Tonight in Las Vegas, the Mandalay Bay Hotel hosted a pay-per-view extravaganza that provided a little bit of everything: One of the year's most boring fights and undoubtedly one of the year's most exciting with a little bit of boxing sideshow in between.

In the main event, Johnny Tapia was drawn into an inside fight by the southpaw style of Paulie Ayala and lost his title in a unanimous, albeit close, decision. For twelve full rounds, the two men stood face to face and traded vicious blows in a fight that was frenetic from opening to closing bell.

Before that opening bell rang, however, Johnny Tapia was already having problems controlling his legendary temper. Tapia, his adrenaline pumping as he entered the ring to a cheering crowd, crossed the canvas and shoved Paulie Ayala during his ring introduction. The men were separated quickly by security and Joe Cortez issued a formidable warning of disqualification during the final instructions.

Both men started fast in the first round and never looked back. Tapia's footwork had him coasting across the canvas in the first and digging to the body with his trademark left hook. Ayala wasted no time himself, pumping out a huge jab and establishing his own penchant for working the ribcage. It was a close round in a night of extremely close rounds, with Tapia edging Ayala on my card.

But in the second and third rounds, Paulie Ayala established himself as more than a worthy challenger. Drawing Tapia in close, Ayala would dig to both sides of the body and batter Tapia with well timed straight lefts. Tapia answered each combination with one of his own...to his credit because Ayala's punching suggested that he was the bigger stronger fighter, but to his detriment because Tapia, in an effort to get respect back, was drawn into Ayala's fight.

In the third, the pace was increased yet again, and both men had venom on every punch. Tapia stood in with Ayala for most of the round as each man would flurry at close range and land most of the punches. Tapia took a great deal of punishment in this round despite dishing back as often as he could. Ayala's straight left drilled into Tapia's face more than once, and the challenger began and ended each combination with thudding body shots.

In the fourth, Tapia began back on his feet, alternating a jab with a lead right hand and attempting to set up a rhythm that would benefit his style. When he came in, scored, and got out, Tapia was on his way. But again, when Ayala drew Tapia in, he controlled the inside. Ayala's left uppercut was thrown in perpetuity on the inside, and although Tapia's chin took it, it was doing some damage.

What can be said about rounds five through eleven though? They were nearly all dead even. For much of the fight, the two men stood at close range mirroring each other's actions. Ayala would fire a five punch combination upstairs and down and then Tapia would unleash a similar flurry back at him. Tapia would snap Ayala's head with a stunning double lead right and Ayala would answer back with a lead left of his own.

The Las Vegas crowd was on it's feet at the end of the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth _and_ tenth rounds as each of these rounds ended with the final minute spent in toe to toe ferocious exchanges. At times, Johnny Tapia seemed to have the upper hand, as his speed allowed him to throw more often and back Ayala up. At other times, Ayala's hard punching would stop Tapia in his tracks. The fight's momentum shifted multiple times each round, providing difficult decisions for anyone choosing to score this fight.

After eleven rounds, my scorecard had the fight dead even. Having resisted scoring any round 10-10, despite the fact that many rounds could easily be scored even , I relented in the eleventh as both men dealt out identical punishment and seemed to be saving just a bit for the final round.

It all came down to the twelfth round, with the fight far too close to predict how three judges would decide. Neither fighter disappointed. As they had for most of the bout, Tapia and Ayala stood head to head and fired punches upstairs and down. Ayala fought with more urgency, perhaps sensing a decision for the "house fighter", and landed crisp blows throughout. It was clear that neither man planned on leaving anything in the ring, and at the final bell, the furious action ceased, both men raised their hands, and Ayala fell to the canvas in a mixture of elation and exhaustion. It was, to date, the fight of the year.

As the official scores were tabulated, the tension built up. A split decision would not have been a surprise, nor would a draw have invited protest. When Jimmy Lennon Jr. announced a unanimous decision, the crowd grew silent. Despite the seemingly even fight, the fighters themselves seemed to sense what was about to happen. Ayala was all smiles while Tapia's face showed concern. 115-114 and 116-113 twice for the.......new WBA bantamweight champion Paulie Ayala.

Overtaken with emotion, Ayala (28-1/12) was understandably beside himself. Having lost a bid at a world title last year when headbutts forced an early reading of the cards, Ayala had just upset the division's biggest money maker and notched the only loss of Tapia's resume. Clutching his new WBA diadem, Ayala stood proud in the ring. This outstanding performance throws his name to the top of the division's rankings and will no doubt give Danny Romero much to think about before he comes back down to 118.

Tapia (46-1-2/25) was gracious in his first defeat, although he made some not-so-veiled accusations that perhaps the decision had been worked against him. Implying that Top Rank had rigged the judges against him and boldly declaring that it was his last fight with Bob Arum, Tapia was no doubt stung not only by this loss, but what will almost certainly be an indefinite postponement of any catchweight showdown with Naseem Hamed.

