Johnny Tapia was always safer being assaulted inside a boxing than he was anywhere else on earth. There is painful sadness in that harsh reality.
Tapia was declared dead five times due to drug overdoses and suicide attempts before he finally expired under what Albuquerque, N.M., police claim were not suspicious circumstances last Sunday night. For a man who lived his kind of life what circumstances would have been suspicious?
A five-time world champion in three weight classes, Tapia was a cult hero whose autobiography, “Mi Vida Loca,” was aptly titled. Tapia openly spoke of “my crazy life” — one that seemed to stop the night he saw his murdered mother being dragged behind a pickup truck in front of his home. He was 8 years old.
Tapia’s mother had been stabbed 26 times with a screwdriver, raped and left for dead. When he tried to tell relatives in his house what he’d just seen, they dismissed him, saying he’d had a nightmare. Indeed he had. One from which he would never fully awaken.
Tapia had already been told his father had been murdered before he was born even though the truth was that he was in a Federal penitentiary. He was taken to live with his grandparents in a three-bedroom home jammed with eight people and little love. He would not even know his father was alive until the man confronted him several years ago. To Tapia, whoever the man was, he certainly wasn’t his father.
At 9, Tapia’s uncles used to bring him into seedy bars and force him to fight bigger boys while they gambled on the outcome. Tapia described that upbringing with unusually stark honesty after he’d become a world renowned boxing champion.
“I was raised to be a pit bull,” he once told me. “Fight or die.”
He did both many times and survived each experience. He was declared dead on four occasions before he finally passed away, alone in his home. No one knows for sure if drugs were involved, but a tab of generic Vicodin was found near him and so was a locked box filled with drugs. Regardless of what the autopsy says. drugs didn’t kill Johnny Tapia. Life did.
A crazy life for 45 years, but not often a happy one despite the constant presence of the love of his life, his loyal and long-suffering wife Teresa, three children and the admiration of millions of fight fans who had seen him tear into opponents with a savagery difficult to fathom unless you knew the story behind it.
Tapia claimed he would often see not his opponent but rather the man who murdered his mother across the ring from him, fueling him with a sense of desperation and aggression difficult to describe.
Yet none of his success in boxing or in finding a loving wife and raising a family was quite enough to erase the nightmares of his youth. Instead they drove him into cocaine addiction, losing battles with alcohol, gang life and a rap sheet that was 125 pages long.
Tapia battled bipolar disorder, was incarcerated multiple times, was banned from boxing for 31⁄2 years for testing positive for cocaine. At that time, he was 21-0-1 and only a few victories from his first world title fight and carried with him a pain so deep it could never be excavated.
Still he was a joy to be around when he was sober and sane and a privilege to watch when he was boxing at his savage best. Regardless of how low he sunk, Tapia refused to stay down.
With a knot of uncontrollable fury and unbearable sadness tied tightly inside him, he won five New Mexico Golden Gloves titles and two National Golden Gloves championships before turning pro in 1988 at 21. He had found a safe haven in sport’s most dangerous and deadly business.
When he first met his future wife, Tapia was suspended from boxing and living a hard life in the streets. She knew it and initially spurned his advances, but such was the charm of Tapia’s smile that it was as hard to get around as his fists.
Eventually they married in 1994. The night after their wedding, she found him shooting up in a bathroom after a cousin told her, “If you want to see what you married, go look in the bathroom.”
He would leave her alone in a seedy motel room that night, taking their wedding gift money and disappearing. Barely 24 hours later he overdosed and had to be revived after his heart stopped beating for a minute and 23 seconds. She stayed with him.
His heart was always Johnny Tapia’s biggest asset. Until last Sunday, it would not let him die despite his best efforts to kill himself. In the ring it would not let him quit either.
He was 46-0-2 and a world champion in two weight classes before he was upset by Paulie Ayala in 1999 after having moved up and won the bantamweight title. Soon after, Tapia attempted suicide, but a year later was again a champion before losing a rematch to Ayala by split decision. Less than two years later Tapia, by then 35 and fading, had his hand raised once again, winning the IBF featherweight title in a disputed decision over Manuel Medina. He would quickly relinquish that belt to face Marco Antonio Barrera, the Mexican legend, for the biggest payday of his life.
