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Johnny Tapia 1967-2012: Looking Back at "Mi Vida Loca"

By Thomas Gerbasi, photo by Chris Cozzone

The death certificate of Johnny Tapia will say that he lived to be 45 years old. But anyone who knew him or followed his life and career will say that in terms of experience, of tragedy and triumph, of love and heartbreak, that the man rightfully dubbed “Mi Vida Loca” lived at least five lives of 45 years before he was found dead in his home on Sunday.

The official word is that there is no official word at this time on the beloved former world champion’s cause of death. Following his various battles with drugs and previous suicide attempts, you hope, if only for his family’s peace of mind, that all the years of wild living just finally caught up to him naturally (if there is such a thing at 45), and that his old demons didn’t come back to haunt him in his final hours.

The death certificate of Johnny Tapia will say that he lived to be 45 years old. But anyone who knew him or followed his life and career will say that in terms of experience, of tragedy and triumph, of love and heartbreak, that the man rightfully dubbed “Mi Vida Loca” lived at least five lives of 45 years before he was found dead in his home on Sunday.

The official word is that there is no official word at this time on the beloved former world champion’s cause of death. Following his various battles with drugs and previous suicide attempts, you hope, if only for his family’s peace of mind, that all the years of wild living just finally caught up to him naturally (if there is such a thing at 45), and that his old demons didn’t come back to haunt him in his final hours.

And there were demons, starting with a harrowing childhood that saw his mother murdered when he was just eight years old, a horrific bus crash, and a birth father that he never knew was his until a chance conversation in 2010. The die was cast from those moments on, yet boxing provided a brief respite from a life that soon spiraled into drug and alcohol addiction, battles with the law, and sadly, countless battles with himself.

“Anything I do, I’m a professional at it – alcoholic, doper, addict, whatever you want to call it,” Tapia told me in 2002.  “But for some reason, I’m still here.  I’ve basically done everything I could do.” 

Luckily, after abusing himself physically and mentally for so many years, he found his muse in his wife Teresa, who did her best to keep her husband alive and on the straight and narrow, an often unwinnable battle. 

“The wife that I have is unbelievable,” said Tapia.  “She loved me when I was nothing, and she still loves me now that I’m nothing.”

Somehow, Tapia kept it together long enough to win world titles at 115, 118, and 126 pounds over the course of a 23 year career that ended, remarkably, with an eight round decision win over Mauricio Pastrana last June. Among the notables on his 59-5-2 (30 KOs) record were wins over Arthur Johnson, Danny Romero, Jorge Julio, Cuauhtemoc Gomez, Cesar Soto, and Manuel Medina, and the only five men to beat him were Paulie Ayala (twice), Marco Antonio Barrera, Frankie Archuleta, and Sandro Marcos, with the latter two losses coming in fights when Tapia was way past his prime.

In that prime, Tapia was a dervish in the ring, full of boundless energy and fury that always made him must see TV.

“I’m in there to win,” Tapia said of his fighting philosophy in a 2004 interview.  “Winning is everything to me, second place ain’t nothing.  That’s probably what’s kept me in the game for a lot of years. And I’m not going to go down easy.  You’d better be in good shape to try and take me out.  Something will come out of my sleeve.  And when something’s happening and the crowd gets behind me, I can go forever.”

But despite the “big” fights he had over the years, when asked his greatest performance, he came up with a more obscure nugget from the past, his December 5, 1998 decision victory over tough South African Nana Konadu for the WBA bantamweight title.

“The fight with Nana Konadu,” said Tapia. “That was probably the best technical boxing display around.” 

But in typical Tapia fashion, the best fight may have come later that night, as the real Tapia emerged on the Atlantic City boardwalk after he worked his wizardry in the ring with Konadu.

“I just finished the fight with Nana Konadu and I gave a homeless man some money for Christmas,” remembered Tapia.  “Afterwards I went to buy some stuff for my son for Christmas and I found out that some guys stole the money that I gave this guy.  It was five guys.  We ended up getting it on and fought all five.  Then the cops caught us.  The old man came out running again, ‘let me help you, let me help you.’  It was just a blessing to see him get back everything.  But everything ended up working out for the best.”

Why?

He paused.

“I’m a fighter.  I love old people. I love people, and I just don’t like to see that happen.”

In and out of the ring, he was loved equally by those same people. There were no airs around Tapia, and he spoke freely of his struggles.

One time I asked Teresa, who was also his manager, about her husband’s appeal, and she said, “I believe it’s because they feel that they’re on the same level with him. There are so many people who are great fighters in the world, like Shane Mosley, Oscar De La Hoya, and Roy Jones Jr. But the average fan looks at them as great fighters but they feel that they’re untouchable.  Whereas Johnny, because of the problems he’s had in his life and the tragedies that he’s endured and survived, they feel on the same level as him and they can relate to him.  When Johnny walks in a room, people just love him.  They may have never met him or know about boxing, but when they leave there, he has a friend for life.  He gets fan mail and E-mail now, and it’s always the same thing – Johnny, we love you.  It may be a grandfather talking about his son or a mother talking about her loss, and Johnny has so many areas in his life where he can help people, whether it’s drugs, pain, losing a loved one, losing someone that was murdered, abandonment – there’s so many issues that he can cover, so that’s why people can relate.”

