BLEACHED smiles and engineered chests bounce past beggars slurring their way through rehearsed pleas for money. Las Vegas is a City of Sin, the best and worst of humankind, mixed together to form a sickly but irresistible trail of destruction.
Anchored in the chaos is a slight man, clear-eyed and full of life, gleefully posing for photographs. The striking advertisement for sobriety in this land of the wasted is Johnny Tapia, perhaps the most infamous substance-abusing boxer of all time. The 45-year-old has been clean for over two years now, since being released from prison and embarking on a comeback. As I walk away, I wonder if he still will be after a night gliding through the silky temptations of Vegas.
“It doesn’t matter where I am,” Tapia tells me the following day when I ask if the city is the best place for a reformed drug addict to hang out. “I don’t have a temptation because if I want it [drugs] I can get it, wherever I am. I have a reputation, I can just make a phone call. I have my beautiful wife with me, nothing will happen to me if she’s here.”
Teresa Tapia looks at Johnny, her husband of 18 years and the father of her three children, and smiles gently. She is happy to be his side, observing and listening. It is when she can’t see him that she worries. Johnny’s cocaine habit has caused his heart to stop beating on five separate occasions, he has been in three comas, and he has been in and out of prison. None of it occurred on Teresa’s watch.
“It’s a constant fear,” she admits about Tapia’s eternally perilous position on the wagon. “Johnny always makes sure we’re with him when he goes anywhere. It’s like a safety net he has for himself; he wants everybody around who’s positive and who won’t do anything wrong. He suffers from bipolar disorder and it makes it very difficult – the highs are very high and the lows are very low. If he says ‘I’m just going to run down the store to get a Dr Pepper,’ you can’t help but think you should go with him, and wonder what is going to happen. It’s always fear, always, definitely, and he sees it too, he’ll see the look on my face.”
When he trains she follows him, at his request, to the gym in Albuquerque. His ring return has kept Tapia out of trouble since 2009 – boxing was a condition of his release from prison – but now he wants to retire. “I hurt, I’m old, I’m done,” he says, almost poetically. His disproportionately large knuckles bulge through the skin as he twists his palm skywards.
Teresa reaches over and squeezes the hands that won four world titles in three divisions – super-flyweight, bantamweight, and featherweight. She has mixed emotions about him quitting the sport; it has been a rare constant in their perilous journey together.
“He’s been like a freak of nature where he’s never really taken any type of punishment in the ring where he’s been hurt which has been a blessing,” she says in her suitably angelic voice. “He has so much knowledge and he’s training fighters and he’s doing some really awesome work with them. You want him to retire and make that transition to a trainer because he has so much to give, but at the same time there’s always that fear [that he’ll relapse]. With Johnny it’s hard to decide what is best for him but, as a wife, I’d love to see him retire and be a husband and a father first and foremost.”
Johnny clearly still adores boxing. He is easily distracted as we all sit together deep inside the mysterious green labyrinth that is the MGM Grand. Press conferences about the Super Six have just taken place and Tapia’s eyes twitch as Arthur Abraham and Carl Froch amble past. He leaps up, like a puppy dog, and gallops towards the fighters. Johnny chuckles excitedly and hangs off their shoulders as someone takes a photograph of the three of them together. His laughter is curly and instantly infectious. Teresa loves it when her husband chuckles like that; it means he is in a good place.
But happiness is a daily grind for Tapia. The lines on his face that greedily sink into his ageing skin provide clues of his misery. His story is well documented but remains as horrifically shocking today as it ever was.
His father was murdered before he was born. Seven years later Johnny was on a bus that crashed, killing the pregnant woman who sat alongside him. At the age of eight, he looked out of his bedroom window and saw his mother chained up in the back of a pick up truck, being driven away by her lover. She was subsequently stabbed 22 times with a screwdriver, and left for dead. She didn’t survive. She was 32 years old, and from that unthinkable day, Johnny pledged that he would not live beyond that age.
“My mom’s death kills me every day,” Tapia whispers. The torment threatens to break his voice but he manages to resist. “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 sniffs twice and swallows the build up of tears that bubble beneath the surface. He hasn’t moved on, not properly, from his mother’s dreadful demise. Tapia spent much of his adult life yearning to meet the man who destroyed her.
“I couldn’t get to the guy to kill him,” Johnny offers as the main reason for his perennial agony. “I wanted to get him and stab him the same way he did my mom. I would have, believe me, if I could have had him in front of me. I tried to find him, right before the Paulie Ayala fight. But I found out he’d been killed, he’d been run over twice. I was so focused on killing him that I didn’t train or anything. That’s why me and Paulie got fight of the year because all we did was bang.”
