Johnny Tapia: The Long Road Out of Hell

08.11.05 - By Gabriel DeCrease : It’s kind of difficult for somebody to call me an all time great. Being a legend is one thing but an all time great, well those are some pretty big words but I just want to be a normal person about that. -Johnny Tapia

Johnny Tapia may see his name inscribed on the great ledger in Canastota next to those of all the legends of the game. But boxing pundits do not mention him in the same breath as Carlos Zarate, Miguel Canto, Wilfredo Gomez, or Salvador Sanchez, or any of the other legends of the lower weight classes. Tapia never possessed that intangible black magic that separates the all-time greats from, well, everyone else. In fact, when compared, in terms of raw talent and athletic ability, to peers like Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera, Tapia comes up short on both counts. But Johnny Tapia has never been too worried about his getting a share of the alphabet soup that the sanctioning bodies serve up to those they mark for champion-status.. Sure, he won titles and stood at the top of a few divisions in his day, but primarily Johnny liked to fight. And so he battled on short notice, or for short money, or in the middle of a personal crisis, or with a cracked or bruised this-or-that. He accepted all the things that drive most fighters to postpone and cancel, and sometimes to retire early as simple burdens of the trade. Johnny did not have high-powered management to guide him along the quickest and safest path to a title reign. He is not that kind of fighter. He did it his way. And that is what makes him a legend of sorts.

After being knocked out rather viciously by battleworn veteran Sandro Marcos in his most recent outing, Tapia may finally have taken his first and last ten-count. And looking toward a time when the bell no longer rings for Johnny Tapia, it becomes clear that when he leaves boxing he will take with him the big, beating heart of the rough and rugged old school. As a legion of loyal fans prepare to bid farewell to Mi Vida Loca, it is important to look back at the simultaneously heroic and inglorious life of Johnny Tapia.

Tapia’s early career was marked by profound success as he showed punching power in spectacular knockout wins and technical acumen in crafty decision victories. From 1988-1990 Tapia was an unbeatable prospect. In his 10th fight as a professional he went up against a then slick-boxing Fred Hernandez. Behind on points Tapia rallied in the eighth and final round to flatten Hernandez brutally with only three seconds left in the fight. Hernandez was saved by the bell, but despite the deficit on the cards until that point, Tapia made such a statement by ruggedly enduring his opponent only to score what would have been a knockout so late in the fight that the judges gave him a close decision. Johnny rode the momentum of that fight all the way to the USBA super-flyweight title. But the physical resilience of youth served to hide substance abuse problems and a dangerously reckless lifestyle. Shortly after winning his first championship the dark side of Tapia took hold of him and he wandered out of boxing with a three-year suspension resulting from various drug-charges. For almost four-years of murky inactivity, Tapia abused himself. The loss of these years goes beyond denunciation as Tapia cost himself a good portion of his prime development time. When asked about that period in his life, Johnny says candidly, “Well you know I wasn’t doing the right thing. I mean it’s not like I was on the streets being clean.”

Johnny was off and running with a streak of wins upon his return to the ring. Then he was arrested as Albuquerque police claimed they found Tapia carrying a bag of cocaine. He claimed it was laundry soap, and after a bit of legal back-and-forth, the charges were dropped. The truth of that incident will likely never be known.

In 1995, despite stumbling on his way, Tapia finally got a title shot. He fought smoothly and intelligently over eleven strong rounds, keeping up a high work rate, to score a late TKO of Henry Martinez to seize the WBO super-flyweight title. Johnny nearly lost his alphabet strap to Ricardo Vargas shortly thereafter. Vargas was sharp while Tapia looked slightly slow and uninspired as he eked out a draw and retained his title.

Tapia’s string of subsequent successful defenses as a super-flyweight culminated in a narrow decision win over childhood friend Danny “Kid Dynamite” Romero. Johnny came into the fight in fine condition and boxed effectively throughout and controlled the tempo of the fight. Sadly, their friendship had by then disintegrated into a bitter rivalry, and after the fight a chasm of silence grew between them. It was rumored that the men, who had both been trained by Tapia’s father as amateurs, had also been members of rival street gangs. The grudge held until several years later when Tapia contacted Romero, extending an olive branch when he knew “Kid Dynamite” had been personally and professionally troubled. The two fighters are closer now than ever.

