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The Hartford Courant

The New Gentleman Boxer

New Haven Dynamo Likes To Toy With His Opponents, But He Really Doesn't Want To Hurt Them.

By Colin McEnroe

December 19, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Luis Rosa is a tiny, ferocious, comical man who boxes in a class known as "super bantamweight."

About four years ago, he started noticing a kid at one of the New Haven area gyms he frequented. The kid had something special.

Part of the "something special" was punching power. Some people just punch harder than everybody else. It's not a matter of pure musculature. There's some kind of brain chemistry magic involved: neurons firing off in exactly the right sequence, triggering a minuet of contractions. You could lift weights forever and never throw a ball as hard and as perfectly as Dwight Evans did from right field in his prime. And you could give yourself arms like Popeye's and never hit anybody as hard as Elvin Ayala can without really trying.

"That's natural," Rosa said. "You're born with that."

The other part of the something special was sort of a gleam in the kid's eye. Elvin Ayala had no idea how to box, said Rosa, but you could imagine him putting it all together.

"He used to train punching the tree in the back of his house," Rosa said, shaking his head. "He had padding on it."

The kid wanted Rosa to train him. Rosa wanted no part of it. At 30, he considers himself an active fighter. His record usually hovers around .500. (Boxing is a pretty murky industry. Rosa's record includes a loss in Puerto Rico, a place where he claims never to have fought professionally.)

Training some bright young kid whose primary opponent had been an elm seemed like too much work to Rosa, but he had an idea.

He showed up at Ayala's house one day and said, "I'll bring you to Gaspar Ortega."

This is a little bit like Dorothy offering to bring the Scarecrow to the Wizard. Gaspar Ortega fought all over North America and in Europe from 1953 to 1965 and compiled a record of 131-39-6 with 69 knockouts. He fought for the world title once and lost to Emile Griffith. Half Native-American and half Mexican, he often arrived in the ring wearing an Indian headdress, which is difficult to picture today, because Ortega is a quiet, elegant, rather continental man who speaks very seldom and might greet you in Italian, a hangover from his fights in Rome.

Ortega fought in the days when boxing still meant something. The game was on television a lot, and Ortega was well suited for TV because he was hard to knock out. He tended to go the distance and provide tough, interesting fight.

He retired to the New Haven area and occasionally trains fighters. Rosa thought he might be interested in Ayala.

The way Ayala tells the story, he and Rosa had been out of touch for a while on the day Rosa turned up, unbidden, on his doorstep.

"God sent him over there," Ayala says flatly.

Ayala was willing to meet Ortega, but he hadn't changed his mind about who should be his trainer. He still wanted Rosa. And just to make the scene a little crazier, Ayala's mother, Elizabeth, came outside and pointed at Rosa. She had had some kind of revelation.

"She said, `You're the one! You're gonna be the trainer!,'" Rosa recalls, laughing.

I heard about Elvin Ayala, the middleweight, last May and began driving to Connecticut casinos on Friday nights to watch him fight. He was usually far down on the card, often what's called a "swing fight," a match that the television people, usually ESPN2, don't plan to carry unless some of the more notable bouts end in early knockouts. The first couple of times he didn't fight until the end of the night, when the crowd was filtering out toward the table games.

I saw him box twice at Foxwoods Resort Casino against older fighters. The first was Aundalen Sloan, a 35-year-old plodder out of Wisconsin whose principal means of dealing with the speed and power of Ayala was to drape himself on the younger man like a long-lost relative. The second was a Philadelphia fighter named Jacob "The Snake" Rodriguez, who had absolutely no other plan except to knock Ayala out. He stalked Elvin around the ring for six rounds while a storm of blows rained across his face and body. One couldn't help but think of the great boxing writer A.J. Liebling's description of an early Cassius Clay opponent. "He was like a man trying to fight off wasps with a shovel."