This exciting, action packed fight was the perfect topper to a night of otherwise uninteresting contests.

Prior to the main event, WBC lightweight champion Stevie Johnston kept his title on a baffling decision in one of the most excruciating boxing matches in a long time.

For 12 rounds, Argentinean challenger Aldo Rios circled the ring and threw his light fisted combinations while Johnston simply watched him. The chorus of boo's began 30 seconds into the fight as both men chose to look at each other instead of throw punches, and continued throughout the night. After the fourth round especially, the boos so overwhelmingly filled the 12,000 seat arena that both fighters had to be disconcerted.

No wonder they booed: Rios could not land a clean punch to save his life, as Johnston bobbed and weaved and made him miss most of his attempts. Not that a connect might have changed things, as Rios had only scored 4 knockouts over his 20-0 career. Johnston, however, did nothing after each of Rios' misses and was inexplicably catatonic even when Rios would mockingly drop his hands. In the fifth round, neither fighter landed more than 10 punches, and neither threw much more than that.

Usually such a boring contest comes down to what you like: the fighter moving forward or the fighter throwing more punches. Certainly Rios' pitty pat assaults and ever moving footwork were not pretty to watch, but when compared to Johnston's inactivity and visible frustration, it seemed to win him round after round. In a fight such as this, the temptation again is to score a number of rounds 10-10, but for much different reasons that Tapia-Ayala. With neither man offering enough offense to deserve to win the round, picking who to give the ten to was often a laborious chore. Yet my scorecard tallied round after round for Rios, who was at least moving his hands, even if neither man was landing cleanly at any point.

And then came the scores: 116-112, 117-112, and 118-110 all for Stevie Johnston. While a Johnston win was not a surprise, the margin of victory was. Winning by 4, 5, and 8 points hardly seems like an appropriate score for a champion who could simply not get himself to throw more than one punch every 30 seconds. Johnston's victory was supposed to be the final hurdle to set up a September showdown with Angel Manfredy on HBO....but this performance might have dulled the network's interest, it not convinced Johnston that more gym work is needed before stepping in with a dangerous fighter like Manfredy.

Also on the card was the cult favorite Butterbean squaring off in a four round bout with walking trivia answer Peter McNeeley. Many felt that Butterbean would lose to the more experienced McNeeley, but it was not to be. After parodying Naseem Hamed by hilariously shadow boxing in silhouette behind a white screen, Butterbean entered the ring to "Sweet Home Alabama" and battered McNeeley for 3 full minutes before Jay Nady mercifully stopped the bout.

Although still just a big guy with gloves on, Butterbean has actually picked up a few skills recently. His one-two has straightened out and looks more like it belongs in a prize fight instead of a bar brawl, and at one point in this short contest, Butterbean actually bobbed and weaved. Give him credit for trying.

McNeeley did what he could, which was not much. Like he did versus Tyson, McNeeley rushed at the Bean early and tried to attack. Despite weighing in at a good 212, McNeeley's build was noticeably smaller than when he had challenged Iron Mike, especially his skinny legs, which deserve credit for holding him up as long as they did.

After eating a few McNeeley haymakers, Butterbean found range with a couple of heavy jabs and then began unloading clubbing left hook after clubbing left hook to McNeeley's skull. With 30 seconds left in the round, one of these left hooks temporarily rolled McNeeley's eyes back into his head and had him out on his feet. The Hurricane covered up on the ropes, Butterbean let his hands go as fast as he could, and referee Jay Nady stepped in. The stoppage came with less than ten seconds in the round, but was appropriate. Stunned, not throwing, and eating shots, McNeeley was a helpless on the ropes. Butterbean KO1.

After the fight, McNeeley's cornermen loudly complained that they hadbeen ripped off and McNeeley was caught on camera complaining to Ron Borges about jet lag from all the flights he had taken in promotion for the bout. For his part, the smiling Butterbean dropped his usual etiquette long enough to challenge Mike Tyson, calling him "too stupid to beat me". We'll see.

Also on the card, Yory Boy Campas (73-3/63) bettered Ronald Weaver (23-5/18) to a wide ten round unanimous decision. Campas' usual body attack was again the story as the steel jawed veteran simply waded in and attacked Weaver's midsection with reckless abandon. The body shots took Weaver off his toes after several rounds, but Weaver kept it exciting when nearly every round he would sustain brutal punishment and then out of nowhere turn the attack on the easy-to-hit Campas...especially in the second, seventh, and tenth when Weaver's inspired hail-mary punches brought the crowd to it's feet.

Finally, Mia St. John continued her quest to send women's boxing back into obscurity by once again embarrassing herself and the sport by fighting suspect competition and looking less than stellar in the process. St. John's upcoming Playboy magazine appearance might win her some fans, but her continued presence on pay-per-view cards is becoming a grating nuisance.

"People don't want to see boxing....boxing is boring."
-Butterbean in a pre-fight interview.

.....Chris Bushnell

© 2001 Chris Bushnell. All rights reserved.

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