Tapia turned to drugs in 1988, 11 years before he lost to Ayala. He was a 21-year-old flyweight prospect when he covered one nostril and used the other to snort back his first heavenly line of cocaine through a tightly rolled dollar bill.
“The first time was a mistake but the second time was a habit,” he confesses. “She got me where she wanted me and she gave me everything. Cocaine became my mistress. Co-caine.” He hangs on the name of the white powder and sighs, remembering the dangerous euphoria that rushed through his body and infected his mind.
He also remembers the misery that attacked the highs and hauled everything down.
“I don’t miss her,” Tapia claims. “I’ve never said this to anybody, I don’t want it no more. I don’t want it and there’s the difference. Back then I needed it, it took me away from everything. It was my mistress and it would take me away… nicely.”
Talking to Tapia, the little boy lost who craves his dear mother, it’s impossible not to root for him. There is a real openness that invites you to step inside his world and be his friend. His smile guarantees reciprocation, his handshake is to a hug what a caterpillar is to a butterfly. But lacing the incessant promises not to rekindle his affair with his ‘mistress’ is uncertainty and fear that he’ll stray again. He knows it will be the end of his marriage if that happens.
On their wedding night, in 1993, Teresa found the man she had pledged her life to injecting drugs. As the needle sank into his arm and loaded his veins with toxins, Tapia drifted into a coma. The indelible writing has always been on the wall for this twisted love story. From the age of eight, he has wanted to die.
“He’s like a walking contradiction,” Teresa tells me while Johnny is out of earshot. “He is so full of life and he has so much to give people and he really is a great person but at the flip of a switch he can turn around and be your worst nightmare.”
She wrestles with her unconditional adoration for Johnny every single day.
“There’s times when I look at him and I think to myself, ‘I believe we’re going to grow old together, I believe we’re going to see our kids and our grandkids and we’re going to beat the odds. Then there’s other times when I look at him and I think I probably won’t have this man in my life for much longer because if you’ve lost your will to live then what do you have?”
Teresa nearly walked away from her man in 2007. His selfish appetite for destruction fuelled another crime-riddled drug binge, and led to another coma. Yet again, Tapia was facing death. Teresa’s brother Robert Gutierrez – who worked Johnny’s corner – and his son – a young boxer about to turn pro – rushed to the hospital to be by Tapia’s side. But they didn’t make it. A car crash killed them both as they were on their way.
“If there was any time I didn’t want to be with him it was in that year,” Teresa softly imparts. “I felt like my brother’s life had been sacrificed for him because, again, everyone was always around Johnny, always there for him and his addiction never ended. That was a very, very emotional time and the hardest time for me, and for him, because he knew he had gone too far. It wasn’t okay and he would never be able to make up for that.”
Tapia stirred from the coma, sobbing, with tubes attached to his tattooed body.
“My wife could have killed me, she could have turned off the machine,” Johnny says, his voice quivering under the weight of shame. “I’ve got a good wife. Thanks God I have her. If I didn’t have her I’d be dead in a heartbeat.”
Teresa suddenly felt fierce hatred towards husband but, even as his constant drug possession resulted in him being sent to prison, she couldn’t bring herself to untie the knot. Within weeks of Johnny being incarcerated, Teresa’s mother and grandmother passed away, and Johnny’s grandfather died. The tragedy of life was venomously harassing the Tapias, and Johnny, more miserable than ever, edged his finger towards the self-destruct button.
“You want to talk about stabbing people in jail?” Tapia ponders about his mindset at that dark time. “Or stabbing anybody, or fighting anybody, or killing anybody? I was so angry I thought I was going to stay in prison for life, but I ended up doing 23-hour lockdown [every day] for a whole year so I could get out.”
Teresa was waiting for him when he was released. For Tapia, it was cocaine. For Teresa, it was Johnny. She couldn’t leave him. They were united by grief, welded with misery. Today, as the giddy Vegas gamblers follow the hypnotic neon lights in search of making their fortune, Teresa is still hoping her marriage will hit the jackpot.
“As a wife, as a woman, I’ve learnt there’s good and bad in everyone and you have to accept them. Everybody has their faults, I have them, and I could move on and find somebody else, and you know, they might not have an addiction but how do I know they won’t be a womaniser, they won’t be an abuser? So why not try and get over the bad stuff and try to make it a good ending?”
NOTE: Johnny Tapia died one year later, in May 2012, from heart failure. According to his wife, no drugs were found in his system.
He would have been 50 years old today.
May he rest in peace.