The first time Johnny Tapia and Paulie Ayala faced each other in the middle of the ring, the contest was a high-volume, high-contact, ebb-and-flow battle. More simply put, it was the Fight of the Year 1999. "The rematch," they say "is never as good as the original." Indeed, "they" are right. The second time around, the volume was not as high, the contact percentages were smaller, and although the ebb and flow was still there, this bout could simply not compete with it's predecessor. But that's just nit-picking, because Ayala-Tapia II was just as closely contested, and perhaps more controversial, than the original showdown.
Although the first fight was a battle for the WBA's 118 lb. crown (which Ayala still holds), this bout was made at a catchweight of 124 lbs. Ayala had never fought above bantamweight, and Tapia was coming down from a reported 153 lbs., the result of a long layoff. The compromise didn't end there, as neither man would agree to enter the ring separately. And so both made the long walk down the aisle, occasionally peering over at the other to make sure that they weren't walking too quickly. When both reached ringside, a silent stand off took place. Neither would enter the ring first. After some empty threats from the Nevada State Athletic Commission, both men wearily walked up the steps at the same pace, and finally through the ropes at almost identical times.
Finally, the bout began. Tapia's goal was to stick and move, the gameplan which defined his best performances. The confident Ayala preferred to engage Tapia at close quarters. Both would have their moments in the first round, and nearly every round thereafter. Ayala came forward first, opting to lead with a jab and his trademark left hand down the pike. That left landed several times in the opening round, but Tapia responded with a firm lead right. Tapia had done his homework. His straight right, perhaps the most effective weapon against any southpaw, was quick and sharp. Once in the opening stanza, Tapia smacked Ayala hard with the punch, and Ayala quickly cut loose with a wide smile. Tapia answered the grin with a beautiful straight right downstairs-left hook upstairs combo that caught Ayala flush. Circling out of harms way, Tapia's improved boxing won him the round.
The second round was pure boxing nirvana. It was angle-angle-angle as the two men stood at center ring and exchanged punch for punch. Tapia would fire a right uppercut, loudly landing on Ayala's chin. Within a split second, Ayala would come over the top with a right hook, the loud sound of smacking leather echoing in the ring. Tapia would return with a left hook to the liver, and Ayala with a heavy left, the volume of the landed punches increasing with each couplet. This tic for tac fight was playing out at a machine-gun pace for most of the second round with nearly every punch in the book among the offering. The Las Vegas crowd was dazzled.
But this was Paulie Ayala's territory, and Tapia could not win the rounds in which the two men slugged. Although Tapia's wore the 124 lbs. (138 by fight time) well, he was not the heavier puncher. Ayala's crisper shots landed with more authority. Ayala was also the one coming forward in these exchanges, and when Tapia abandoned his footwork for warfare, his chances of getting a 10-9 were reduced. Still this round was extremely close until Tapia switched to southpaw in the closing seconds. Once he did, Ayala leaped in with three gigantic right hooks, the first two of which crashed into Tapia's head and snapped it back. Tapia responded by letting his hands go, and Ayala responded in kind. The two were letting it all hang out only six minutes into the bout. Richard Steele had to leap in when a final bell didn't halt the punches. So far, the rematch was shaping up to be every bit as good as the original.
The third round was also very close, although Ayala won it on effective aggression. Tapia's footwork betrayed him in this round. He didn't stand and trade. Instead he moved left and right. But he was not on his toes. Instead he was stepping slowly, expending a lot of energy by quickly walking away on flat feet rather than float away on a boxer's toes. The result was Ayala stalking him easily and winning by moving forward. Ayala's straight left hand was hitting a bullseye every time Ayala threw it. Because Tapia was moving away slowly, Ayala didn't have to overextend, and he was getting great leverage on his blows. Tapia returned to his straight right hand, often leaping in to throw it. The pace of the fight continued to be frenetic. Each man was taking turns throwing and landing punches. But Ayala was landing cleaner and moving forward, a trend that continued for several more rounds.
Round four was as exciting as the previous three, with only a slight advantage resting with either man. The fight was so even that at 1:30 in the round, each man landed his best punch of the night at almost the exact same time. Tapia timed Ayala's advance with a beautiful right uppercut that caught Paulie flush on the chin. But a millisecond later, Ayala's straight left landed on Tapia's mouth and backed him up a step. Talk about even. Ayala spent the second half of the round proving that he could land his looping right hook whenever he wanted to, and let's just say that he wanted to. Ayala repeatedly clocked Tapia with this punch and began swelling Tapia's left eye.