Ayala won unanimous decisions in both fights. In each of them, he uncorked at least one explosive punch that rocked or staggered his opponent. In neither case did Ayala do what a serious fighter will at least try - follow the punch with a punishing combination, cut down the size of the ring and try to knock the other man out. Far from it. Ayala almost seemed a little sorry to have hit another person that hard. He let up and kept the fight going. If you've ever seen a young dog try to get an old dog to play, nipping its back leg, smacking its muzzle with a forepaw, you have a sense of what Ayala is like against a lesser opponent.

Rosa was right. Ayala is something special. He doesn't even look like other fighters. He's a lot more handsome, and he flashes around the ring like Nureyev. After the fights, he often has something amusing to say.

When Rodriguez began to lose hope of knocking Ayala out, he head-butted him and opened a little cut. After the fight, Elvin made his way toward the locker room, stopping to address the throng of two reporters who were interested in his post-fight remarks. "I finally gave my cut man a chance to work with some blood tonight," he announced cheerfully. He flashed a mischievous smile at his cut man, A.J. Raccio.

"He's the best cut man in the business," Elvin teased. "He passes out when he sees blood."

Raccio is one of three men in Ayala's corner. In the background is the stately, seigniorial Gaspar Ortega, always as perfectly composed as a Goya portrait.

Ortega, whose role is that of Wise Old Man, seemed only minimally impressed after the Rodriguez fight.

"He has improved, but he still needs more," he murmured cryptically before slipping away.

The trainer is a compact ball of human fury. When Ayala comes back to his corner and sits on his stool, this man will stand in front of him and lecture him. With Ayala on his stool and Luis Rosa standing, they are almost at eye level.

"I made him a smarter fighter than I ever was," Rosa said. "What they didn't teach me, I teach him. I was always the kind of fighter who, if you hit me, I'm gonna try to hit you even harder."

Rosa knew Ayala would have to learn to move his head, to protect himself, to stick a punch and then relocate himself, so as not to be around when the other guy hit back.

Ayala was almost too quick a study.

It was as if he couldn't give up fighting his backyard tree. If he was going to fight real human beings, he enjoyed making them look like trees. He moved so quickly and beautifully that he almost forgot to unleash the crunch of his punch.

"I like to play," he admitted to me one night. "I like to make you miss and then maybe just touch your face. My corner, they don't like that."

After Ayala started training with Ortega and Rosa, he also began working with a conditioning specialist, a Yale assistant track coach named Marc Davis. The exertion involved in boxing is almost in its own category. What a boxer does in a 10-round fight would be exhausting even if there were no one else in the ring. The fact that there is another person, who is trying to hurt you very badly, tends to make the metabolism race, bleeding energy out of your body in torrents.

Davis, a fight fan, noticed right away that Ayala had the right attitude.

"He didn't try to get out of much. He's not the type to say, `I can't do this anymore.'"

So one day Davis picked up the phone and called Allen Hadelman.

Davis said he knew a fighter Hadelman might find interesting.

Hadelman is a multi-millionaire real estate guy who specializes in rehabilitating old apartment buildings. He's part of New Haven's elite. His 60th birthday party was a big event, with Mayor John DeStefano in attendance, along with a lot of other city big shots. But also there were a bunch of Hadelman's high school friends, with whom he is still very close. Hadelman was a scrappy athlete at Hillhouse High, an undefeated tennis player his senior year. A fidgety neurotic who slightly resembles a koala bear, Hadelman has a round Buddha belly that his boxers like to rap on and tease him about, but they also say he's an overpowering racquetball player who thrashes younger opponents.

Over the years, Hadelman has poured countless sums into city sports programs aimed at underprivileged youths, and he's a major supporter of the nationally celebrated Amistad Academy, a charter school that takes low-performing kids from high poverty environments and gets them on an academic par with students from Westport.

Hadelman is, in short, one of life's good guys. He's a big believer in sports, and in recent years, he has taken an interest in managing fighters. He decided to handle Ayala.

"I want to make sure these guys are protected and nobody takes advantage of them," said Hadelman. "A lot of fighters don't even have health insurance. One of the first things we did was get Elvin health insurance."

