey woman at knifepoint. This time the promoters couldn't get him off. Ayala received a 35year sentence.

He was denied parole the first time he came up, in 1998, but in April of 1999 he walked out the prison gates. The testimony of Dr Brian Raditz, the prison psychologist, was instrumental in securing his release. Once Ayala was on the street, Dr Raditz promptly became his manager.

He signed on with Texas promoter Lester Bedford, who began plotting the 36year-old fighter's comeback.

Ayala had his own website, his own fan club. His comeback even had a name: "To Hell and Back." To youngsters who might have admired him, he had a warning. He was no role model. "If you follow Tony Ayala," he warned, "you'll wind up in jail".

He reeled off five straight victories against soft-touch opponents before he was matched against former champion Yory Boy Campas last July. Ayala broke his hand in the second round and retired in the ninth. It was the first and only loss of his career.

As he sat in his dressing room after the loss, Ayala reflected: "You're not going to see any nonsense. No arrests. At least one person will by lying awake tonight wondering if I'm going to be arrested. It isn't going to happen."

That "one person" would have been Andy Consovoy, who as the head of the New Jersey parole board had opposed Ayala's release.

Consovoy said that in pondering the troubling question of Ayala's release he had sought out the counsel of John Douglas, the FBI profiler who had served as the consultant for Hollywood's The Silence of the Lambs.

Douglas warned Consovoy that an Ayala loss might "precipitate stress" and result in a return to his former path.

"I wasn't satisfied with some of his responses to our questions," recalled Consovoy. "Once he lost a fight, he was going to go off. There was no doubt."

As he recuperated from the damage to his hand, Ayala was ostensibly recovering from the psychic wounds as well. Bedford was in the process of negotiating a summertime fight against Hector Camacho that promised a payday of between $500,000 and a million dollars.

But there were troubling signs. Several times in recent months Ayala was spotted in San Antonio strip joints - hardly wholesome fare for a registered sex offender. Nor did he exactly deny rumours that he was drinking heavily again: "I may have pushed the envelope a few times" and had a few beers.

A week ago Tuesday night, Tony Ayala invaded the home of a 18-year-old San Antonio woman named Nancy Gomez. Like his New Jersey victim, Gomez knew Ayala slightly, having worked out at the same gym.

Despite the eerie similarities, the scenario differed from Ayala's previous modus operandus in one important respect: Gomez had a gun.

The bullet passed through Ayala's shoulder and, after a few days in the hospital under police guard, Ayala was released on $100,000 bail, on the condition that he wear an electronic monitoring device and have a breath-alcohol detector attached to the telephone in his home.

Ayala has been charged only with "burglary with intent to commit assault", Gomez's bullet having ensured that he didn't commit a more serious crime.

A conviction will put him back behind bars for another 99 years.

You'd have to say the comeback is over, but there are those who remain convinced it should never have commenced.