By Ivan G. Goldman
One of my favorite boxing stories grew out of the storied July 18, 1997 clash between Albuquerque natives Johnny Tapia and Danny Romero at the basketball stadium of the University of Nevada Las Vegas campus.
The fight had percolated for years as both men stormed through opponent after opponent. There was no specific belt designated for Albuquerque’s favorite fighter, but you wouldn’t guess that from talking to Tapia or Romero. Tapia seemed to think it wasn’t fair for Romero to go around winning fights and fans while Tapia had to suffer a four-year banishment from the sport for his cocaine abuse. (He’d resumed his career three years earlier) And Romero looked upon Tapia as a has-been coke fiend who ought to slink back to the gutter where he belonged.
There was so much bad blood between the two camps and their respective fans that the promoters had trouble finding a venue willing to take their money. After the University of New Mexico refused to even consider it, lead promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank made a deal with the Las Vegas Hilton. But the hotel execs were always skittish about hosting thousands of die-hard fight fans from Billy the Kid territory. News media hinted that such a crowd could be uncontrollable, like Visigoths sacking a city.
Then in the third round of their June 28 rematch, Mike Tyson bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear at the MGM Grand. It sparked such a violent riot that the casino ejected paying customers and closed down gaming tables for hours. It’s hard to imagine anything more sacred in Vegas than the principle of round-the-clock gambling. To gaming executives, calling a recess was like being forced to throw their mothers out the back of a speeding pickup truck.
The Las Vegas Hilton panicked, and less than a month before the fight, annulled the contract, claiming the promoters hadn’t fulfilled some obscure insurance clause. Arum, whose relationships with Latino communities was a bedrock of his promotional business, didn’t need a scorecard to know who to side with. He insulted the hell out of the Hilton. “This is an insult to the Hispanic people,” he said, encouraging a boycott against the casino. After the big bad casino turned chicken it was cast out of the fight community. No promoter would ever trust it to keep its word again, and the divorce was final. Arum scrambled and came up with UNLV. The fight was still on.
Super flyweights Romero and Tapia were like a rock and a hard place. This would be like Leonard-Hearns, a mystery that everyone wanted to see solved in the ring. Tapia, a graceful boxer with a killer instinct, was up against a younger man who hit so hard he reminded fight guys of Leonard Duran. His punches sounded like hammers pulverizing human flesh.
Sitting next to me that night was Ramiro Gonzalez, now a publicist for Golden Boy Promotions. Then he was the boxing writer for La Opinion. Gonzalez had $50 riding on Romero. But a couple rounds into the great, give-and-take fight, Gonzalez, as excited as everybody else, started yelling things like, “Go underneath, Johnny. Step over and throw your right.”
Ramiro, I said, what the hell are you doing? You bet on the other guy! “I know,” he screamed waving his fist in triumph, “but Johnny’s boxing so beautifully I can’t help myself.” That was a true fan, what boxing is all about. I’ll never forget it.
After one of the early rounds Johnny leaned over to the media section and announced, “He doesn’t hit so hard.” Actually, Romero did hit amazingly hard, just not hard enough to worry Johnny. His life had been so difficult that to him, taking punches was a walk in the park. He fought like a magician in there, making sweet, unpredictable moves to hit and not be hit, the way it’s supposed to be done.
Johnny, winning comfortably on all three cards, retained his WBO belt and picked up Romero’s IBF title. He walked over to his crestfallen arch-nemesis and embraced him. They forgave each other for all the ugly things they’d said and became buddies, traveling to fights together.
The crowd? There wasn’t even a hint of trouble. So much for that theory.
Ivan G. Goldman’s latest novel Isaac: A Modern Fable came out in April 2012 from Permanent Press. Information HERE
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