If Elvin Ayala ever writes his memoirs, he's going to be sorry Rocky Graziano already took the title "Somebody Up There Likes Me - My Life So Far." Prizefighting is, especially these days, a pretty rotten business. Elvin himself has been in the dressing rooms at the casinos and seen young fighters about to be thrown to the wolves. It's not unheard of, he told me, to find a kid back there alone with nobody supporting him. Some of these fighters, Ayala said, have to hire their corners right there, on the spot, "from here, there, whoever's around."

Ayala starts with something almost unheard of: a manager who's a well-known philanthropist and isn't in it for the money. His corner includes a Hall of Fame boxer and a passionate friend, picked out by his mother.

"We're an international squad," Hadelman said merrily. "A Jew, an Italian, a Mexican, an African American [that's Davis] and a Puerto Rican. We're the U.N. of boxing."

There were other advantages to getting Hadelman involved. He genially bullied his rich and connected friends from New Haven's dinner party circuit into watching Ayala, so that the young, obscure boxer often had the most well-heeled cheering section at Fight Night. Some of Hadelman's friends were unaccustomed to parking themselves in smoky arenas for hours, watching amped-up meatballs from the Bronx try to kill each other while they waited for what was sometimes the last fight of the night. On the night of the Ayala-Rodriguez battle, I sat next to a woman in an expensive-looking green sweater who lasted about three punches into the first round of the first fight before she yelped, "This is barbaric." She and her husband had been dragooned by Hadelman. "I find it hard to watch," she announced, a little desperately.

They were gone before that bout ended, with many fights to go before Elvin's turn. God knows what she would have thought of the women's fight (Jane Couch over Jaime "The Hurricane" Clampitt in 10 sweaty, punishing rounds).

When Ayala fought Julio Jean at the Mohegan Sun, I sat next to Peyton R. Patterson. As chairman, president and CEO of NewAlliance Bank, Patterson, an attractive woman in her late 40s, has become Connecticut's closest thing to a banking celebrity. And Hadelman had done more than just deliver her into a seat at the Sun. He had persuaded her to give Ayala a part-time job as kind of a goodwill ambassador, especially to young people and to the Latino community.

This is a job to which Ayala is well suited, despite his failure to master the intricacies of the federal Expedited Funds Availability Act. He is well spoken and almost excruciatingly polite.

"He's a humble kid," said Davis. "He knows that all this could be taken away from him very easily."

And when he forgets, there are people like Julio Jean around to remind him.

There was something different about Ayala when he fought Jean on August 27 at the Mohegan Sun. From the opening bell, Ayala looked less like the impeccably groomed protégé of Gaspar Ortega and more like the raw street fighters occasionally thrown into the ring these days to beef up an evening's card. Most alarmingly, he repeatedly dropped his hands and swayed like a cobra in front of Jean, as if daring the scrappy Haitian fighter to hit him.

After a couple of rounds of this, Jean took him up on the offer and tagged Ayala with a thundering right. The collective gasp in Elvin's gallery was like a little weather system. I looked down at Hadelman, who now resembled a koala who had been told he had to give up eucalyptus leaves forever.

Ayala was hurt, but not badly. He experienced a time-distortion effect commonly reported by people in dangerous situations.

"The world slowed down for a minute," he admitted.

I told Ayala this effect has been studied extensively by neuroscientists and that it remains imperfectly understood. At minimum, adrenaline charges up the brain so that it takes a quicker-than-usual series of snapshots, but it's probably a much more elaborate symphony of endocrines and neuron-firings.

"Really? They've studied that?" The idea pleased him.

Rosa had a different orchestra playing in his gut. "I knew he was gonna recover, but it wasn't a good feeling in my stomach," he said.

Ayala collected himself and, for the first time all night, started listening to his corner.

He very quickly reassembled his defenses and then began to smack Jean with a series of hard jabs that led to combinations that led, in turn, to a moment late in the fight when Jean staggered under a ferocious series of blows.

