Picture Edit: Mike Ashe
Playing tag with the demons within his own mind, Johnny Tapia was one of life’s tortured souls, always running but never fully able to outpace the very thing that would aid to his downfall.
Having released a book labelled “Mi Vida Loca” upon the pages Johnny poured out his heart, taking no respite in pulling punches as he recounted his life’s journey up to that point.
It was one of the few books that I have gone back to time after time leaving me gripped in disbelief as chapter after chapter played out in its entirety like a Hollywood blockbuster with aspects of action, romance and drug fueled binges.
Johnny wore a smile externally but the very thing that drove him to become a world champion would also lend its hand to his untimely death as Albuquerque’s finest drew his last breath on May 27th 2012.
Even before his life had fully began, the turbulent life he was to be born into was in full effect as his father (reportedly) was murdered whilst he was still yet to be conceived setting the tone for a further heartbreak of the highest order eight years following.
Tapia was a mothers boy who doting on his always smiling mother he would on occasion wait by his bedroom window to see her coming home from the local drinking establishment having in the process danced herself out.
Johnny would recount later on in life of the times he would skip around the living room dancing hand in hand with his mother all the while looking not to step on her toes.
It was at the age of eight whilst his grandmother pleaded with him to go to bed that would recollect images that would stay ingrained in him for eternity, tapping his fingers in an act of his impatience, he fell asleep only to be awakened by the screams of his mother.
That night she (Virginia) like any other looked to make her way home not knowing that she would do so in the most horrific of circumstances. Having said her farewell to her friends for the night, she was apprehended by her assailant who raped, hanged and stabbed her multiple times after she had declined his advances earlier in the night.
Johnny had seen the initial stages of this as his mother was chained to the back of a pickup truck but his frantic pleas for somebody from within the household to help, fell on deaf ears believing that Johnny was making the whole thing up.
Little did they know, an eight year old with tears streaming down his face would be telling the truth as the forthcoming nightmare would encapsulate their lives. Virginia was found having clawed her way 100 yards to the nearest road but would never set her gaze upon her son as she succumbed to her date with death four days later.
Johnny without the leading light in his world of darkness thereafter was raised by his grandmother, anger raged within the young man which found its release in the form of boxing which he took up at the age of nine.
Finding Solace in Boxing and Theresa…
It was a future career path which from the outset showed promise winning national Golden Gloves in 1983 & 1985, he had found his true calling in life, a purpose to which would yield World titles in three weight classes in the years to come.
Boxing became his salvation, the pounding of the heavy bag was followed by punishment dished out to sparring partners before being unleashed on to the boxing scene, all the atrocities that life had dealt him, pent up aggression released in boxing gyms through blood, sweat and tears.
It would shape Johnny into one of the sports best but also lending a hand to his resurgence was the ever present Theresa, a young Latino woman who had captured the heart of Tapia upon seeing.
Theresa was told to stay away from the troubled Tapia who when not in a boxing gym found other less savoury ways to fill his time, she tried her best but Johnny having been knocked back a number of times was consistent in his asking, his charms finally winning over Theresa who from that point on shared the burden with boxing of filling the crater sized heartbreak that Tapia was enduring, she was his rock.
The two tied the knot in 2004 before she took over the reins of also becoming his manager in 2007.
Although his professional career looked like having great potential, his personal life looked to derail all that hard work that had gone on in the boxing gym as drugs were a persistent presence in his life, often leading to his detainment at his second home at the Bernalillo County Detention Center following his 130 plus pages of convictions.
Suspension, Drugs and Kicking the Habit…Momentarily
It was in 1990 and 1991 that Johnny’s life looked to have imploded, testing positive for Cocaine on three occasions before his impending suspension which would keep him away from the boxing ring for three long years.
Without boxing acting as a neutralisation for the drama that would often find itself at Tapia’s feet, led to him immersing himself into the world of drugs which looked to have ended his life on three separate stints as overdosing became the normality in the topsy-turvy world of his.
Teresa given little opportunity was forced in the realisation, she could turn and walk away from the man she loved or make him face his demons head on, she gave him his ultimatum, he cautiously agreed to go into battle with his biggest of foes.
It was at this point that Theresa kept Johnny under lock and key in the confines of his own home, for months neither would exit the house as Theresa’s mother would pass food through the bars on the windows. This is what it took for him to get to a point where drugs were less important than his marriage and boxing.
“I’m clean for today,” said Tapia. “I never think about yesterday because it’s gone and I never worry about tomorrow because it may never come.”
The words from an honest man who always gave us his raw emotion, more so than any other fighter I have seen since.
It wasn’t difficult to like Johnny Tapia, a larger than life character he was a fighter who would entertain the notion of war delving into his energy reserves he would often exit with a smile as wide as New Mexico, winning consecutively whilst collecting NABF and USBA titles along the way.
First World Title.