Shortly after the Romero fight, Tapia made his decision to rise in weight class and campaign as a bantamweight. This move proved fruitful as he won a majority decision over the hard-punching WBA titleholder Nana Konadu. Tapia streaked all the way into his first fight with Paulie Ayala. Leading up to the fight with Ayala Tapia looked great; his stellar performances were cleverly concealing the turmoil within the champion. It is important to remember that, despite his success in the ring, Tapia was living in clip, in a state of perpetual personal chaos. Just months before he met Ayala, Tapia had tried to commit suicide by deliberately overdosing on narcotics. He was hospitalized, released, and somehow bounded back into the ring. The now infamous fight with Paulie was a hard-fought war of wills that could have gone to either fighter. But in the end, the judges scored the fight narrowly in favor of Ayala. The fight was Ring Magazine’s “Fight of The Year” for 1999. Tapia was dejected and disappointed, but he reverted to a never-say-die attitude and he rallied back to capture the WBO bantamweight title by overtaking Cuauhtemoc Gomez with a barrage of heavy punches in the sixth round of their title fight.

With the raging inferno of his personal hell held to a low burn in 2000, Tapia decided to bound back into the ring with Ayala, figuring that if he could drop a close decision in the same year he tried to take his own life, he could whip him soundly in a better physical and mental state. The unification battle turned into another hard fought war that would have surely ended inside the distance if it had been staged between lesser warriors. But Tapia and Ayala hung tough, and by the time the final bell cried out, it was clear that Ayala had won in more clear-cut fashion in the return. The judges gave Paulie his second decision victory over Tapia, and again, Johnny found himself in a do-or-die situation.

He batted back valiantly, this time as a featherweight, and after a handful of fights took it to a well schooled, experienced, and cool-under-pressure Manuel Medina. Johnny outhustled Medina and scored a narrow majority decision win and took home the IBF Featherweight strap. The decision could have gone to Medina, but after two controversial decision losses to Paulie Ayala, it seemed that the third time was charmed for Tapia.

Perhaps that fight with Medina was also cursed. Tapia’s next fight came against the Mexican fighting-legend Marco Antonio Barrera. The Johnny Tapia that came into the ring was not the world champion he had proven himself to be so many times before. It was as if Tapia’s lifetime of self-destructive behavior and career of ring-ware caught up with him in an instant. Tapia was so clearly in over his head with The Baby Faced Assassin that Barrera won decisively even as he attempted to tenderly carry his revered opponent through the fight. It was a grand show of respect on Barrera’s part. Barrera took his victory and allowed Tapia to escape with his health and his dignity. Though Barrera is a friend of Tapia’s, and an admirer of Mi Vida Loca, there is a common misconception held by boxing fans that Barrera wears shorts bearing Tapia’s surname as a show of respect for the former champion. This is false. In point of fact, Barrera’s mother’s maiden name was Tapia, and he wears that name on his shorts to represent that side of his family tree.

That fight, though not a brutal beating, seemed to clip Tapia’s fighting wings. Johnny had some sense that Barrera did not take him to task as he could have. And in his handful of fights since has slowed and shown only diminished skills. In addition to his recent loss to Sandro Marcos, he lost one of a pair of fights with fringe contender Frankie Archuleta in 2004. In the midst of the sordid downturn of his career over the last several years Tapia was arrested several times, and once momentarily declared dead after collapsing at his home in Las Vegas.

Somehow, despite it all Tapia remains positive, and the one thing that no man or tragedy will ever take from Tapia is his heart. Even when his body quits, as it has in and out of the ring before, the spirit of Johnny Tapia is indomitable. The now 38-year-old Tapia may never fight again. And he does not have to. He can rest easy with the knowledge that he never quit, even amidst his own personal failures. He is probably headed for The Hall, where he will stand as one of those rare blood-and-guts, all-or-nothing fighters to pound their way to significant reigns as champions and thus into the pantheon of fistic idols. And his live-hard-die-hard attitude stands as a testament to the power of old school warriors to survive against-all-odds. Like the ferocious fighters of yesteryear Tapia fights because he knows no other way. He expects no mercy, and gives none. In his own words, “I’m a fighter and I have been a fighter all of my life, and when bad things happen—meaning that I have fallen down and hit rock bottom—I have always picked myself up.”

Article posted on 08.11.2005

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