And then Ayala allowed Jean to slide away and to finish the evening in a state of consciousness, while Elvin boosted his record to 7-0 with another unanimous decision.

I ran into Hadelman in the men's room.

"Well?" I asked him.

"He doesn't want to hurt anybody," the manager said in exasperation. "He's gonna have to get over that."

"I could have knocked him out," Ayala agreed much later. "I've got to get to be more of an animal. That's the only way I'm going to knock these guys out."

His fondness for "playing," he conceded, may get him in trouble some day,

"I could get knocked out. Then I won't be playing. I'll be laying."

Saturday, Dec. 4, was the tree lighting in downtown Hamden. As the sun set, the temperature plummeted.

"Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus," sang a sugary youth choir on the steps of Town Hall. A town fire truck pulled up and Santa Claus climbed out.

"Somebody stole his reindeer," Ayala quipped. With his sweatshirt hood pulled up, he was stamping his feet in the cold next to a cart crammed with stuffed animals and souvenir toys and light sticks. Ayala was not high enough in the rankings to make a lot of money from boxing. (Even among Connecticut middleweights, he has not caught up with fellow New Haven fighter Chad Dawson and Norwalk's Tarvis Simms.) When I first saw him in May, he was getting between $750 and $1,000 a fight. Now he's worth maybe $2,500 or $3,000. From that money, he has to pay his corner, too (but not Hadelman). One of the ways he makes a little extra money is "vending" at parades and festivals.

His fellow vendor, a boxer named William "Gus" Foster, stood with his parka hood cinched up tight and his toes pigeoned out. Twirling a light stick in each hand and smiling maniacally, Foster rotated around in a waddling dance that caused him to look like a very strange wind-up toy. One of the revelations about boxers is that, when they are not trying to hurt one another, they are often rather gentle, playful, funny people.

Ayala's life was not, however, always gentle.

He grew up mainly in Reading, Pa., having very little contact with his father. The family was poor. Ayala said he started wanting to box around the age of 9, but not because he watched boxing on television. The family couldn't afford a TV.

By the time he was 17, Ayala said, he was "sliding down into the streets."

He got mixed up with a very bad crowd and was eventually arrested for selling drugs. A plea bargain for probation, community service and a fine kept him out of prison and, he said, woke him up.

"I turned my life around," he said. "I'm totally clean today."

Now he sells balloons and light sticks.

"I don't bring you here to buy that junk," a woman told her pestering kids as Elvin hunched against the cold.

Elvin's mother Elizabeth lives with him in New Haven, as does his 6-year-old daughter Hennessy. He has a 3-year-old daughter Veanee who lives with her mother.

Elvin said he does "the dating thing" these days but has no steady relationship. "It's too much of a headache," he said. "There are a lot of things about boxing that a woman wouldn't want to put up with. There are some women who can make the sacrifice, but I'm starting to think those women are extinct."

I asked him if a woman had anything to do with his state of mind in the Julio Jean fight, and he smiled ruefully. "It was a woman thing," he said. "I wasn't listening too good."

There is, in Ayala's often almost formal manner, something a little old-fashioned. It's the way he very carefully says, "Excuse me," if he has to break off conversation to take an important call. He seeks out old clothes and wears what he calls "granddaddy hats," brimmed caps in wool and cloth, as if he longed for a forgotten era.

He likes movies about the distant past, a favorite being "Braveheart."

On Monday, NewAlliance Bank is sending him to Yale-New Haven Hospital to speak and sign autographs at a children's cancer ward. I asked him what he'll say.

"That life ain't over if you keep trying," he said.

From "Braveheart:"

ISABELLA: I understand you have recently been given the rank of knight.

WILLIAM WALLACE: I have been given nothing. God makes men what they are.

On a recent November night, Team Elvin crowded into the downstairs TV room of Luis Rosa's raised ranch. There were pizzas and sodas. Everybody's kids raced in and out of the room. Elvin's mother and brother were there, and so were most of his handlers, plus wives and girlfriends.

Elvin Ayala, who grew up too poor to have a television, was about to watch himself fight on TV.