The fight slowed down considerably in the fifth. The exchanges were not as rapid, and the output of both men dropped considerably. But the bout was no less exciting as each man sized up the other time and again for the perfect counter. Ayala again launched his left straight into Tapia's face. Tapia responded with plenty of left hooks, a few of which began a return swelling around Ayala's eye. Ayala regained control of the damage charts when Tapia's nose began bleeding after a stinging left landed on it. Another round in the books for Ayala, and it looked as though he was banking the foundation for a sizable victory.
But Tapia had other plans, and finally began to turn things back to his favor in the sixth round. Finding a second wind, Tapia rose to his toes, circled at a rapid pace, rediscovered the effectiveness of multiple jabs, and quite simply boxed Ayala to death. Ayala had grown used to following Tapia, and now he followed but no one was there. Tapia put on a clinic, bobbing and weaving around Ayala's attempts. Tapia switched back and forth between southpaw and conventional, never staying in any stance long enough for Ayala to counter. It was classic Johnny Tapia.
Tapia had found a way to shut Ayala down, and was exploiting his discovery to it's fullest in the seventh. With Tapia blazing around the ring, jabbing and moving, letting go a combination and moving... Ayala could do little. Ayala's jabs and straight lefts were still being thrown, but he was reaching too far to find a Tapia that wasn't there, and missing badly as a result. Tapia was finding a rhythm, and Ayala needed to break the streak. He almost did so with a brutal left hand that caught Tapia standing still. The punch landed hard and Tapia lifted his back foot in reaction. But it was not enough to steal the round away from the surging Tapia.
Tapia began the eighth by continuing his box and move gameplan. For the first minute of round eight, Tapia disarmed Ayala with his footwork and handspeed. If he could keep it up for a few more rounds, he could reverse his points deficit and win the fight. But he couldn't keep it up, and it cost him. After a minute of flawless boxing, Tapia spent the middle minute of the round standing right in front of Ayala. Paulie made him pay. Without warning, Ayala clocked Tapia with a huge right hook. He followed it immediately with two straight lefts, each of which snapped Tapia's head. A fourth jarring blow came in the form of another right hook. These were the most devastating punches of the entire evening, and they easily reminded Tapia that he needed to keep moving at all times. Tapia began circling again, and finished the round strong with a triple lead right hand that backed up Ayala, but the damage had been done. Tapia had surrendered a key round to Ayala by standing still and taking big shots. Ayala banked the round.
Tapia returned to boxing in the ninth round, and again quickly found a pace that suited him. Tapia's comfort level grew, and he began clowning. At one point, Tapia feinted with his crotch. Tapia thrust his pelvis at Ayala, causing Ayala to momentarily freeze, and then hit him with a three punch combo. The crowd ate it up. With Tapia boxing nicely, Ayala was again missing a majority of his punches. He did land several wicked left uppercuts that made a hunched over Tapia stand up straight, but ring generalship was firmly in the Tapia column when Johnny was on his toes boxing.
The tenth round looked much like the eighth, with Tapia spending 60 wonderful seconds easily outboxing Ayala, clowning, punching, landing. But again, Tapia stopped moving in the middle minute and gave Ayala the opportunity he needed to score big points. Perhaps it was the strain to make 124, or perhaps it was just age catching up with him, but with Tapia unable to move for a full three minutes, Ayala was given a chance he did not waste. Twice in the middle of the round, Tapia stood on flat feet and engaged Ayala in toe to toe exchanges. Both times Ayala got the better. This was especially the case in the second exchange, when Ayala pounded Tapia with accurate lefts and his sneak hook. Ayala carried on with his aggression in the final minute of this round, backing Tapia up with brutal left hands, all of which landed with the unexpected jolt that comes when a southpaw plays around with a conventional fighter's timing. One particular left hand restarted the flow of blood from Tapia's nose, to which Tapia now grinned with delight. Neither man would leave the ring unmarked, and after ten full rounds, both men's faces were maps of abrasions and swelling.
Again Ayala had stemmed the momentum of a surging Tapia. On Boxing Chronicle's card he held a two point advantage. But Tapia would come on strong. In the eleventh round, each men was clearly saving something for the final stand off. Tapia's boxing returned, and with Ayala throwing less and to save energy, Tapia was able to display uncommon ring generalship without a challenge. In essence, Ayala gave this round away.
