RIP Johnny Tapia
The guy put on a great show in the ring but his personal life was a train wreck.
<span style="font-weight: bold"><span style="font-size: 17pt">Johnny Tapia, Champion Boxer Amid Chaos, Dies at 45</span></span>
By<span style="font-weight: bold"> DOUGLAS MARTIN</span>
May 28, 2012
Johnny Tapia, a prizefighter who won world titles in three weight classes in a chaotic life that included jail, struggles with mental illness, suicide attempts and five times being declared clinically dead as a result of drug overdoses, was found dead at his home in Albuquerque on Sunday. He was 45.
The Albuquerque police said an autopsy would be done in the next few days. Foul play is not suspected.
Tapia, who was 5 feet 6 inches, said the raw fury he displayed in winning his world titles came from the horrific memory of seeing his mother being kidnapped and murdered when he was 8. He said he saw every opponent as his mother’s killer.
Less than a year after his mother’s death, he recounted, his uncles were making him fight older boys in matches they bet on. If he lost, they beat him, he said.
Tapia’s father had vanished before he was born, and Tapia had thought he was dead until he turned up in 2010 after being released from a federal penitentiary and DNA tests confirmed his paternity. The son slipped into a lifelong pattern of binging on cocaine and alcohol, struggling with bipolar disorder, and cycling in and out of jail and drug rehabilitation programs.
“Mi vida loca,” or my crazy life, were the words tattooed on his belly. He had made that his motto after he thought he had outgrown his first, “baby-faced assassin.”
Tapia won his first 22 professional fights, then was suspended from boxing after failing three drug tests.
After three and a half years away from the ring, he returned to win five fights before defeating Henry Martinez to win the world super flyweight title (115-pound limit). Still undefeated after 18 more bouts, he beat Nana Konadu to win the bantamweight title (118 pounds) and become a two-division world champion.
In his first defeat, Tapia lost the bantamweight crown to Paulie Avala in June 1999 in what The Ring magazine called the “fight of the year.” He narrowly defeated Manuel Medina in 2002 to win the featherweight (126 pounds) title.
Mike Tyson called Tapia one of the greatest fighters ever. He won 59 fights, 30 by knockout; lost 5; and drew 2. He was knocked out only once.
His left jab was punishing, and he claimed not to mind being hit. He sometimes stuck out his tongue to taunt opponents.
“Johnny sees things well,” Freddie Roach, Tapia’s trainer and a member of the World Boxing Hall of Fame, said in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2002. “Sometimes by the book, it would be wrong to do the things Johnny does, but he’s such a natural fighter, he gets away with it.”
John Lee Tapia liked to point out that he was born in Albuquerque on Friday the 13th in February 1967. Larry Merchant, the boxing analyst, told Playboy in 2004 that Tapia was “a five-to-one underdog to survive his own childhood.”
Tapia’s mother, Virginia, died on May 28, 1975, according to a police report that said her body was found stabbed 26 times with scissors and a screwdriver. Not included in the police report was young Johnny’s memory of being awakened by screaming and looking out the window to see his mother chained in the back of a pickup truck driving by the house, Sports Illustrated said.
He was brought up by his grandfather Miguel with eight other family members in a three-bedroom house in Albuquerque. Miguel, an amateur boxing champion, taught him pugilistic skills. Tapia was the 1983 National Golden Gloves light flyweight champion, and the 1985 Golden Gloves flyweight champion. His first pro fight was in 1988.
His past regularly came back to haunt him.
Just two and a half weeks before his loss to Ayala in 1999, the phone rang in the gym where Tapia was training. A police officer told him that his mother’s killing had been solved. The murderer had died in 1983 after stumbling drunk into the middle of a busy Albuquerque street where he was hit by three cars and dragged to his death. The investigation had been reopened at the behest of Tapia’s wife.
Tapia said the news about his mother’s killer upset him and might have contributed to his loss in the fight, but he considered it a “blessing” to finally know the truth.
In 1992, he met Teresa Chavez at a party and was determined to marry her. Realizing his habits, she at first resisted. Playboy reported that when they finally married, one of her cousins approached her and said, “If you want to see what you married, go look in the bathroom.”
She opened the bathroom door and found Tapia with a needle in his arm. He took the wedding cash and dumped her in a cheap hotel. The next day, he was in a hospital with an overdose. He had to be revived after his heart stopped beating, the first of at least five times this happened.
Their marriage lurched wildly up and down, as Mrs. Tapia struggled to provide stability. She became his manager.
It was almost the last straw when Tapia was again hospitalized for drug abuse and his wife’s brother and nephew died in a car crash on the way to visit him in the hospital. “It’s my fault,” Tapia said. “I killed them both.”
His wife somehow stayed. She survives him, along with their three children. He quit the ring several times, but could not seem to give it up. His last fight was in June 2011. He won a unanimous decision.
Tapia said he thought his tattoos of angels kept him from passing into the next world. He may or may not have considered this a good thing, his wife told Playboy.
“I don’t know how this story is going to end,” she said. “I’d love to think that in 30 years, we’ll be old together and surrounded by family. But when I ask Johnny how he sees himself in the future, he says he’s not even sure he’ll wake up tomorrow.”