The fight had been taped earlier in the month at The Roxy in Boston and was being shown on Comcast's CN8. The outcome was no mystery, but Elvin had never seen himself box on television before.

"I want to hear the crap they talk about us," he said cheerfully. "The commentators always find something bad to say."

There was sort of a staged introduction in which first Ayala's opponent, Chance Leggett, and then Ayala himself slowly turned and eyed the camera. The rec room roared with merriment when Ayala fixed the lens with a look that can only be called smoldering.

"I'm an actor now," Ayala said sheepishly.

Elizabeth's cell phone rang and she answered.

"It's your grandmother," she cackled. "She says you look like Eduardo Santamarina." Santamarina is a, well, smoldering soap actor on the telenovelas.

Leggett was the best fighter Ayala has ever faced. A left-handed Louisianan, he went into the bout at 11-3. In boxing, the universe is divided up between "boxers," who move, and "fighters," who punch. The underlying assumption is that if the fighter can ever catch up with the boxer, he will clobber him.

On the face of things, Elvin Ayala is a boxer. Darting and slashing around the ring, he certainly left Leggett no choice but to be the fighter, stalking Ayala, trying to crowd him against the ropes. A number of opponents have tried this against Ayala only to discover that he punched harder than they did.

Leggett was learning the same lesson, but he's a good enough fighter to make Ayala work hard, and a couple of times Ayala, looking for punching space, slipped in blows that were near or below the belt, until finally the referee deducted a point.

This led the CN8 commentators and a number of sportswriters to conclude that the fight was close and that Ayala was being told by his corner that he had to knock Leggett out in order to win.

None of that was true. Ayala was still ahead on all three cards. At the end of the sixth round, Rosa stood in front of Ayala and barked out a different message.

"I told him, `You can do like you've been doing, and you're gonna win this fight by unanimous decision,'" Rosa said. "`Or you can do like I tell you and go out there and knock him out RIGHT NOW!'"

When the two men came back out, Leggett gamely resumed his strategy of crowding and hoping to hit Ayala a little harder than he was being hit. This time Ayala responded with a ballistic left uppercut that momentarily caused Leggett to forget everything he knew about boxing, plus the numeric value of pi and the names of his immediate kin.

Ayala stepped forward and unleashed a long medley of very serious punches. When the dark seas parted around Leggett, he was bleeding and eternally grateful for the ref's decision to call it a TKO (a technical knockout, which translates as, "You might not be unconscious, but if you stood here another 15 seconds, you would be").

CN8 commentator Dana Greenblatt, an ex-boxer who looks like a prettier Steve Guttenberg, grabbed Ayala for an interview. Greenblatt's first question probed boxer-fighter distinction. Ayala was a boxer, right?

"Boxing is like a lot of other things in life. It's an illusion. Tonight, the boxing was making him think he was the stronger guy. ... Let me tell you something. The stronger guy is the one standing here, giving this interview," Ayala said.

He said it as if he were teaching a college seminar, not as if he had just finished 21 minutes of life-threatening mayhem. He said it as if he were recently graduated from journalism school, not from the streets, from the drugs, from the poverty, from a fatherless childhood.

The rec room was getting noisy. It was the kind of night that is full of promise of better fights in nicer halls, of bigger checks and finer clothes and better meals. Boxing is a sport that craves beauty, so it can smash it. That very paradox tends to oxygenate the boxer's early days. Life tastes so good because this time, when you are a vase with no mark or chip, is precious. Soon, someone will beat you. Enjoy your beauty now. Marciano is the only guy who never lost. He quit because his back hurt and then died young in a plane crash, as if the gods resented not breaking him in the ring.

In the din of the little party, Elizabeth noticed that Elvin hadn't eaten and began bugging him to have some pizza. Rosa and his wife joined in. Mr. Politeness' eyes went quickly around the room. Was everyone finished? Would any of these little kids want another piece? He dropped his gaze.

"Thanks. I'll eat later," Elvin Ayala said softly.

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