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Fighting back

From prison to the ring, Ayala resurrects career

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Monday August 23, 1999 07:42 PM

  The 36-year-old Tony Ayala Jr. was released from New Jersey's Bayside State Prison in April. CNN/SI

By Nick Charles, CNN/SI

SAN ANTONIO -- Tony Ayala Jr. chalks up mile after mile during early morning workouts. In this particular case, he makes his way into a local stadium and up a row of steps.

Once a prodigious young knockout artist, Ayala is now a 36-year-old man attempting a boxing comeback. That comeback begins Friday night when Ayala (22-0, 19 KOs), gets in the ring against 21-year-old Manuel Esparza (19-4-1, 5 KOs) in a 10-round middleweight bout before a hometown San Antonio crowd of less than 10,000 and a pay-per-view television audience.

As he heads toward a new future in the ring, he is struggling to leave his violent, criminal past behind.

"I did 16 years in prison for a horrible crime that I committed that I was guilty of," Ayala said.

16 years ago, Ayala was a 20-year-old junior middleweight who hit like a hurricane, blasting away every one of the 22 opponents he faced. The consensus was, he was unstoppable.

But underneath the gleam there was gloom. Ayayla says he was a basket case. Insecure and terrified of failure.

"What I remember is one long daze," he says. "I was always abusing heroin and alcohol and all sorts of drugs. And I really can't with a clear mind tell you what it was like."

Much of Ayala's past though is documented on a rap sheet.

In 1978, at age 15, he viciously assaulted a woman in the bathroom of this San Antonio movie theater He was given 10 years probation after his victim agreed to a reported $40,000 civil settlement.

Ayala fights daily to break out of the shadows of his past.  

Then in August of 1982 when he was 19 and still on probation in Texas, Ayala was found drunk in a stranger's home carrying the identification of the woman who lived there. Ayala avoided prosecution when his handlers got him into a rehab program for substance abuse. But Ayala continued to get high.

Then he put a gun in his mouth.

"I had just bought a house," Ayala recalls. "I was alone, I was drunk, my wife and I had separated and I just wanted out of this miserable life," he said explaining why he wanted to end his life.

Although Ayala and his wife Lisa reunited, he continued to unravel.

On New Year's night 1983, he slipped out of their home in a New Jersey complex and broke into an apartment downstairs. Wielding a knife, Ayala threatened to kill the two women living there. He then bound and blindfolded one of them, raped and sodomized her and left her tied to her bed. Police arrested Ayala outside the apartment that cold winter night, shoeless, shirtless, and alone.

Ayala makes no excuses for his actions.

"I did what I did and it was a horrible crime. And I paid a price for it."

Convicted of aggravated sexual assault and other charges, Ayala began serving a 35-year sentence in 1983 and that is where he says his story nearly ended.

"I was really at the end of my rope. I couldn't visualize doing 15 years in that situation. And I called my dad and I basically asked him if it would be OK for me to take my own life."

The answer Tony Ayala, Sr.'s gave was not the one his son expected to hear.

  Time with a prison psychologist shed light on Ayala's deep-seeded rage.

"I told him, 'If you do that, I want you to understand that I'm gonna do the same thing. I'm not gong to sit here because, if you feel guilty for what happened, maybe perhaps I'm guilty too. Maybe I was not the best parent around. Maybe I had something to do with this. So if you took that route, I would take it myself.'"

"That was something I couldn't accept," Ayala, Jr. said. "I couldn't accept. To me I was left with no choice but to deal with my demons and deal with what I had become. So that's what I did."

Ayala's breakthrough came just a few weeks later when he met Dr. Brian Raditz, a New Jersey state prison psychologist, who had been a fan of the young boxer. In sessions with Dr. Raditz, Ayala uncovered the roots of his criminal rage.

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"Obviously I had some serious issues," Ayala said. "Some serious problems that I never dealt with. And it stemmed from some expriences I dealt with when I was very young."

Ayala is asked to be specific.

"I was sexually abused as a kid," he says.

In Dr. Raditz's mind, that single admission seemed to jump-start Ayala on the road to recovery.

"Once he was able to get it out, it was like a sponge after that," Raditz said. "You couldn't give him enough information. And just constantly more questions. More questions trying to understand himself, his behaviors and the types of hurts that he went through and how to fix them and how to address it."

While Ayala won't reveal who sexually abused him, he learned to heal himself while he remained behind bars. Finally this past April, he was released from New Jersey's Bayside State Prison. With his wife at his side, after 16 years of hard time, Tony Ayala was a free man.

Wife Lisa says prison life has left its mark on her husband.

This photo of Ayala was taken after he was arrested for raping and sodomizing a neighbor.  

"Do I think he will ever do something like he did? Never," she answers. "He will never, ever go back to prison again. This was a very, very hard lesson for him. And he'll never go back to prison. So that's not something I need to worry about."

Ayala says the crime and the time is something he will never forget.

"I live with the regret of what I did," he said. "That got me 16 years in prison. The regrets I live with at this stage of life. The regrets that I will take with me to my grave are that I hurt some innocent people."

"His psychic demons confronted, his crime acknowledged, Ayala is now back where it all began. A free man who has returned to this same San Antonio gym where he learned to box. He asks no forgiveness in the ring, just a chance to discover what 16 years of rusting away behind bars has left him with physically.

"There were some unanswered questions," he says adding, "the 'what ifs' haunt me. And I've got to ride this pony out. I've just got to ride it out. I've got to know where I was. I've got to know who I was. I've got to know where I stand."


Ayala won't be alone. His prison therapist Dr. Raditz is now managing his ring career and his father, who trained him before prison, is back in his corner.

"I've been clean and sober now for 16 going on 17 years," Ayala said. "I'm living my life very little different now than when I was in prison other than the obvious that I'm free to do whatever I want. Right now my change happened in my heart. It happened in my soul."

Tony Ayala Jr. has spent nearly half his life behind bars. Now as he attempts to claim the fame and fortune he threw away, the ongoing challenge will be to confine his violence to the boxing ring.

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Tony Ayala Jr. says it's difficult to relate his battle with drugs. (141 K)
Ayala says he has come to terms with his violent past. (56 K)
Dr. Brian Raditz talks about Ayala's interest in his own rehabilitation. (91 K)
Lisa Ayala, Tony's wife, is confident about the changes he's been through. (65 K)
Ayala talks about the regrets he carries. (88 K)
Ayala says the changes in his heart have kept him clean. (186 K)
Ayala says he's determined to found out who he was. (99 K)
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