THE death of Johnny Tapia at just 45 wasn’t a shock given what came before, but the inevitability of his demise doesn’t ease the sadness. The body of the great fighter, whose private life was disabled by horrific trauma, substance addiction and misadventures, was found on Sunday, May 27, 2012 in his Albuquerque home. Authorities were called to the house at 7.45pm, and according to spokesman Robert Gibbs, there didn’t appear to be any suspicious circumstances.
Rarely has a nickname – “Mi Vida Loca” (my crazy life) – been more appropriate. Tapia claimed five world belts in three divisions, and at his peak his fistic artistry made him one of the sport’s finest. His achievements are incredible when you consider how his life began.
The man he believed to be his father was murdered just months before Johnny was born in 1967. At the age of seven, he was involved in a bus crash that killed the pregnant woman who sat next to him. A year later, he looked out of his bedroom window and saw his mother chained up in the back of a pick-up truck. She was stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver and dead at only 32. Tapia vowed not to live beyond that age and committed to a reckless existence.
“My mom’s death kills me every day,” Tapia said last year. “Then I outlived her after I said I wouldn’t. I just want to say ‘Good night mama’. I want to hug my mama.”
He took up boxing as a teenager, winning Golden Gloves titles before turning professional in 1988. It was around this time he discovered cocaine.
“The first time was a mistake but the second time was a habit,” Tapia later confessed about the drug that became a regular passenger on his perilous journey. In 1990 the gifted 22-0 flyweight prospect was suspended from boxing after failing three drug tests.
In 1993, during his time away from the sport, he married Theresa – who would later become his devoted manager and, on several occasions, personal saviour. Despite the fact he fell into a drug-induced coma on their wedding night, she remained by his side from that day to his last. The love between them was strong, but Theresa often grew tired of Johnny’s wild habits and fragile mind.
“You feel that if you give up on the marriage he will immediately end his life,” Theresa explained last year. “He won’t care, he’ll have nothing left. But at the same time, even being with him and sticking by him, he’s been announced clinically dead at least four times, in a coma, on life support. A lot of people who are professional counsellors say you can’t prevent it. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen because it’s come close to happening when I was with him.”
At times, Tapia kept his demons at bay – predominantly during the mid-to-late 90s when he was at his fighting best. A feverish boxer, he beat Henry Martinez in 1994 in front of his Albuquerque fans for the WBO super-flyweight title and three years on, added the IBF belt after a memorable victory over Danny Romero. He moved up to bantamweight and claimed the WBA crown when he outscored Nana Yaw Konadu in 1998.
He would lose his title, and unbeaten record, 12 months later when he was outpointed in a wild battle with Paulie Ayala. He later claimed his preparations were hampered by discovering that the man who had murdered his mother had been killed.
He beat Ayala in a rematch, won the WBO bantam belt when he decisioned Jorge Julio but by 2002, when he thrilled a rammed York Hall by beating Eduardo Alvarez and then controversially unseated IBF featherweight king Manuel Medina, Tapia’s skills were eroding. A loss to Marco Antonio Barrera that November was his final flirtation with the top. He fought on until last year, though, finishing with a record of 59-5-2 (30).
His adoration for boxing never dwindled as he trained kids at his local gym and worked for Showtime.
When clean and sober, Tapia was a joy to be around, full of love and mischief. But darkness relentlessly hounded his troubled mind, and one can only hope he is now at peace. Our thoughts are with his family.
“I know Johnny will be missed by everyone who ever met him,” Theresa stated after his death. “He was a special light in this world. He loved people so much, made friends with everyone so easily and kept those friends forever. He will remain in our hearts and be missed by all of us very dearly.”