“They start calling me a celebrity, and that’s just not me,” added Tapia during the same 2002 interview.  “I’m down to earth and I walk just like everybody else. I can relate to anybody.  They know what I’ve been through, and are they asking for someone to listen, or for someone to help?  I’m not a preacher or teacher – I’ve got a lot of problems today.  That’s why I stay humble and by myself.  But right now I’m okay and it’s a beautiful thing.  But so many people that have problems just need to be listened to.  They need that hug, that ‘OK, you’re going to be all right.’  That’s what I was lacking for so many years.”
I know a little bit about Tapia’s relationship with his fans. When I dabbled in the world of web design, one of my first clients was Johnny Tapia, who was fresh off his career-defining win over Danny Romero.

As one of my duties, I was responsible for forwarding any E-mail that came in, which the fighter would then respond to.  Practically all requests centered around unfettered praise or autograph requests, sometimes both.  There was a smattering of party invites, strategy suggestions, and questions about marital status.  All typical fan letter stuff.

Except for Tapia’s mail.

There were letters from young, old, male, female, addicted, and drug-free.  If you were breathing, you could relate to Tapia in some way.  If you hurt, he had hurt.  If you struggled, he had traveled the same road.  And if there seemed to be no hope, he had already been there.

People wrote page after page to Tapia, explaining their hurts, disappointments, and hopes for the future.  To his credit, the five-time world champion took his time out to answer his fans, whether in person or through E-mail and letters.  He never took the fans for granted.
“When Johnny walks in a room, people just love him,” said Teresa. “They may have never met him or know about boxing, but when they leave there, he has a friend for life.”

When I wrote about this after Tapia fell into a drug-induced coma in early 2003, the emails came in at a breakneck pace from people with similar stories about the Albuquerque, New Mexico native. One in particular was from the head of Showtime Boxing, Jay Larkin, who gave me permission to reprint it.

"A few days before the (Marco Antonio) Barrera fight, Johnny heard that my mother was very ill," remembered Larkin, who passed away in 2010 after a battle with brain cancer. "He called from camp to send his love and prayers. When she succumbed to her illness soon after the fight, Johnny called me to offer support and told me that I'm part of his family and he will always be there if I need him. I was greatly moved by the outpouring of support that I received from all over the boxing industry but of all the fighters I have known and worked with over the years, only Johnny and one other (Evander Holyfield) called to express their sympathies. This in the midst of the doubts and emotional turmoil that he was suffering after the loss to Barrera. Johnny is a unique man. He's one of the toughest people I have ever known and one of the gentlest.”

Larkin concluded by sending a plea to his friend.

“May God watch over him and grant him peace of mind and strength of spirit. Johnny, too many people love you to let you go. Stick around pal.”

Tapia would emerge from that coma, and by September of 2003, he was back in the ring. That was Johnny Tapia. There would be more ups and downs in his life over the next eight plus years, but while there are tragic figures in this sport that you just have a gut feeling about that they won’t live long lives, there was a sense about Tapia that he had been through so much and survived so much that he was just going to keep on going.

When he met a terminally ill 78-year old fan a few years back that just happened to share his name, I even asked Tapia if he could picture himself still going strong at 78.

“Let’s try to get there first,” he chuckled.  “You know what’s happened to me already.  But life’s been going great.”

Unfortunately, he never made it. And while the cliché is to hope that he will finally find peace, in his case, it’s accurate. Johnny Tapia was no saint, no angel, but you always got the feeling that he was a good man. And after everything he suffered through, some things self-inflicted, others far out of his control, you wish that if there is a better place after this, he’s in it.

As for his legacy, in and out of the ring, maybe he said it best when asked how he would like to be remembered.

“I have no problems in the ring, I’ve got them out of the ring,” Tapia admitted. “But I would like to be remembered as a good person.  I don’t have to speak for what I’ve been through, or the fights I’ve had.  I’ve treated everybody the same. For me, it’s not how many times you fall, it’s how many times you pick yourself up and be successful. I’m a people’s person.  I love to be with them before the fight and after the fight.  I’m always with the people, and it’s a sign of respect. People have made me what I am today, and when I fight, I fight for my fans.  If I win, they win.  If I lose, they lose.  I’ve helped a lot of people, and a lot of people have helped me out.”

R.I.P. Johnny

Tags:
User Comments and Feedback (Register For Free To Comment) Comment by r3robinson on 05-29-2012

Was surely a fun fighter to watch, RIP Kid.

Comment by BattlingNelson on 05-29-2012

Thanks for this heartwarming piece. May Tapia rest in peace.

Comment by boxingfan76 on 05-29-2012

R.I.P Johnny a big loss for this world and boxing.

Comment by bose on 05-29-2012

great article, to a great fighter, r.i.p

Comment by ianhunter on 05-29-2012

[QUOTE=Always;12180167]Man, reading that piece was pretty hard. I'll never forget reading about him, watching him on Real Sports on HBO, and just thinking that he got dealt a horrible hand in life. He made the best of it, and he…

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