By Ivan G. Goldman
Johnny Tapia, found dead in his Albuquerque home Sunday night of unknown causes, led a tortured, brave life that ended in a draw against the devil. They went 45 rounds that lasted a year each, and Johnny backed up a few times but always came back strong before he was forced back to the ropes again. He wouldn’t let anyone throw in a towel either.
I saw Johnny Tapia’s pro debut, March 28, 1988, a four-rounder in an Irvine, California ballroom. Johnny, who had an excellent amateur background, didn’t get any hand-picked tomato can. It was a tough cop named Efren Chavez, who was 6-1 and had a promising career of his own. It was a great, all-action fight that also ended in a draw. Because he’d come out of New Mexico, no one knew who the Tapia kid was.
I know how he looked at the end, but back then at age 21 he was movie-star handsome. The hardness of his life had yet to etch a scarred trail across his face. And he was tremendously quick. You could barely follow his punches, which came in accurate combinations. Both fighters won tremendous cheers, but everyone could see that Johnny was going to be a champion. Too fast, too tough, too much of everything.
When Johnny lost his fight license after they found cocaine in him one time too many he sustained himself by participating in utterly crazy tough-man contests behind a New Mexico meat market. No rounds, no weight classifications, no rules. Lots of guys standing around making bets. Only the most desperate of men would fight in those contests, and the organizers and audience members would never make anyone’s list of great humanitarians.
When he was a little kid his relatives used to pit him in backyard contests like he was an abused dog. When he got too good they put him in against bigger, older kids to get better odds. When he lost, his family would beat him. Once they locked him in the closet for what he thought was a day and a-half.
He thought maybe he saw his mother being driven away the day she turned up raped and dead, but it could have been a dream. He also thought his father was murdered, but it was hard to know. People lied to him all the time and he had a hard time ferreting out the truth of things. In his neighborhood, nobody liked questions.
One time after Johnny and I talked on the phone, he made a heartfelt plea: “Pray for me.” Johnny always felt there was something out there trying to do him harm. He was an utterly brave man who lived in constant fear. He bounced in and out of jails and mental institutions.
He and his wife Theresa had a great love for each other. “Look at her,” he told me once. “She looks just like an angel.” But another time he pulled a gun on her. She knew what to do. She called the cops. He was smart enough not to blame her for it, and they held on to each other, this time with new ground rules.
Johnny felt at home in the ring, and he loved his opponents. After he defeated them he would parade them around on his shoulders. I saw him do it one time against a particularly nasty opponent. When we went back to his dressing room in the old Los Angeles Forum he stripped down and showed me all the bruises from where he’d been hit low. “Look what he did to me,” Johnny said. But there was also humor in Johnny’s life. Like the time he got busted for selling a big bag of cocaine to an undercover cop. The “cocaine” was soap powder. If they prosecuted him, a trial would focus too much light on their blundering, so the cops eventually just let him go.
Despite his suspensions, the craziness and horrors, he managed to win WBO and IBF super flyweight titles, a WBA bantamweight title, and an IBF featherweight title. He was just too talented to keep down, ending with a record of 59-5-2 (30). His last fight was only a year ago. He decisioned Mauricio Pastrana at home. He loved his fans, and they loved him. It was his way of saying goodbye. If there had been no four-year suspension, no cocaine, no suicide attempts and all the rest, it’s hard to imagine how much more he might have accomplished.
Those of us who knew him used to wonder how he would survive when he could no longer box, and sure enough, he didn’t. But he had one hell of a run. Johnny Tapia, lovely tortured soul, rest in peace.
Ivan G. Goldman’s latest novel Isaac: A Modern Fable came out in April 2012 from Permanent Press. Information HERE
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