A winning streak which would put him in to a position to challenge for the vacant WBO title in 1994 where he would go up against Henry Martinez. The scene was set up for a good all action affair which under the bright lights of The Pit in his beloved Albuquerque, Tapia took Martinez past the eighth for the first time, drowning him in the deep waters of the later rounds before a combination left the referee to administer an eight count before waving off the contest in the eleventh to crown Tapia the world champion for the first time.
Johnny had reached the summit with a mixture of speed abd power all whilst provoking opponents into mistakes, countering with precision leaving a trail of devastation in his wake, in doing so with a smile on his face before the reoccurring back flips to seal the victory.
A showman above all, Johnny would give the fight fans his undivided attention in gaining their respect and support as fourteen title defences followed, leaving many to position him with the pound 4 pound best fighters in the world.
Being a fan of Tapia’s throughout his time of prominence, the fight that stands out to me as a highlight was his unification with his hometown nemesis Danny Romero.
The two men shared a history as Danny’s father was an earlier trainer of Tapia’s, Johnny employing of a new lead role added more spice to an already heated contest, mix that with the pride of being Albuquerque best gives you all the ingredients for a bad blooded affair which would leave one man without his title.
IBF Champion Danny Romero entered as a notable puncher looking to make a statement but in truth was never in the contest as Johnny displayed once more his impressive boxing skills to stifle the attacks of Romero who was left a shadow of frustration as Tapia like an high school bully took home the spoils as his hometown crowd cheered his every move at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Having fought at 112 lbs since his amateur days, Johnny after defending his titles three times decided a move was needed and singled out Freddie Roach to help him. Roach had already found fame having trained the likes of Michael Moorer, Steve Collins amongst others and was only too happy to guide Tapia to further enhance his growing reputation.
Two Weight World Champion
WBA bantamweight champion Nana Yaw Konadu stood in his way of Johnny becoming a two weight world champion but only momentarily as Tapia, following instruction from Roach dealt out another of his boxing lessons in gaining a majority decision on the judge’s scorecards.
In June 1999 after 24 years of questions regarding his mother’s killer, Johnny finally found out the identity of the assailant in a man named Richard Espinosa but thoughts of an impending trial for the crimes committed would not come about with the revelation that Espinosa had died in a traffic accident in 1983.
Espinosa who had been a suspect from the beginning was found to have had blood on his shoes as well as a blood stained screwdriver found in his car but the apparent stench of corruption from the sheriff’s department rose to a point which let a guilty man walk free.
Conflicting memories dredged up from the past left onlookers uncertain whether Tapia would turn back to his vice, drugs but instead he surprised few in focused his efforts on boxing.
Fight of the Year Candidate….
Paulie Ayala was the man in the sights of Tapia who was looking to take out some anger on the world rated number two contender. The contest was set for June 26th 1999 just weeks following the news of his mother’s killer.
Both men put out a performance which is still talked about in conversations today, the Boston Globe described it best in reporting it was “hand-to-hand combat of the fiercest and bravest kind.”
At the end of a back and forth war between the event aptly titled “Warriors” Paulie Ayala was the man who’s hand was raised via unanimous decision as both men embraced in the knowledge that every spectator had gotten their monies worth, in full agreement was the ring magazine which named it it’s fight of the year.
After winning the WBO Bantamweight title again, Tapia again locked horns with Ayala, this time it was thought that Tapia had done enough to gain victory but was denied once more by the judging who gave the verdict to Ayala via unanimous decision which led to an incensed Tapia having to be ushered from the MGM Grand Arena via security escort.
Tapia would go on to win a further world title at the featherweight limit by defeating Manuel Medina in 2002 to become a three weight world champion.
It’s hard to comprehend the devastation that one man can endure, Tapia was the proverbial underdog from the outset never fully accepting the hand he had been dealt.
Upon being asked about his mother in a later interview he said “I still wait at the front door for her… I tried to kill myself so many times but I seem to come back. I want my mom, I want my mom, but I can’t have her today.”
The running from the demon’s had taken its toll, backed up against the wall in a situation that so many times he cherished became his seclusion as he went quietly into the night on May 27th 2012.
It is a date which is symbolic to me personally, not only as I witnessed the ending of a favourite fighter of mine but it is one which is shared with another great man’s anniversary of a death in my grandfather which is a day before my birthday, his heart that for so many years had been chipped and chiseled from tragedies had finally broken with the weight it was made to carry around.
A ringside physician Sam Kassicieh reported that “No illicit drugs were found,”
Theresa for so many years had dreaded this point “Every time I look at Johnny, every minute we spend together, I constantly catch myself memorizing lines on his face and the way he smiles because I always think that’s the last time I am going to see him,” she said. “I made it a habit not to think about tomorrow.”
As I write this article in my heart I pray that Tapia is finally at peace. His lifetime of running is now at an end, leaving behind great memories from his title winning exploits as today seems a less exciting time without his character.
No more does the smile mask the true feelings of the warrior as I bid one of my boxing heroes a goodnight.