Barrera easily outpointed him and Tapia never fought for another world title. He would box nine times over the next nine years as he battled life as hard as he had any opponent, winning some and losing some. After boxing only once in five years, he launched what would become his final comeback in 2010, winning three straight times. His final bout, on June 6, 2011, was a fitting way for what should be a Hall of Fame career to end.
Tapia was dropped in the sixth round by three-time world title challenger Mauricio Pastrana, but got off the floor — as he had done so often inside and outside the ropes that surrounded him — and attacked Pastrana with savage fury and sad desperation, finally dropping him in the eighth and final round to win a decision. Less than a year later, he would be found alone — as he so often seemed to feel he was despite the love around him — dead at the age of 45.
Whenever we would see each other, which was less and less in recent years, he would say “Hello, Mr. Borges” with an odd formality and then wrap his arms around me in a joyous bear hug. That is the Johnny Tapia I choose to remember, a loving guy for whom there was just never enough love to fill the emptiness inside him.
No sense in this
Desperation and tight money will make a man do many things, even things that make no sense.
After refusing for years to travel to Poland to fight then undefeated Dariusz Michalczewski, an aging, 43-year-old Roy Jones Jr. now has agreed to fight Polish light heavyweight Dawid Kostecki June 30 in Lodz, Poland, but at 185 pounds, 10 over the light heavyweight limit and 15 under the cruiserweight limit.
Jones (55-8, 40 KOs) is hoping a win will set up a cruiserweight title shot against Poland’s Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (46-2-1), the WBC champion later this year. Don’t count on it.
This is another in a string of odd moves by Jones, who is 6-7 in his last 13 fights and has been ferociously knocked out four times in that span. He is a shadow of what he once was, a fighter whose reflexes are no longer quick enough to make up for his technical flaws and whose chin has been found repeatedly wanting.
Yet he presses on with the delusion he will win another world title, denying he needs the money but with no other reason to keep going. American TV long ago stopped putting him on wearing anything but a sports coat so he will fight on Polish pay-per-view in a match hastily arranged because his opponent is headed to jail.
What is particularly odd is that Jones refused to come to Poland to face Michalczewski when they were considered the two best light heavyweights in the world. Michalczewski seldom left Germany, where he packed houses, and Jones said he did not want to fight overseas after what happened to him at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 when he was denied the gold medal in a fight he won easily.
The more troublesome aspect of this though is that Jones always feared sustaining the kind of injuries that left his friend Gerald McClellan blind, crippled and unable to communicate, yet he puts his health at risk every time he gets into the ring now. Boxing has always been the sport of self-delusion and Jones is no exception but he had best remember soon that’s also not called the hurt business for nothing.
America’s big hope?
The latest in a line of failed American heavyweights hoping to bring some portion of the world title back from the clutches of the Brothers Klitschko will try to further his career with minimal risk on July 14. That’s when undefeated former Michigan State linebacker Seth Mitchell takes on ex-cruiserweight contender Jonathan Banks on HBO underneath Amir Khan’s junior welterweight title challenge against the undefeated Danny Garcia (23-0, 18 KOs).
Choosing Banks as Mitchell’s next opponent comes as no surprise. Mitchell (25-0, 19 KOs) was badly hurt by Chazz Witherspoon in the opening round of Mitchell’s last fight in April before he came back to stop Witherspoon in the third round, so Golden Boy Promotions’ selection of a smaller man as his next opponent made sense on several fronts for them.
Banks’ only loss was to former cruiserweight champion Tomasz Adamek, but that is the point. He comes into the ring with an impressive 28-1-1 record but is not truly a heavyweight and certainly nothing like the kind of massive physical challenge the Klitschkos represent.
In case you were wondering, the last American to hold any portion of the heavyweight title was Shannon Briggs, who lost the WBO version of the belt in 2007 to Sultan Ibragimov. . . .
Speaking of suspect heavyweight contenders, Samuel Peter makes a comeback of sorts on a Don King-promoted card June 23 at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Fla., which of late has become King’s venue of no other choice. Peter is a typical King reclamation project, coming off consecutive KO losses to Wladimir Klitschko and Robert Helenius. He has no opponent as yet and it’s not likely to be a formidable one. Peter’s drawing power has so waned he is not even the main event. That will be journeyman heavyweight DaVarryl Williamson (27-6, 23 KOs) vs. Tony Grano (19-2-2, 15 KOs).
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