By Ivan G. Goldman
HBO’s special showing of the haunting documentary Tapia, being repeated throughout the week, shows a vulnerable, still great Johnny Tapia exposing his heart inside a darkened ring weeks before his death in May 2012. He wears trunks and hand wraps, his body bloated, his face scarred and impossibly sad.
You don’t know whether to show admiration or disgust with the filmmaker for taking such dramatic liberties. Maybe both. But it’s impossible not to be moved.
You can’t distill Johnny’s life into an hour, but the filmmaker provided a compelling morsel. I knew Johnny, who wrote a searing biography with screenwriter Bettina Gilois, Mi Vida Loca: The Crazy Life of Johnny Tapia, that pulled no punches. I highly recommend the book, which came out in 2006.
Johnny never pulled punches and didn’t make small talk. He’d sign off on the phone by uttering “Pray for me,” and it didn’t sound self-centered because he was desperately depressed and mercurial and seemed always on the edge of breakdown. He loved people. He was a perennial hugger, but when people loved him back, it didn’t seem to help.
I was ringside at his pro debut in March 1988 in Irvine, California. He’d been campaigning as an amateur in Albuquerque, so no one at these club fights had heard of him. But he immediately electrified the crowd with his outstanding speed, accuracy, and athleticism. He’d been paired against a tough, experienced cop, Efren Chavez, and came out with only a draw, but many of us predicted that night that Johnny would be a world champion.
He was 21, handsome, and gifted. But underneath, he was a mess, a street-fighting cocaine addict. Six years later, I stopped by his dressing room at the Olympic in Los Angeles. It was an old building in dire need of maintenance, and the room could almost pass for a cave. Johnny had just defeated a tough Mexican from the Baja who’d fouled him repeatedly. After Johnny’s victory was announced, the boisterous winner hoisted his opponent on his shoulders and paraded him around the ring. All was forgiven.
But down in the dressing room, depression was already setting in. It might be months before he could chase off the blues with another outing. I’ve never been inside a sadder dressing room. The melancholy was like wet cement and overpowering. His loving wife Teresa sat there helpless as Johnny stripped naked.
“Look what he did to me,” he said to me. Below the waist were at least a half-dozen welts from low blows. He was looking for solace. The sport he loved so much treated him so cruelly.
But prizefighting didn’t ruin Johnny. It kept him going, and it was impossible to imagine him living without it. He’d been in and out of so many emergency rooms and jails from overdoses and street life.
As the film notes, Johnny’s beautiful mother Virginia was stabbed to death by a psycho when Johnny was eight. She was 32 and had gone out dancing. Johnny’s grandfather was an ex-fighter and a hard man who supported more people than he could afford. When he informed Johnny his mother was dead and never coming back, Johnny protested and his grandpa smacked him. With his mother gone, so was his protection.
Johnny had a persistent memory of seeing Virginia being driven away in the rear of a pickup, chained and crying with fear. We don’t know if he was personally on the scene or dreamed it or whether the vision had telepathically seized his soul. But however he saw it, he did see it, and he kept seeing it all the rest of his life.
He moved to his grandparents’ place, where he slept on the porch floor like a dog and lived with more than a dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins. He’d be beaten, kicked and have his skull crashed against the wall just to get him moving in the right direction. When they realized he was crazy tough they entered him in street fights so they could bet on him. When he lost, they’d beat him and lock him in a closet.
He was often hungry. His grandmother used to lock the pantry. He managed to get inside it one day and was beaten, kicked, and had his head banged against the wall. Later, when he was suspended from prizefighting for almost four years because of his cocaine use, he returned to illegal tough man contests in a cooler behind a barroom.
Two weeks before his grudge match with Danny Romero in 1997 the Las Vegas Hilton, fearful of a riot, cancelled the fight. That spelled the end of the casino’s boxing involvement. Promoter Bob Arum quickly landed a new venue for the super flyweight unification bout at the Thomas and Mack Center.
On fight night, I was seated beside Golden Boy publicist Ramiro Gonzalez, then a columnist for La Opinion. Ramiro had fifty bucks on Romero, but halfway through the fight he began cheering for Johnny. “What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Johnny’s boxing so beautifully, I can’t help myself,” Ramiro said. That, I told myself, is a true boxing fan.
Of course Johnny beat him. Too much speed, too much talent, too much Tapia. Eventually, when his body would no longer cooperate, he finished his career with a record of 59-5-2 (30 KOs). He managed to live a year past his last bout in 2011.
Rest in peace, Johnny Tapia.