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BOXING

For Ayala, Good Doesn't Cut It

November 16, 2002|STEVE SPRINGER

It starts with his first name. What kind of a fighter goes by Paulie? The boxing hero of all those Sylvester Stallone movies was named Rocky. His stumbling, bumbling brother-in-law was named Paulie.

It continues with his nickname. Paulie Ayala doesn't have one.

His opponent in tonight's World Boxing Council featherweight championship fight has a great nickname. Nobody has trouble picturing Erik "El Terrible" Morales as a fighter.

Meeting Ayala wouldn't give you much of a clue, either. He's quiet, humble, respectful and a devoted family man to his wife and two kids.

Because Ayala is a master boxer rather than a knockout puncher, it's understandable that he has not caught on with the public despite an impressive record and an esteemed list of opponents reduced to notches on his championship belts.

As a result, tonight's main event at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Events Center between Ayala and Morales has been a tough sell.

Ayala will bring a 34-1 record into the ring tonight, but he has only 12 knockouts. He has beaten Johnny Tapia twice and Clarence "Bones" Adams -- talk about a great nickname -- twice. But all four of those victories came by decision.

Ayala is trying to do something about his knockout ratio through a vigorous weight program. "I'm a lot stronger and bigger now," he said, "and it shows. I have never relied on my punching power. I have relied on being smarter and quicker."

If he starts racking up knockouts along with victories, it would broaden his appeal. So would a name change. How about Paul "The Predator" Ayala?

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Morales' concern is neither name recognition nor knockout power. He is 41-1 with 31 knockouts. But he can't seem to get over the defeat, which came in June when he lost a close decision to Marco Antonio Barrera. Some thought Morales had won the fight, just as some thought Barrera won the first meeting in 2000 when Morales eked out a split-decision victory.

Morales, still bitter, sees a much darker reason for the defeat in the 126-pound division.

"A lot of people thought it was a fixed fight because everybody knows I won," he said. "But the judges gave it to him. I did my job in both fights and won both fights. Do I care? Marco Antonio Barrera is not the most important thing in my life. I've got a lot of plans. I want to go to 130 pounds. If I never fight Barrera, I couldn't care less."

Which means, of course, that he cares very much.

For now, Morales can at least take satisfaction from getting a second shot at the belt he lost in June. Barrera, refusing to pay the WBC sanctioning fees, announced before the second match that he wouldn't accept the title if he won it.

So the WBC, always looking for fresh money, will bestow its scorned title on tonight's winner. As long as he pays up.

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Promoter Bob Arum approves of Oscar De La Hoya's plan for a junior-middleweight tournament.

As long as there are no upsets.

De La Hoya is proposing to put three top 154-pound fighters into his three-fight event and fill the fourth slot himself. There would be two semifinal matches and a championship.

In Arum's mind, the logical matchups would be De La Hoya against Shane Mosley and Fernando Vargas against Vernon Forrest in the first round.

"My interest in this is that it provides a viable opponent for Oscar in the second round," said Arum, who considers De La Hoya a lock against Mosley. "You can call it a tournament or put whatever label you want on it, but that's what this is all about. It's a good idea to have Vargas and Forrest fight. If Vargas wins, the rematch against De La Hoya is huge. If Forrest wins, it makes him bigger than he is now because he beat a huge Hispanic fighter."

There are obstacles. Vargas, due to come before the Nevada State Athletic Commission Wednesday after testing positive for steroids, is expected to receive a suspension of an indeterminate length. And before Mosley can fight De La Hoya, he is expected to face Raul Marquez in a February match.

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