As the final round began, the fight had slowed considerably. Gone was the harried pace of the early rounds, and rare were the clean exchanges that had marked the middle rounds. In fact, the final round displayed very little urgency from either man. Ayala fought like he had a lead bigger than he did. Correctly thinking that he had banked a number of early rounds, and guessing that his momentum stopping comebacks had earned him more rounds than he had, Ayala now fought conservatively. He countered with basic one-twos when Tapia tried to exchange, but he didn't pursue Tapia, follow Tapia, or force the action. In a way, he sat on a lead that he really didn't have. With 30 seconds left in the bout, one final exchange broke out. As both men threw punches with their power hands, Ayala ate a Tapia right and his footing slipped ever so slightly. Perhaps it was a slippage, or perhaps Tapia felt his punch had hurt Ayala. Whatever the cause, the result was that Tapia attacked and Ayala defended. Both men let their hands go. In a furious swarm of random punches, both men hit each other with reckless abandon until eventually the final bell had rung. The fans had gotten their money's worth. But Johnny Tapia had won the round.
On the Boxing Chronicle scorecard the tally read 114-114, a draw.
As the scores were read, each fighter had ample reason to believe that he was the victor. Ayala had banked a good streak of early rounds, and done well in many of the later ones. Indeed, his punches were consistently crisper and heavier than Tapia's lighter flurries. Ayala seemed confident of victory.
For his part, Tapia also thought he had won. The fight was absolutely close all the way through, and Tapia had convincingly banked the final two championship rounds. He had every reason to believe that winning the final two rounds would win him the fight.
Simply put, the fight could have gone either way. Because Tapia had surged at the end, the crowd was definitely in his corner. But the decision was announced as unanimous. 116-112, and 115-113 twice for... Paulie Ayala.
Tapia had already begun celebrating before the announcement, and when he heard Paulie's name being read, it hit him like a Mack truck. He cried and screamed. He looked ready to lose control, and several security guards rushed around him as he began to physically react. Soon Tapia was leaving the ring in disgust, screaming obscenities at everyone around him. Top Rank, Bob Arum, the judges, everyone heard an earful from Tapia. Three guards, each twice as big as Tapia, had to physically pull him down the aisle to the dressing room area. Tapia was nothing short of distraught. Coming off reports of suicide attempts and chronic depression, boxing fans will no doubt be worried about the fragile Tapia's ability to swallow this loss. It was Tapia who won the final rounds, and Tapia who improved his performance over the first fight. Since a good argument can be made for his victory, and since Ayala is signed with Top Rank while Tapia is a free agent, he'll have plenty of fuel to fire his discontent. Let's just hope that this outcome doesn't inspire his often chaotic behavior.
Ayala was a combination of quiet confidence and unbridled joy. Before the fight began, his confidence was eerie. During the fight, he fought calmly and with purpose. And in the late rounds he felt he held the lead, and fought accordingly. So the announcement of his victory didn't surprise him. Still, Ayala cried on the shoulder of his wife. And while we had the fight scored a draw, an equally good case can be made for Ayala winning. His punches were consistently cleaner, and always landing with much greater force. He was almost always moving forward while landing punches, and unlike Tapia only rarely had his head snapped around.
In such a close contest, there is bound to be great dissent. Many will cry foul, some will even mistakenly call this one a robbery. But the truth of the matter is that Paulie Ayala and Johnny Tapia fought a pitch battle that could have swung either way. The winner was boxing.
What's next? For Tapia, let's hope his psyche can handle another loss. Certainly his stock did not diminish with this fight. There are plenty of great fights out there for him. As for Ayala, he turned down the IBA featherweight title that was tacked onto this fight, insisting that he would return to 118 and his WBA title at that weight. But basking in victory, Ayala realized that he had earned himself a spot in the Hamed lottery, which is a most lucrative place to be, even if your natural fighting weight is nowhere near 126 pounds.
Ayala-Tapia II couldn't beat the first fight for pure action and adrenaline, but it was a damn good contest. Given another controversial unanimous decision, we might as well just do it a third time.
ROUND 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 TOTAL TAPIA 10 9 9 9 9 10 10 9 10 9 10 10 114 AYALA 9 10 10 10 10 9 9 10 9 10 9 9 114